Anise Moore had mixed feelings about safety in the rough neighborhood where her kids walk to school.
She sat on her porch one warm spring afternoon, looked at the well-kept homes and nice sidewalks on Howe Street and said it’s not so bad.
“It’s a great neighborhood. It’s a great place to live,” she said. “Everybody is basically family oriented here.”
Then she remembered the shooting a couple of blocks away. There also was a stabbing a while ago. The truck fire. The burglaries. The loose dogs. The broken beer bottles and wine bottles on the sidewalks two blocks away. The winos in the alley a block away. The mentally challenged man who everyone says is harmless walking down the middle of the street talking to himself. The drivers who don’t come to a complete stop at intersections, even when kids are around.
Through all that, she keeps a fairly positive attitude about her neighborhood in the Lane Field area of Akron’s near-west side. But she knows walking to school can be dangerous.
“The biggest problem is abandoned houses,” she said shortly before walking with a reporter to pick up her kids at Helen Arnold school. She pointed out 20 empty homes on the seven-block walk.
The Moore family is an example of how education and transportation options are not equal in Ohio. Bus transportation is seen as essential for charter schools but cost-cutting makes it impractical for many public schoolchildren.
Academically, Akron schools are rated “Continuous Improvement” or what amounts to a C grade. Strapped for funds, the district offers the state minimum for busing. That means students living within two miles of their school must walk.
It’s not the same for students attending charter school or wealthy suburban districts with big tax bases.
State legislators who control funding decided a decade ago that transportation is vital to charter school education, and they put the burden of providing it on public schools that were struggling to meet education standards. As a result, school buses taking neighbor children to lower-rated charter schools often pass Akron students walking to their public schools.
Akron schools Treasurer Jack Pierson saw the problem coming in 2001.
“It’s ludicrous,” he said. “They want us to spend the money we need to spend on our kids and spend it on kids that opt for the charter schools.”
Students started leaving Akron Public Schools for charter schools in 2003. In April 2013, that number had reached 3,242.
Over the years, state funding to maintain that policy did not keep up with inflation, putting the burden increasingly on local taxpayers. Between 2003 and 2011, Ohio’s total cost for school transportation increased 31 percent, but the portion local districts paid went up 39 percent.
The result: 34 percent of Akron-area charter school students were bused in 2011 while only 8.7 percent of Akron Public Schools rode a bus. (The state has not updated figures for 2012 and 2013.)
Costs continue to increase, yet Gov. John Kasich’s budget proposal flat-lined transportation funding. It appears the General Assembly is considering otherwise as the tentative budget passes through the Ohio Senate.
For the Moore family, there is little choice but to walk.
Anise Moore has no car and no one else in her family who could drive. Disabled by a congenital disease, she generates little income.
Busing is not an option. She lives about a half-mile from her kids’ school, too close for busing, according to Akron’s standards.
She could choose a charter school, but many of them are rated lower academically.
But choosing to walk can be dangerous.
Between 2010 and 2012, 52 of the 60 school-age pedestrians who were hit by vehicles during normal school hours in Summit and Portage counties were walking in cities with low school-busing rates: Akron, Barberton or Cuyahoga Falls. That averages out to a vehicle hitting a child in one of those districts once every 11 school days.
Akron also has begun a program to take down as many as 100 traffic signals throughout the city, a move some parents say makes those intersections more dangerous to walkers.
Kids call Moore the Whistle Lady.
Her mission is not just for her two children: Kyree, 13, and Kyra, 11. Also tagging along this day were nephews Jacce Taylor, 5, and Michael Mitchell, 6.
And it doesn’t stop there.
“I don’t want somebody’s child not to make it home,” she said. “So I have them walk with me. Sometimes as many as nine or 10.”
They must follow the Whistle Lady’s most important rule: When they are ready to cross a street, they all must stop and wait until she sees the traffic is clear.
That’s when the metal whistle hanging on a lanyard around her neck comes out and produces a tweet that can be heard two blocks away. That means it’s OK to cross.
“I tell my kids, ‘Don’t cross until you see nothing,’ ” she said.
Moore never saw any drug deals in her neighborhood during the two years she has lived there, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
Akron police provide data that are mapped on Raidsonline.com.
Since October 2011, there have been six drug incidents within a half block of the children’s path to school. The map also shows five thefts, two assaults and individual cases of vandalism, disorderly conduct and carrying an open container.
