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Clayton considers options for walking students

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

With Clayton County Public Schools set to eliminate bus transportation to 4,600 students who live within a mile and a half of their schools, school officials have suggested a few actions that could be taken to protect students, but they are still mainly just possibilities.

The school district sent letters to parents during the week of July 26, informing them that, because of budget cuts, the school system will not provide bus service to children who live within a mile and a half of their schools this year. The district has a long-standing, but previously un-enforced, policy that allows them to do this.

The district estimates that 4,600 students will be affected by the enforcement of the policy, and that the school system may save $4.26 million by stopping bus service to those pupils.

But, it also leaves affected parents of thousands of students scrambling to figure out how their children will get to school safely. According to School System Chief Operations Officer Cephus Jackson, the district's solutions could range from adding "strategically placed" crossing guards on busy streets near schools, to creating early morning versions of the district's after-school program for elementary schools.

"It's a difficult situation," Jackson said, on Thursday. "I hate the idea that children will have to walk long distances to get to school, but everybody has to give a little in these tough economic times."

The district is encouraging affected parents to call Jackson, at (770) 473-2819, to point out any hazardous areas officials need to be aware of. School System Spokesman Charles White said hazards could include rail road crossings, places where there are inadequate walking areas for students, or areas where there is a high volume of traffic, or where cars routinely move at high rates of speed.

Clayton County Board of Education Member Jessie Goree said, on Thursday, that the idea of young children walking through areas where there are no side walks "does not sit well with me. I'm especially worried about kindergartners having to walk along [makeshift] paths, when there is not a sidewalk."

The school board policy that dictates students will not receive bus service, if they live a mile and a half from the school, was adopted in 1981, long before any of the current school board members were in office. Jackson acknowledged that some hazards may be so severe that the district will not have a choice but to provide transportation to get around them.

One such hazard, he said, is a truck stop that is across Forest Parkway from East Clayton Elementary School. Another one he pointed to was construction of the new Riverdale Town Center, which is blocking a sidewalk along Church Street that students need to get from their neighborhood, to Church Street Elementary School.

Students who are cut off by those hazards will have bus service provided to them, Jackson said.

He said the district knew about the truck stop, but had to find out about the sidewalk issue in Riverdale from concerned parents. "We see a lot of things, but then people are bringing things to our attention as well," he said.

But, not every hazard will be cleared by providing bus service, district spokesman, White, said.

"We'll take a look at the hazards, and determine what we need to do to address them," he said. "That doesn't necessarily mean we will provide bus service. It may be addressed with placements of strategically placed crossing guards. If we can place crossing guards in the right spots, we might be able to overcome the problem."

There is one thing that is clear when it comes to planning how affected students will get to school, however, and that is parents of affected students will not be able to drop their children off at school too early, Jackson said. They may get small windows to drop their children off at school -- maybe as little as 30 to 45 minutes -- before the first bell rings.

Jackson said, for instance, "7 a.m. is the earliest parents can drop off their children at the elementary schools." Elementary schools in Clayton County begin their instructional day at 7:45 a.m., and Jackson said all employees of these schools are required to report to work, no later than 7 a.m.

The chief operations officer did not rule out the possibility of the district establishing early morning care for affected students, whose parents have to be at work early. The catch is that it would cost parents who enroll their children in such programs.

"Many of our schools might have to go to having early morning versions of our [Campus Kids] after-school program," Jackson said. "The district does not pay for that. Parents pay for that."

Web sites for some middle and high schools show they allow students to begin gathering at the school at 7:15 a.m., (for high schools) and 7:45 a.m., (for middle schools).

While principals are being encouraged to get their parents to form walking groups so students can walk together, Jackson said the district is also working with local law enforcement to beef up security on streets around the schools.

"We've met with police, and the sheriff's department about this already. They're going to have a higher presence in those mile-and-a-half areas," Jackson said.

And, while the district is eliminating the bus service to students who live within a mile and a half of their schools this year, Jackson offered some optimism that this will not be a permanent transportation plan for the district.

"I hope that someday, when the economy gets better, we can provide bus service to them again," he said.