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  THE TOWN PAPER
VOL. 3, NO. 3 -- APRIL/MAY 2001
 

Celebrating Our Neighborhood Schools

By Joyce Marin

I live in a historic town in a neighborhood where the children still walk to school. Over the years, the people here in Emmaus, have resisted efforts to bus elementary children to schools outside of the neighborhood. Our citizens' hard line for neighborhood schools has attracted other families who move here so that their children can walk to school, providing a healthy influx of new families to our community and preserving property values. Our neighborhood schools define our town's identity as a place with traditional values, often described as "the type of community where the kids can still walk to school."

Our community schools act as anchors connecting the schools to the surrounding neighborhoods with a common culture. Two of our elementary schools have stood in the same location for almost 100 years, and I sometimes hear retirees speak of their memories of walking to Jefferson or Lincoln Elementary School when they were children. Neighbors volunteer as crossing guards to make sure children get to school safely. One of Emmaus' crossing guards, Mayor Winfield Iobst, says, "It makes me feel good to help the children go to school and come home safely. The kids are always so happy to see me, and as they grow up they always remember me."

Across this country, however, neighborhood schools are at risk. The National Trust for Historic Preservation says that only one in eight children walks to school today. In spite of parents and educators clamoring for smaller, community-oriented schools, neighborhood schools are being closed and large, impersonal facilities only accessible by car or bus are being built. When schools are built to service newly developed neighborhoods, they are usually sprawling complexes. The layout of nearby suburban housing developments, located on large lots and often lacking sidewalks, further discourages walking to school.

Today, some new neighborhood schools are being built by new urbanists in new traditional neighborhood developments (TNDs) where the school is integral to the community's design. The Charter of the New Urbanism, which inspires the design of the new TNDs, states, "Concentrations of civic, institutional, and commercial activity should be embedded in neighborhoods and districts, not isolated in remote, single-use complexes. Schools should be sized and located to enable children to walk or bicycle to them."

How can you create awareness about the "walk to school experience" in your neighborhood, whether to save, celebrate or improve it? The first step is to do an assessment. You can print out the Walkable America Checklist from the Internet (see sidebar p. 10) and take it with you -- perhaps with a child -- to rate the experience in your town. If your community does not score high for walkability, the checklist also recommends practical steps you can take -- both immediately and with more time -- to improve your pedestrian experience going forward.

On a larger scale, you can also have a great time and perhaps gain some media attention by participating in "International Walk to School Day? ("iwalk" for short). The Danish city of Odense started a pedestrian safety project in 1976 in response to the large number of children killed there by traffic collisions. Three years later, the annual accident rate was reduced by 85 percent. On October 4, 2000, communities in Canada, Great Britain, the United States, Ireland, South Africa, Gibraltar and Cyprus joined together in the first ever International Walk to School Day. During this event students, parents/caregivers, school staff and elected officials walk, bike, in-line skate or even canoe to school! You can access great pictures, global quotes, and a song on the web, along with a wealth of information about participating in this fun and interesting event on October 2, 2001.

If you live in an older neighborhood and have a historic neighborhood school you want to save or celebrate, join with the National Trust for Historic Preservation for Preservation Week 2001, May 14-19, to "Restore, Renew, Rediscover your Historic Neighborhood Schools!" The Trust calls on those of us with historic schools to keep them alive as functional components of our education system, stating that, "The neighborhood school, a much-loved symbol of American community life, is in danger." Ideas on how your community can become involved in Preservation Week can be accessed at the Trust's website. For a thorough analysis of the challenges facing neighborhood schools to share with your school board, download the report, "Historic Neighborhood Schools in the Age of Sprawl: Why Johnny Can't Walk to School."

Wherever we live, we can create awareness for the right of children to walk to school safely. We can work together to preserve existing neighborhood schools and seek opportunities to build new ones in high-density, mixed-use TND communities. In the process, we will be doing much to nurture both our young citizens and our communities. When we keep our communities safe for our youth, we keep them safe for everyone.

Joyce Marin serves on the Emmaus Borough Council and a board member of the Pennsylvania Downtown Center (PADC).