Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Garfield Safe Routes to School

Day 1: Third Grader walking audit

Our first order of business was getting to Garfield, then getting coffee. The Volvo did the first part; a trip to Dunkin Donuts took care of the second. The first school wasn't too hard to find as Garfield is a town of about 30,000 people, all within the compact dimension of 2.2 miles square. Naturally, the dorks we are, all Sharon and I saw was potential for mode substitution.

We spent about an hour in front of the School #5 on Outwater and Chestnut with Cathy the Crossing Guard watching the students arrive. If you are interested in knowing, roughly half the students are walking. The remainder are driven because there is no busing in the district. Cathy helped cross students, adults, seniors, and teachers. All were grateful for her help—as evidenced by the many 'thank-yous' we heard. No matter that the crosswalk is well-marked, the road is two lanes, and the speed limit is 25 mph: the road is very difficult to cross, and drivers do not stop.

After a brief conversation with the principal Sharon and I were joined by five third graders (members of the Walking Club) and their teacher. Sharon gave them a disposable camera, I rolled the video camera, and we let them lead the tour. Doing the walking audit with kids is much more fun than with adults. This group needed surprisingly little prompting when it came to identifying hazards.

The walk lasted an hour. I don't think anyone was in a hurry to get back to school. The kids would've walked us around the entire town had we let them. Their first destination was 'where the chickens live.' They really wanted us to see that. The library would have been next, but Sharon and I felt a little guilty keeping the kids away from school for so long.

That afternoon we went to School #7. There we met with both fourth grade classes, as well as assorted fifth graders who will be going to the new middle school next year. This turned into career day for a few moments as I attempted to explain why an adult might spend his time trying to get other people walking and biking. (I sometimes struggle with that one too.)

To make the point a little more tangible Sharon offered me as example. 'Ask Mark how he gets to work.' I bike. 'Ask Mark how far it is.' 15 miles on a short day. 'Ask Mark how many miles he rides every year.' It's in the thousands. Once I told them I have three bikes, and that fresh scab on my leg was from a mountain biking crash in New Mexico... they were mine.

The next night we had a community meeting scheduled. The idea behind the meeting was to get the adults together, to build interest in a Safe Routes to School program (there had not been a Walk-to-School Day in Garfield), to talk about why kids aren't walking, and to come up with ideas on how to improve the situation.

When we leave a city, these “plans” get entrusted to the capable professionals and politician of that city. But before doing that in Garfield we thought we'd check with the kids and ask them how the adults did. This idea especially excited the fourth graders.

I was only allowed to leave once I promised to bring pictures of my bikes on Friday.

Work was fun today.

Day 2: The evening community meeting

I spent the morning and a good part of the afternoon editing together video footage taken during arrival at School #5. Using video footage in presentations is a new thing for us. If you work with *.ppt and find yourself talking about SRTS, consider integrating video because it can be very effective. Often it is the difference between the law & order guys rolling their eyes at the workshop, and seeing them on the corner the next day writing tickets.

That evening we were holding our community forum in the Garfield Senior Center. Darlene (our local public health organizer/juggernaut/Garfield native) filled the room with between 50 and 60 people. Not too shabby for a Thursday night. We drew both principals, the mayor, city councilors, the city manager, several parents and students, local non profit luminaries, etc. More importantly, we had a few kids mixed in with the groups.

The meeting began at 6:30 pm. Food was advertised because it helps draw people. Thankfully, the food was healthy food. I am always delighted to talk about physical activity and obesity, only to find donuts, chips, and soda for snacks in the back of the room. In a lot of instances it was the public health people who brought the stuff. Not in Garfield, not Darlene.

People began rolling in around 6:30 and the trickle didn't slow until 7. To take people out of their comfort zone, we assigned them to random tables. As an icebreaker Sharon gave each table a large sheet of newsprint, markers & crayons, and the instruction to draw a picture about their walk to school. These are adults, mind you.

After 20 minutes (the first 15 of which were generally spent in silence, with some doodling along the edges of the paper) the groups were asked to report. FYI: the teachers were the biggest procrastinators, closely followed by what I'll call the Policy People. The Mayor of Garfield told everyone that he liked the walk home from school because when he got a low mark on an assignment the walk gave him time to think up an excuse for his parents.

