- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 26, 2004

Claire Ettinger of Silver Spring likes to stroll to school. A fifth-grader at Rolling Terrace Elementary School, she walks every morning with her mother, Monica, through Long Branch Park.

Sometimes, she picks up friends along the way. She is hoping more classmates will join her as the year goes on, especially on Oct. 6, which is International Walk to School Day.

“It’s beautiful outside,” the 10-year-old says. “You can get exercise by walking. It’s fun. You can see plants and flowers and trees.”

About 30 years ago, more than 66 percent of U.S. schoolchildren walked to school; just 13 percent of American children walk or bike to school today, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. To raise awareness about walking, about 35 countries across the globe will participate in International Walk to School Day. Organizers estimate that at least 3 million walkers will put their feet to the pavement.

Interest around the day is growing, says Nancy Pullen, program manager at the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center at the University of North Carolina’s Highway Safety Research Center.

“It’s an opportunity to start a dialogue of what’s getting in the way of people walking,” she says. “Are there safety concerns that need to be addressed? How can communities encourage kids to walk and bike to school more often?”

International Walk to School Day is just one of the pieces in a larger strategy at Rolling Terrace Elementary to promote pedestrian travelers, Ms. Ettinger says. Once Ms. Ettinger arrives at school with her daughter, Claire serves on safety patrol, helping younger children exit buses and cross the street safely.

“Any time you can keep a car off the road, it should be encouraged,” Ms. Ettinger says. “One of our biggest issues is that there is very little room to negotiate the cars at school. If you can keep the cars out, it keeps the congestion down, and it’s safer for the kids, as well.”

Last year, Ms. Ettinger had about 500 children from Rolling Terrace participate in International Walk to School Day. This year, parents and children will meet at specific intersections in the neighborhood starting at 8 a.m., such as the corners of Kennebec and Flower avenues, Wabash and Flower avenues, Domer and Flower avenues, Gilbert Place and Barron Street, and Long Branch and Maplewood avenues.

“Sometimes, it just takes doing it once, in a big event, for parents to say, ‘We can do this walk.’ Maybe not every day … but you show them walking a couple blocks is easier than driving and trying to find a place to park.”

Pedestrian and bicycle safety also will be emphasized through the event, Ms. Ettinger says. She suggests wearing reflective patches on backpacks. Walkers also should stay in the crosswalks and cross only with an adult.

“Never assume a car will stop for you. Never, never, never assume that,” she says. “The difficulty with the younger kids is that they are so small. You can’t really be seen unless you are in the crosswalk. … Our school is surrounded by some of the most deadly pedestrian intersections in Montgomery County.”

A “walking school bus” enables children to travel by foot to school, even if their parents can’t accompany them, says Jon Merryman, coordinator of the Walk to School Day events at Centennial Elementary School in Ellicott City, Md. This year, there will be two “school buses without wheels,” one coming from the Font Hill community and one coming from the Burleigh Manor community.

“The kids that live the furthest away walk toward school,” Mr. Merryman says. “As they pass other kids’ homes, they join them and end up adding more and more people to the crowd. As you get closer to school, the crowd gets bigger and bigger. You don’t need as many parents escorting them to school that way.”

Mr. Merryman says he is disturbed, however, that there are no crosswalks on Centennial Lane, which is directly across from the school. On Oct. 6, there will be at least one police officer directing traffic. Mr. Merryman has a son in third grade named Aidan, 8, who is home-schooled but who previously attended Centennial Elementary School.

“I call it the Great Wall of China,” Mr. Merryman says. “You can cross Centennial Lane, but you’re taking your life in your own hands. The speed limit is 35. It’s a huge road with lots of room, and people get comfortable doing 50. If we complain enough, they will come out and do radar.”

In addition to addressing the safety aspects of pedestrian travelers, Linda Staheli of Southeast, says the physical activity of walking to school is important. Since 1980, the percentage of overweight children has tripled, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Ms. Staheli, who is organizing Walk to School Day on Capitol Hill, is making an effort to walk to school with her daughter, Jacqueline Abramowitz, even if it’s raining. Jacqueline, 5, is a kindergartner at Watkins Elementary School in Southeast. This is her third year in the Montessori program.

“It’s ridiculous that I had been driving my daughter two blocks to school,” she says. “When I’m holding her hand while walking, I have conversations with my daughter that I just don’t normally have.”

With luck, celebrating walking to school will lead to many more days when parents accompany their children on foot, says Anne Lintner, principal of Burnley-Moran Elementary School in Charlottesville.

In fact, the first Friday of every month, Ms. Lintner holds a walk-to-school day in which those children who ride buses are dropped about 1/4 mile from the school and asked to walk the rest of the way. Ms. Lintner asks children whose parents don’t allow them to exit the bus before reaching school to walk a few laps on the track after arriving.

“Right now, it’s the parents’ responsibility,” she says. “The children aren’t old enough to walk by themselves. … More and more, it seems that children have less opportunity to be outside and enjoy the outdoors. We want to give children the opportunity to start the day that way and encourage everyone to realize the benefits of exercise and fresh air.”

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