Egg Harbor City Community School crossing guard Milka Adams can’t rave enough about the new pedestrian walkway that crosses a creek and connects Diesterweg Avenue near the school.
“This has been such a blessing,” she said. “It’s so much safer for the students. There is no traffic. They just go from one crossing guard to another.”
Students crowded the walkway Wednesday to celebrate National Walk-To-School Day, an annual event promoted by the National Center for Safe Routes to School, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
State law requires that students be bused only if they live more than two miles from their elementary or middle school or 2.5 miles from their high school. While most students in South Jersey’s sprawling townships are bused, in smaller towns students either walk, use a bicycle or are driven to school.
That combination of drivers and walkers can be a hazard. Adams said when students had to walk down Havana Avenue where there were no sidewalks, there would also be car traffic from people going to work and parents rushing to drop off their children, making her job very stressful.
“People are in a hurry, and not always looking,” she said. “Now it’s a dream job. The children listen. They are very good.”
A new state program, Cross County Connection, works at no charge with schools and municipalities to create safer walking and biking routes. The program is supported by the N.J. Department of Transportation with funding from the U.S. Federal Highway Administration.
David Calderetti, Safe Routes to School coordinator for South Jersey, attended Egg Harbor City’s event Wednesday and is also working locally with schools in Woodbine and Vineland. He said he works with officials to a create a travel plan, showing where improvements are needed.
“Sometimes it’s just something simple like cutting back vegetation that is blocking signs and walkways and forcing students into the street,” he said.
On Wednesday, Woodbine celebrated with what is called a “walking school bus.” School Health and Safety Team members Jessica Picolycky and physical education teacher Jackie Merollo led a walk to school, picking up more students at designated stops along the way.
Woodbine school Superintendent Lynda Anderson-Towns said they do a school bus walk monthly, and homerooms can win the “golden sneaker” award for having the most students participate. She said typically most parents drop off their children at school, but she can see a difference in their focus when they walk to school and she encourages more physical activity. She often walks the building herself to set an example, and students have a daily “jammin’ minute” where they stop and exercise for one minute.
Several towns and school districts, including Barnegat, Linwood, Northfield and Bridgeton have received Safe Routes to Schools grants to add sidewalks, signs and lighting. Egg Harbor City used a $470,000 Small Cities Community Block Grant to build the bridge-like walkway which also connects the school to the municipal recreation fields. It looks a lot like a boardwalk, and is lit at night for safety.
“This builds a connection between the schools and the community,” school Principal Jack Griffith said. He said Wednesday’s event was also an opportunity to make adults aware of the walkway as a safe way to get to the school.
“For many teachers and parents it was the first time they had actually walked across,” he said.
Parent Richeda Jaffe usually drives her two children, Jada and Nathaniel, to school because she is concerned about them safely walking on their own. She said her daughter has run the walkway as part of the cross-country team, but she walked it for the first time Wednesday.
“It’s nice,” she said. “And it keeps the students confined.”
Brigantine Middle School postponed its walk until Friday because of poor weather. Principal Brian Pruitt said about 200 of the school’s 300 students typically participate, and the event has also become part of the school’s respect week activities. The district has a mix of students who walk, bicycle and are bused. The annual walk, which starts at St. Thomas Church at 8:30 a.m, brings everyone together.
“It’s become a community event,” he said. “The police and fire departments come out, and parents, and most of the students will have breakfast at school that day. It’s an opportunity to do something all together as a school.”
Calderetti said he also teaches pedestrian safety practices to students even if they are bused to school.
“A lot of areas have no sidewalks and we want students to learn lessons that will make walking part of their life,” he said. “Kids dart out. They think adults would never hurt them.”
Contact Diane D'Amico: