Starkville students encouraged to walk to school on Wednesday

By David Miller/Columbus Commercial Dispatch (MCT)

Shortly after 3 p.m. each day, a single-file line of vehicles, each with a bright-colored sign of a student’s name on the dashboard, begins forming outside of schools nationwide. Parents wait patiently, vehicle engines idling to maintain the perfect cockpit temperature.

Not far from the meandering line of moms and dads is the bus lane, where the kids who aren’t getting a lift from their parents board the “big cheese” for a ride home.

Welcome to the carpool generation, where curbside pickup and short bus rides have replaced the daily walk or bike route to school. Long gone are the days of “walking five miles, up a hill and through a snowstorm” to get to school.

But Wednesday, students around the world, including those at Henderson-Ward Stewart and Armstrong Middle School, will trek to school the old-fashioned way –on foot.

As part of International Walk to School Day and Starkville’s Safe Routes to Schools Initiative, Starkville in Motion is hosting a park-and-walk event Wednesday morning. The event is open to all Starkville students in grades 3-8, their families and Safe Routes to Schools supporters.

Registration will begin at 6:45 a.m. at Cadence Bank Plaza on Main Street. Students and and volunteer sponsors will begin walking west on Main Street at 7:10 a.m.; HWS students will turn north on D.L. Conner drive.

“We had about 30 kids walk to The Hill (HWS) last year, and about 15 more walking to Armstrong last year,” Safe Routes to School Coordinator Lois Connington said. “The mayor (Parker Wiseman) usually walks with us, and we encourage other city leaders to join us. It sends a positive message to our kids about exercising and encourages them to walk to school.”

In 2007, the city of Starkville received a $281,000 Safe Routes to School grant from the Mississippi Department of Transportation. As part of the grant, $261,000 was dedicated to infrastructure improvement and $17,500 to education and encouragement programs.

City Engineer Edward Kemp said the city plans to construct a contiguous sidewalk along Whitfield Street from Avenue of Patriots, near Green Oaks, to Armstrong Middle School. Connington estimated 500 homes are in the Green Oaks community.

The grant money will also help fund the curb and sidewalk repair at the corner of Long Street and Highway 182, where push buttons for crosswalks are difficult to access.

“We’re in the final design stages now,” Kemp said. “Soon, we’ll be asking MDOT to review those plans. I’m hoping we’ll be given authorization to advertise before the end of the year. If the bids are consistent with estimate and budget, I’m hoping we can get started sometime at the beginning of next year.”

Once the sidewalks are constructed, programs will begin to encourage parents and students to use the sidewalks to get to school. Connington hopes to see “walking school buses,” where instead of carpools, parents take turns walking groups of kids to school.

The grant is a start, though the original proposal was for $750,000. Connington hoped to see more connecting routes constructed, especially north and south of University Drive and Main Street.

Connington said stimulus money has helped create sidewalks and a crossing light along Hospital Road and more curb cuts (ramps) across town, but having a connecting system of sidewalks would encourage more walking and biking.

“It’s really staggering what we can do with a little bit of sidewalk, Connington said. “If we could just fill in all the puzzle pieces.”

Starkville School District Assistant Superintendent Dr. Walter Gonsoulin said more children walking to school could reduce the number of bus routes. Gonsoulin said the state doesn’t require districts to pick up students within a one-mile radius of the school, but due to insufficient sidewalks and walking routes, some students who live within a stone’s throw from their school still ride the bus.

According to saferoutestoschool.org, 88 percent of students living within one mile of the school in 1969 walked and biked to school. By 2009 only 38 percent of students did.

“We could reduce our bus routes to those areas by 50 percent,” Gonsoulin said. “In a perfect world, if we had the sidewalks, if would have an impact on budgets, the environment and kids’ health.”