- Associated Press - Sunday, March 1, 2015

KETCHIKAN, Alaska (AP) - The Alaska Department of Transportation has a dinosaur, and it visited Houghtaling Elementary School this past Friday.

Houghtaling third-grader Sage Foster said the dinosaur, known as the “Reflectosaurus,” looked less reptilian than what he’s used to, when it comes to dinosaurs.

“It looked like a giant turtle,” he said.

Revilla Alternative School eighth-grader Hannah Struthers donned the green costume with reflective sides and tail for the safety assembly at Houghtaling.

She said she was recruited to be the Reflectosaurus when Houghtaling PE teacher Eileen Truitt, who likely looked both ways before she crossed the street, came to Revilla looking for a volunteer.

“It was amazing,” Struthers said. “It makes me want to be a Barney.”

During the assembly, DOT planner Marcheta Moulton used the Reflectosaurus as an aid to teach kids how to safely cross the street - by making eye contact with drivers and looking and double-checking both ways before crossing the street.

The Reflectosaurus is part of the Alaska DOT’s Safe Routes to School program, Moulton said.

“The mission of the Safe Routes to School program is to teach kids about being safe and being seen, and (also about) fighting obesity by getting them out and physically moving,” Moulton said.

The program is part of an international effort to encourage children to walk or bike to school, according to the Safe Routes to School program website.

The number of students walking or biking to school has decreased drastically in the past 50 years.

According to the DOT, 48 percent of K-8 students walked or biked to school in 1969, but by 2009, the number had dropped to 13 percent. And that morning activity makes a difference, Moulton said.

“Statistics show that if kids have good breakfast and a little physical activity in the morning, they tend to do better during the day,” Moulton said.

But Alaska students can face some unique challenges on their commutes to school, and it’s a concern that the program addresses.

“We live in a world of darkness about eight months out of the year,” Moulton said. “… The more rural we get, the less lighting on the streets, and kids are taking unlit paths on gravel roads to school, and they deal with all types of motorized vehicles - four wheelers, snow machines - and a lot of the time, it’s difficult to see kids when they’re wearing dark clothes, so we try and encourage them to wear the reflectors.”

Truitt, who organized the Reflectosaurus and Moulton’s visit, said she passed out reflective zipper pulls and reflector strips, which are visible from 500 feet away, to students at Houghtaling and to teachers at Ketchikan Charter School, which also hosted Moulton and the Reflectosaurus at a school safety meeting on Feb. 20.

The reflectors came from the Alaska Division of Public Health’s Bike-n-Walk Safely Reflector program.

Truitt said she learned about the Safe Routes to School program and the Bike-n-Walk Safely program at the Alaska School Health and Wellness Institute in Anchorage she attended this past fall.

“Our goal was to do it earlier in the year when it was darker outside, just because of the fact that it’s dark out so much and the fact that they had the reflectors - the zipper pulls and reflective strips that we gave the kids,” Truitt said.

The safety assembly was originally scheduled for Feb. 6, but bad weather in both Juneau and Ketchikan kept Moulton and the Reflectosaurus grounded. But the message behind the dinosaur doesn’t apply just to winter darkness.

“(It’s important) for them to be aware and think, ‘Oh yeah, cars aren’t always going to think to look for me,’ so that they can learn to be aware and look for cars,” Truitt said.

Truitt said using the Reflectosaurus is a good way to get kids to remember safety tips - like looking to the left, the right and the left again before crossing the street - “especially the younger ones.”

“It made them think, and it was something different than giving them a worksheet or giving them a coloring book or talking at them,” Truitt said. “It’s like, ‘Oh, there’s this dinosaur,’ and it’s really good up until about fourth-grade, so we were pushing it a little bit with having our fifth- and sixth-graders in there, but they did good with it.”

Houghtaling sixth-grade teacher Erica Reynolds said it was nice to get something different.

“We don’t always get special guests like this, so (students) get really excited about it, even though they act too cool,” Reynolds said.

During the safety assembly, Moulton directly addressed the older Houghtaling students and stressed the importance of setting a good example for others, especially for the younger students who look up to them.

“Most of my students have younger siblings, so that’s what we focus on in sixth grade is different ways for them to be role models,” Reynolds said.

Two boys in her class pointed out their little brothers sitting on the gym floor after the assembly as the students waited to file out of the gym.

“(The younger siblings) are all rowdy little guys and they all look up to their big brothers (and sisters), so it’s nice to have them know that they’re setting an example,” Reynolds said.

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Information from: Ketchikan (Alaska) Daily News, https://www.ketchikandailynews.com

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