Reading, writing, not getting hit by a car. Tacoma kids get lessons on walking to school

When fourth-grade students at Stafford Elementary showed up for PE class on Friday, there was a mock street set up on the gym floor.

The prototype street, made out of roofing materials, wasn’t to scale of a real road but did have crosswalks and an intersection.

With directions from their teacher Matt Wood, students took turns crossing the street, looking both ways while their peers used scooters as makeshift cars.

One student, peering out behind a mat used to simulate a visual barrier, was nearly hit by one of the scooters. Both students jumped back in surprise.

The near-collision is exactly the situation the exercise is trying to avoid. In real life, it’s not a plastic scooter that’s the danger — it’s thousands of pounds worth of hurtling metal.

The exercise was effective, Wood felt — even if a bit chaotic.

“It is crazy, but it’s also PE ... You want kids to be able to be moving and active,” Wood said. “But as it progressed, they started figuring it out.”

The exercise is part of a new pedestrian safety curriculum meant to teach kids how to safely navigate the streets of Tacoma, created in partnership by the city of Tacoma and Tacoma Public Schools.

The curriculum includes six lessons plans matched with physical activities:

Traffic safety basics and vocabulary words

Traffic signs and rules of the road

Crossing safety

“Intersection in Action” and visual barriers

Retrieval of objects in a road

Neighborhood walk

The curriculum supports the city’s Safe Routes to School (SRTS) program, an effort to encourage safer walking and biking routes for K-12 students. The SRTS Action Plan, developed in 2017, supports the development of pedestrian safety curriculum and outlines sidewalk and crosswalk construction projects.

The curriculum was developed by Tacoma teachers rather than the state or a health organization.

“This curriculum is unique because it’s created by Tacoma teachers for Tacoma youth,” city spokeswoman Stacy Ellifritt said in an email. “Challenges that Tacoma youth encounter — such as visual barriers created by parked cars and how to walk down a street that has no sidewalk — are addressed through the curriculum.”

“We just wanted to make sure (the curriculum) fit with Tacoma,” said Carrie Wilhelme, Safe Routes to School coordinator with the city of Tacoma.

A walking district

The new curriculum is the first of its kind in Tacoma, where many students walk to school.

About 8,800 TPS students on average ride the bus each day, leaving roughly 21,000 students to either walk, bike or be driven to school, said district spokesman Dan Voelpel.

High school students also can drive themselves or carpool.

For its 36 elementary schools, the district provides bus transportation for students who live a mile or more from school.

“In Tacoma, most of our elementary schools are considered walking schools,” Wilhelme said.

At Stafford Elementary, about 110 of the schools’ 542 students walk to school, said principal Lindsay Bowman.

When it came time to start the education piece of SRTS, Wood was one of five PE teachers who volunteered to help develop the curriculum.

“When we sat down and asked the people why they self-nominated, everyone of them said it’s because we have a large walking population at our school,” said Mary Waterbly, instructional facilitator for Tacoma Public Schools.

Every eight days in Tacoma, a child is hit by a car while walking or biking, according to a Puyallup Watershed Initiative study. Between 2010 and 2014, 153 youth were hit while walking, while 69 were hit riding bikes.

Neighborhoods in south and east Tacoma were most affected, with more than 50 youths hit by cars over the course of five years.

The city budgeted $500,000 to implement the SRTS program in the 2017-18 budget, with an additional $500,000 for the sidewalk program and $1 million to purchase and install speed zone flashing beacons near schools.

In the 2019-20 budget, the city allocated $700,000 to SRTS, $1 million for flashing beacons at nine schools and $1.2 million in funding for the Residential Sidewalk Reconstruction program.

Fruits of that labor are beginning to show.

A $450,000 project to improve sidewalks, crosswalks and other infrastructure at Lister Elementary was completed in April. Another $338,000 crosswalk project is slated to be completed in July at First Creek Middle School.

New infrastructure is only part of the solution. Students need to be aware of their surroundings, Wood said.

“We’re trying to encourage exercise, we’re trying to encourage (students) to be healthy, but they need to know how to do it in safe places,” he said. “(The curriculum) is a good way to give them ways to move around safely.”

Statewide effort

Now, the city and school district are working to iron out the curriculum.

At the end of class Friday, one student asked to “make the road bigger.”

Wilhelme said the city would consider that.

The goal is to adopt the curriculum in all TPS elementary schools in the fall.

The curriculum then could be adopted statewide, Wood said.

In Washington, crashes involving pedestrians increased in recent years. The number of pedestrians and bicyclists killed on Washington state roadways increased by 50 percent from 2014 to last year, from 82 to 123, according to new data by the state Department of Transportation, The News Tribune’s James Drew reported this week.

In 2018, 267 pedestrians were hit by cars in Pierce County, according to the nonprofit Puyallup Watershed Initiative. Of those, 14 were killed.

Liz Kaster, active transportation manager for Puyallup Watershed Initiative, hopes recent actions taken by the city and school district will change future data and said the new curriculum is “one piece of the puzzle” in bringing down the rate of crashes.

Kristina Walker, executive director of Tacoma’s Downtown On the Go, agreed.

“Inviting students to participate in walking and biking, and making it safer to do so, is good for our community, students health and safety, and the safety of our entire community,” Walker told The News Tribune in an email. “If we build a city that’s safe and accessible for kids, we build a city that’s safe and accessible for all people.”