Ashley Wilkowski was not looking forward to walking to school this year, after being bused to Theodore Roosevelt School in Sloan last year.
But now the first-grader enjoys the walk with her mother, Darlene.
“She actually amuses herself now, trying to do cartwheels,” Wilkowski said, adding that Ashley did 80 cartwheels walking to school Friday.
Hundreds more children were forced to consider walking this year when several school districts reduced busing.
Making cuts to transportation is being considered by other districts, which could move more children off buses and onto sidewalks – or put more cars in parking lots as parents drive their kids to school.
Some towns and villages are applying for grants to improve sidewalks and crosswalks to help encourage more children to walk or ride their bicycles.
In Buffalo, Hamlin Park School 74 debuted its “walking school bus” this fall, where adults accompany children walking on a safe route to school.
Walking also has the added benefit of increasing physical activity at a time when society is trying to get children to move more to combat obesity. And it doesn’t just benefit the children. Darlene Wilkowski gets daily exercise with her daughter while they are walking.
A lot of parents scrambled over the summer in Ken-Ton and Sloan to figure out how to get their children to school.
Drive? Walk? Car pool? It can be complicated when both parents work, unlike a couple of generations ago, when Mom was home to get children off to school.
Most parents have found a way to get their children to school in Ken-Ton, Superintendent Mark P. Mondanaro said.
The district dropped transportation for those living within a half mile of the elementary schools, so 9-year-old Morgan Hoover walks with two of her friends, and she can’t wait to get out of the door, said her mother, Shari Hoover.
“She loves it,” Hoover said. “She feels responsible. She likes that responsibility of walking herself.”
Morgan walks home every day, and walks to school twice a week. The other three mornings her mother works, and drops her off at the before-school program at Franklin Elementary.
“I can’t leave my 9-year-old home alone [before school],” Hoover said.
She has been trying to organize a “walking school bus,” a group of adults that would walk along a route to school, picking up children along the route, almost like a bus.
But many parents are concerned their children could come across unwelcome strangers or have to cross busy streets such as Sheridan Drive or William Street, so they drive them.
At Ken-Ton, the minimum distance for bus transportation for all other students increased as well. Middle schoolers living less than 1.5 miles, and high schoolers living less than 1.8 miles, must walk, or find their own way to school. Morgan’s brother, Zach, is a freshman at Kenmore East High School this year, and would have to walk if he didn’t car pool with friends. He also gets a ride this fall because his leg is in a cast after surgery.
“My concern is not the mile-and-a-half,” Hoover said. “The concern is getting them there safely and on time.”
The six-lane Sheridan Drive runs between their house and the high school.
“More than not have figured out a way to deal with it,” Mondanaro said.
While all elementary students had been eligible for busing for more than a decade, there were hundreds who did not get on the buses, he said.
“There’s a fairly large percentage getting rides anyway,” Mondanaro said. “Some are walking, some are using a combination.”
Increasing the walking limits was brought up at a public session three years ago, he said. In light of this year’s tight budget, the issue was revisited.
“We think the more that people walk the better it can be,” the superintendent said, adding, “there’s pros and cons on every single aspect of it.”
Voters in the Sloan district voted twice earlier this year to save about $14,000 by having students in kindergarten through eighth grades living a half mile or closer walk. The limit is 1 mile for high school students.
“It’s going a little bit smoother than we anticipated,” Superintendent James P. Mazgajewski said. “Once sidewalks become clogged and streets are covered with snow, then the complaints are going to come.”
Nearly 300 Sloan students are finding other ways to the district’s high schools. Many are walking, and crossing busy William Street, where the town added a crossing guard.
Fears for safety cannot be taken lightly. A fifth-grader at Maryvale was injured last month when she was struck by a car on her way to school. She is back to school, and a newly formed safety committee, including parents, has already met to look at improving safety.
Federal funding is available to make walking and biking to school less dangerous. The Safe Routes to School program will award millions of dollars in grants this year, including more than $1.6 million in Western New York. The regional office of the state Department of Transportation is reviewing 21 applications for funding, according to spokeswoman Susan Surdej.
The program is intended to promote walking and forms of transportation to school other than motor vehicles. Projects, such as new sidewalks, crosswalks and signs within a two-mile radius of an elementary school, could be fully funded. There also is funding for non-infrastructure improvements, such as crossing guard training and materials, she said.
Since a change in the minimum busing requirements needs the approval of residents, Amherst Central plans to ask the public during the budget vote in May whether some elementary students should walk. Talking about it now leaves plenty of time for feedback.
Superintendent Laura Chabe said a committee went out and walked potential routes, and decided that the condition of sidewalks, traffic pattern and crossing guards would allow the district to require elementary students living one-quarter mile from school to walk.
“Our No. 1 priority is the safety of our kids,” she said.