More Mount Vernon students try walking to school

MOUNT VERNON, Wash. (AP) - More students at Centennial and Little Mountain elementary schools will be walking or biking to school starting Monday as part of a pilot project to test several safe walking zones around the schools.

The project will eliminate five bus stops in a designated one-mile zone around Centennial and five near Little Mountain. It will continue through the end of the school year.

"Realistically, it's not much different than what we've been dealing with all along, just more younger kids walking in groups," said Mount Vernon Traffic Officer Tom Wenzl, who was on the committee that worked on the district's safe walking zones. "We just ask drivers to be extra vigilant, and let's be patient with people crossing. Pay attention to crossing guards."

These safe walking zones are emerging at schools across Washington as a result of state funding cuts. A change in state law in 2010 meant the state would only pay for busing within a one-mile radius of schools if that zone was not safely walkable for students, as is the case for some rural schools in Skagit County.

As part of the funding change, districts had to determine whether they have safe walking routes to their schools.

Among the other districts in the county, Anacortes and Sedro-Woolley are still in the process of implementing their safe, walkable zones, though Sedro-Woolley plans to continue busing kindergarten through fifth-graders, officials said.

Burlington-Edison School District offers some busing within one-mile walk zones for students who live within one school's walk area but attend another school.

Mount Vernon School District Transportation Supervisor Jim Hinkle said he hopes the first day of the pilot goes as well as planned so that safe walking zones can be extended across the school district by next school year.

"That's why we're doing the pilot, so we know what works and what doesn't work," he said.

Dave Anderson, assistant superintendent for the district, said the program has been a collective effort among the Mount Vernon Police Department, Skagit Valley Hospital, the city and the school district to ensure success.

"We're excited about it," Anderson said. "But it is a significant change form past practices for Mount Vernon School District."

Centennial Principal Erwin Stroosma said he's heard some concerns from parents, primarily about safety. The school has upped the number of crossing guards and provided them with training and new equipment. Extra support from the local police also will be available, he said.

Walking monitors will assist kids at busy spots, Hinkle said, plus there will be extra signage, flags and cones.

Walking or biking to school isn't new for students at Centennial. Last spring, the school was close to launching the one-mile walk zone, but decided to stick with Walking and Wheeling Wednesdays, which encouraged students to bike and walk to school, Stroosma said.

The question is whether parents will instead choose to drive their children to school, which could lead to a traffic jam.

"It's going to be interesting to see what happens," Wenzl said during an interview last week. "I think it's going to be good for the children to get out and have some exercise, and hopefully the parents will go along with the program as well."