Monday, Nov. 21, 2011 | 2 a.m.
On a recent morning before school, a parent volunteer watched as a car door flew open, blocking the sidewalk directly in the path of a student on a bike who was barely able to avoid flying into it.
Other teachers, administrators and volunteers have similar stories, amounting to hundreds of close calls around schools in the chaotic 20 minutes before and after classes each day. Sometimes they’re not misses — like when a school bus hit a teenager earlier this month.
School officials are faced with a conundrum: The best way to make school zones safer is to reduce the number parents driving their children to school, but parents won’t let their kids walk or bike because there are too many cars around the schools.
A recent string of high-profile pedestrian accidents hasn’t helped.
Parents are talking about it, said Bob Miller Middle School math teacher Cynthia Barker. “They’re using it as an excuse to not let their kids walk,” she said.
Miller was one of five Clark County School District campuses that participated in a Safe Routes to School workshop last week. Each school is working on a custom plan to encourage more students to walk and bike to school and to figure out how to make it safer for them to do it.
For the administrators, teachers, students and parents who participated in the workshop, the biggest challenges aren’t reaching the students, it’s reaching the parents, they said.
Two Bob Miller Middle School fathers at the workshop — including the volunteer who saw the bike incident — are sympathetic to students who walk, largely because they’ve helped direct traffic outside the school.
Parents are often inconsiderate of others, stopping anywhere to drop off kids, even if it blocks traffic or crosswalks, said parent and volunteer Bobby Muse. They seem to think, “it’s all about me right now,” he said, throwing his hands in the air.
For school officials, it’s relatively easy to work with students on the safe routes program. They can have students do physical education activities, read or write about hiking and biking or do math problems to calculate how far they walked.
Their parents aren’t so easy to reach.
Rebecca Kapuler, the state coordinator for the program, suggested giving pencils or some other small reward to students who walk. The kids may convince their parents not to drive, so they can get the prizes.
“Our kids will do anything for pencils, so we’ll be standing out there handing out pencils,” said Liz Pero, a second-grade teacher at Rowe Elementary School.
Safe Routes to School is a national program, administered in the School District by coordinator Cheryl Wagner. Kapuler works for the Nevada Department of Transportation. The staff time and materials are paid for with grant money, not with School District funds, and the recent workshop was scheduled long before the recent string of pedestrian accidents.
In past years, the district has had just one workshop, usually with less than a dozen schools joining the program annually.
This year, the program received an extra grant from the Southern Nevada Health District. So officials have stepped up the program and are holding three workshops this year to get more schools on board.
Part of the money also goes to a consultant, who is doing walking studies of a quarter mile around 50 campuses.
While reaching parents is possibly the most difficult challenge, the groups at the workshop were equally worried about teaching students how to walk and bike safely. Elementary schools talked about showing kids how to use crosswalks, and the middle schools talked about encouraging more students to wear helmets.
The group from Miller also planned to give out trinkets, although they wanted to use bright yellow zipper-pulls more suited for middle school backpacks instead of pencils like the elementary schools were planning to use.
While huddling over a map of the school and the surrounding neighborhood, the group quickly identified problem spots: An intersection without a stop sign, another with faded crosswalk markings and a spot without a crosswalk.
They then discussed other ideas, like asking the school’s broadcast class to develop a series of public service announcements to address specific problems at the school, including warning students to not cross the street in certain spots around campus.
And they tried to address some of the parent problems. “Maybe we should educate our parents through our emails and parent information meetings about what we’re going to do,” Bob Miller Assistant Principal Butch Heiss said.
Certain messages might resonate more with parents than students, he said, like the financial savings of walking over driving.
The group also received input from a Henderson traffic engineer, who said she would look into changing one crosswalk and installing flashing lights at another.
Although not officially part of the safe routes program last year, Miller participated in the Nevada Moves Day, where schools across the state do special walking events.
The school had good participation, even with limited advertising, Heiss said. “I think it would be even better if we can show people how easy it is,” he said.
The school plans to participate again this April but first might do a monthly Miller Moves Day, where parents can park at the Henderson Multigenerational Center and use a trail to get to the school.
“This is like all the other things we do like our monthly fire drill. It becomes part of the routine,” Barker said.