Expand the map to include the area a half-mile within Moore’s home and you find more than 100 incidents each of drugs, assault, vandalism and burglary. There also were 15 weapons violations, 26 aggravated assaults, two cases of sexual assault and one homicide.
The Summit County Sheriff’s Office registry shows 10 sexual offenders living within a mile of her home.
Emphasis on safety
The Whistle Lady can’t fix everything.
As she walked to the school with the reporter, they saw tiny children, probably kindergartners, walking alone. The kids would be negotiating the way home by themselves.
“The main danger, to me, is the kindergartners and first-graders walking to school by themselves,” Moore said. “You never know who’s out lurking, looking at children.”
She often invites kids walking alone to join her group.
After arriving at school, she found her son and the two nephews on the playground. Her daughter was at her station as a Safety Patrol guard.
Kyra, 11, wears a yellow sash and holds a flag and is stationed at driveways near the school. Children gather behind her and are not allowed to cross until she sees it’s safe and raises her flag.
The patrol is part of the Safe Kids Coalition that includes AAA, Akron Children’s Hospital and the police and fire departments. In October, more than a month after school starts, it sponsors the Akron Police Department’s Walk This Way program that includes walking with parents to check for marked crosswalks and telling kids to stay on sidewalks and how to cross the street.
A spokesman for the Akron police said the city can’t afford the more costly Safety Town program that suburban schools use. It includes summer instruction on playgrounds or gymnasiums made to look like toy towns.
The Moore family encounters one crossing guard in the seven-block trek to school. The city employs 135 crossing guards at $16.40 per hour for a total budget of $750,000 for 2013.
Dorothy Chlad, Safety Town’s national president, started with Safety Town in 1964 and knows Akron well. She started her work in Bedford and once started a fledgling program in Akron. It didn’t last long.
She learned a lot about kids over the years.
Chlad said the instructions must be repeated many times in many different ways, and it should be done in the summer, before school starts.
Parents don’t necessarily do it best.
For example, she said a parent might insist the child look both ways before crossing, but she found the kids looking left and right as they walked dangerously into the street. She said they must be told to stop their feet.
Gauging traffic is even more difficult.
“This is where we go into child development as it relates to the capability of the child,” she said. “Children 4 and 5 years old just aren’t capable of handling a lot of these things.”
She doesn’t think anyone under 8 or 9 should be walking alone to school. Individual development varies, she said.
Riding bikes to schools should come even later.
“Children don’t really understand the concept of traffic safety till between the ages of 10 to 11 years of age,” she said.
Crunching the numbers
Because buses carry children farther distances than the kids walk, statistical comparisons of the relative safety of various modes of transportation are difficult.
According to data from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, every year, about 800 school-age children are killed in motor vehicle crashes during normal school travel hours — weekday mornings and afternoons during school months.
These fatalities account for about 14 percent of the 5,600 child deaths that occur on the nation’s roads.
Children are at far more risk traveling to and from school in private passenger vehicles — especially if a teen driver is involved — than in school buses.
Bicycling and walking also place students at greater risk than traveling by bus.
Of the 800 deaths:
• Most (about 74 percent) occur in private passenger vehicles.
• More than half of all the child fatalities occur when a teenager is driving.
• About 22 percent are the result of a pedestrian or bicycle accident.
• Only about 2 percent are school-bus related.
Andrew Davis, Akron’s traffic signal engineer, is studying the relative safety of biking and walking and is applying for a grant from Safe Routes to School to finance a safety program.
He’s a proponent of walking and biking throughout the city because of its health benefits.
“Safety is always a concern with walking and biking,” he said. “I believe proper education on how to do it improves one’s safety in doing that, similar to swimming.”
The National Safe Routes to School organization has studies that clearly demonstrate the health benefits of walking and biking, but could not produce a study that compares the relative safety of walking versus taking a bus.
For many families like the Moores, the only choice is for the kids to accept the dangers of walking to school with their parents or by themselves.
And maybe someone like the Whistle Lady will be there to look over them.
“I go there every day,” Moore said. “I make sure they get there and make it back.”
Beacon Journal education reporter Doug Livingston contributed to this report. Dave Scott can be reached at 330-996-3577 or email@example.com. Follow Scott on Twitter at Davescottofakro.