Sharon did a short presentation on Safe Routes to School. She showed some pictures taken on the walking audit with the Third Graders. I showed the video of Cathy the Crossing Guard nearly getting run over (several times) outside School #5. The video made an impression.

The workshop didn't wrap until 9. We lost a few teachers to what I'm guessing was faculty happy hour, we had some people who ate their fill then left, and we had a few sleepy kids who had to get home. Only the true believers remained to put together a plan for each school. We had one group for School #5, another for School #7, and then a policy group that dealt with encouraging more physical activity in Garfield.

Back to the “hotel.” At 10 pm I began working on my presentation for the next day. Sometime after one o'clock I retired.

Day 3: The kids take a crack at designing their city

I had before me every powerpointer's dream: an audience full of people who have never seen the magic of PowerPoint and that is entirely dependent on visuals. I was back with the third graders.

As promised I began my show with pictures of all my bikes. I even showed a picture from the 80s when I was their age, and I rode my bike to school. The picture is of myself and my sister at the bike rack in front of Hoover School (Mankato, MN, Go Huskies!). Much to the delight of Sharon, and nearly everyone else in the room, one kid asked if I was the one on the left or the right. (Always on the Left.) Whatever. So my sister and I had the same haircut for a few years. The 80s also brought us trickle-down economics and Goth. Put in proper context, my haircut was the least of those offenses.

The point of Day 3 was to work with the kids and get them engaged in planing a more kid-friendly Garfield. The trip to and from school is only one part of this. I was in front of the class that has the Walking Club. These kids leave school for 20 minutes every day to go on a walk. Typically, a lesson --getting a library card, mailing a letter—is mixed into the activity. Nothing like tricking the kids into learning.

To get the discussion rolling I asked how many of them walk to school. Answer: about half. I asked how many ride a bike to school. Answer: none. There is no bike rack at the school. I asked how many own bikes. Answer: all the hands shot up. I asked how many would ride a bike to school if they were allowed. Answer: all the hands stayed up.

Compared to the grown-ups, the kids were plenty sharp. I used some of the same slides in my presentation that I use during the Walkable Community Workshops. I told them as much and said it was because I figured they were just as smart as the adults. They weren't too far off, and they were much more enthusiastic than the adults. There were a few hitches. On the visual preference slide (Where would you rather take a walk?) the kids choose the wrong street. I like the one on the left because it is less crowded. And I like to eat at Arby's. Okay, so kids prefer the urban desert.

Right click, 'Hide Slide.'

Our last stop in Garfield was School #7. As we did in the morning we started with introductions (the deputy mayor had joined us), and then a Q & A session with the kids. After a short presentation we went for a walk. The class split in two: Sharon took one group and I the other. We gave cameras to the kids and let them lead the walk.

Sharon's group sounded like it had a lot more fun than my group. As they were walking along they noticed a UPS truck parked in the crosswalk. Spotting a teachable moment, Sharon pointed out the hazard and then asked the kids what they think should be done. Answer: ask the UPS man to move his truck. So the kids did just that. He agreed.

Then there was the curious location of the principal's parking spot: right in front of the school. As this school happens to lack bicycle racks (that's why kids don't ride) some might look at that piece of asphalt as an under-utilized piece of real estate. 30 bikes or 1 car? Too bad that no one had the guts... or should I say—the imagination—to propose a location for the new bike rack.

At both schools the kids more or less validated the adults' ideas. I wouldn't read too much into that. We were limited in our time with the kids, so it shouldn't be a surprise that their ideas didn't germinate into a vision for Garfield after a two hour session. It is perhaps more important that we were there in the first place. Simply asking kids what they want goes a long way.

We couldn't have done these workshops without Darlene from the Garfield Health Department. She deserves a separate blog entry for all her efforts. For now, let it suffice to say that she is the person who made all of this possible, got everyone together, got people to show up to the meetings (the mayor, the city manager, the police chief, the school principals, the panelists, the parents), and who will likely head whatever initiatives our visit spawns.

Thanks also to Leigh Ann from VTC; Mike, Laura, and Bettina from the RBA Group; both principals (it is rare that we get this kind of access); Elise Bremer-Nei (NJ's SRTS coordinator) and; the UPS driver for moving his truck.

All comments are welcome.