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A Safer, Healthier Route for Summerour Students

An application is in the works that could bring $500,000 in federal money to Norcross to encourage some students to walk or bike to school.

You know how grandpa used to walk uphill—both ways, of course—to get to school in the morning? A federal program wants to revive the idea of students walking or biking to school—for the health of the students and for the environmental benefits--and Norcross’s Summerour Middle may soon be participating.

The federal Safe Routes to School (SRTS) program doles out funds to the states, which manage their individual efforts. Since 2005, over $17 million has been given out in Georgia, according to Safe Routes data. (Money from 2010 has not yet been factored into this number.) The program encourages kids in kindergarten through eighth grade in a two-mile radius of the school to get there with their own two feet. 

“It sounds so simple, but I see little people learning to respect their environment,” says Georgia Program Coordinator Emmanuella Myrthil. “It’s really a life-long habit.”

Applicants in Georgia can be awarded up to $500,000 each, according to Myrthil, for crossing and sidewalk improvements, speed reduction measures, bike routes and parking and more. She says that most programs usually shoot for the full amount, and they usually get it.

The grant money is only awarded as part of a larger effort, which the program guides with what it dubs the five "E"s:  enforcement, education, encouragement, evaluation and engineering. It's the last "E" that the program is mostly bankrolling. 

Sustainable Norcross and Summerour already have an application in the works, with hopes that the program can kick off at the beginning of next school year. The program, which would lean on a group of volunteers from the City of Norcross, the Gwinnett Village CID, local businesses and other key stakeholders in the area, also would help Sustainable Norcross reach its goal of earning the gold level in the ARC’s Green Communities certification, which they’re hoping for on the heels of last year’s bronze level award.

Safe Routes proponents say that the benefit is threefold. Students are more active, cars are kept off the roads and the larger community sees improvements in infrastructure and safety.  “The community itself would definitely benefit from the sidewalks being fixed,” says Arlene Beckles, who is volunteering on behalf of the Norcross Cluster Schools Partnership and the Imagination Committee.

Another benefit would be that increased access for people with disabilities, since the federal program mandates that sidewalks be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Volunteers who will be surveying the existing conditions around Summerour will be armed with a tape measure and be instructed to take photos with the requirements in mind, says Weathers.

Dan Higgins, who previously served on a Norcross ADA advisory committee, says the city is not compliant with the federal standards, which he sees as dangerous, and potentially expensive, territory. SRTS could be a way to bring some areas up to speed.

Summerour was chosen instead of local elementary schools because safety was a concern for those schools, given their geography and where their students live, says Weathers.

The Safe Routes program materials state that, in general, the school’s liability should not increase because more students are walking or biking, since most of the activity is taking place off school property. However, they encourage schools to be aware of local laws, like bike helmet requirements, and to document all of their efforts. They say that when specific activities are encouraged, schools might want to consider waivers.

Some schools have tried to up the safety factor by creating “walking buses,” in which parents lead groups of kids. 

“Connectivity” has been a word echoed in many city studies and plans, from the ARC's Livable Centers Initiative Study to the Parks Master Plan, and the Safe Routes program might help inject cash into the concept.  

“We don’t have a single bike path in the city limits and we’ve been talking about it since 2001,” says Weathers.

The Norcross Activity Center LCI study calls for off-street multi-use trails. One tactic to quickly put these trails in place is to use land where power lines currently run. According to Weathers, there’s one line that runs from Best Friend Park to Mitchell Road then to Indian Trail that is in the sweet spot for Summerour students. “Even if we could do a section of that to get things going that would be great,” says Weathers.

Myrthil said that the City of Decatur SRTS program comes to mind as a success story.  The program started in 2005 and now includes four schools, something they chalk up to strong local support and involvement.

Beckles and Weathers say the key to their success is collaborating with other people in the community—and getting the students jazzed about the idea. They want to sponsor walking days and tie the idea into the curriculum in the form of GPS projects in social studies or map projects in math class. 

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