Pasco should hop on Walking School Bus, official says

Shanta Tolbert, 30, waits to cross the street with her children Gabriella, 5, and Isaiah, 9, near Longleaf Elementary on Thursday. They drive 8 miles before parking a mile from the school so they can walk. “I do it for the exercise,” Tolbert said.

JANEL SCHROEDER-NORTON | Times

Shanta Tolbert, 30, waits to cross the street with her children Gabriella, 5, and Isaiah, 9, near Longleaf Elementary on Thursday. They drive 8 miles before parking a mile from the school so they can walk. “I do it for the exercise,” Tolbert said.

LAND O'LAKES — Try to visit any number of Pasco County schools during drop-off or pick-up time, and you're likely to get caught up in the snare of slow-moving cars delivering and retrieving the young.

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School Board chairwoman Kathryn Starkey wants to ease the congestion.

She's hoping a combination of walking, bicycle riding and carpooling will do the trick.

"It already happens informally," Starkey said. "I'm trying to bring it to the county more formally."

What Starkey has in mind is initiating two programs, School Pool and Walking School Bus, that Tampa-based Bay Area Commuter Services coordinates.

School Pool helps parents connect with each other to share car rides to and from school. Walking School Bus coordinates parents to walk students to school along a set, safe route through neighborhoods.

"We would help them get it started, but we wouldn't have any control over it," Starkey said of the voluntary programs.

Fourteen Hillsborough magnet schools participate, as does at least one Pinellas fundamental school.

Starkey has turned to Pasco superintendent Heather Fiorentino and board attorney Dennis Alfonso to make it happen here.

Since she brought it up about a month ago, though, she hasn't seen any action.

Alfonso told the board earlier this week that he asked other district lawyers about the program but had learned very little. Fiorentino said she was reluctant to give the go-ahead until she's certain the district wouldn't face any legal hurdles in the implementation or operation.

"It's a great idea, and many parents already do it," Fiorentino said. "My concern is the liability with it. … I really need to know legally where I go from here."

Sheila Martin, project manager for School Pool, said Bay Area Commuter Services has parents sign an application form with a "fairly extensive" hold-harmless clause covering both the school districts and the commuter group. The attorney for Pinellas schools reviewed and approved the document in 2003, she said, and Hillsborough's lawyer signed off on it in 2004.

The organization keeps student names private, instead providing lists of parents who want to share rides. It also connects parents only within their own schools.

"It does become the parents' due diligence whose car they put (their children) in," Martin said.

That's the way it works for Hillsborough's magnet program, and parents like the model quite well, coordinator Debbie Barron said.

"We get great feedback, even from parents who haven't found a match yet," Barron said.

The biggest concern, she said, is when parents don't receive a match list after they have submitted their information. Once enough names come in from a school, the commuter group provides the list and then it's up to the parents to make connections.

"This is just one more way to help our parents," Barron said.

The Walking School Bus idea comes through the national Safe Routes to School initiative. There's a model of it in Clearwater.

"In Pasco County, we're going to be looking at some schools to pilot that also," Martin said.

Starkey said she hopes to find schools where parents are willing to take advantage of these programs and perhaps help the commuter group with the application process. She figured it could be a positive option for the district to support.

"If you can't always pick your kids up from school, it helps you find parents in the same situation and you can share," she said. "Hillsborough and Pinellas have worked through that liability thing. I'm sure we can, too."

Fiorentino said she hoped to find a solution.

"Anything that makes it easier for kids to get to school is a good thing," she said.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

Pasco should hop on Walking School Bus, official says 09/05/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 8, 2008 12:14pm]

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