State grant funds D65 infrastructure improvements, educational initiatives

Audrey Cheng

In order to receive more than $300,000 in funding from the Illinois Safe Routes to School Program, Evanston and Evanston/Skokie School District 65 had to create an individual school travel plan for every student.

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn announced in January that Evanston was granted the funding: $249,862 for infrastructure improvements and $98,550 for educational initiatives.

Ald. Jane Grover (7th) said in order to apply for the funding, the city and school district had to do some footwork.

“That involved determining what the safest walk routes were and making maps for all those walk routes for every single school in School District 65,” Grover said. “The individual walk maps for every school got put into a school travel plan for the larger kind of plan for how school children should walk or ride their bikes to school.”

City officials worked with the school district to form a “great partnership,” Grover said.

“The city has the traffic engineers,” Grover said. “The school district did a number of meetings at various schools to talk with the school communities about what were some of the shortcomings and what were some of the barriers for school children to walk and ride their bikes to school.”

The grant committee included city traffic engineer Rajeev Dahal, D65 transportation manager Roger Allen, PTA representative Vickie Jacobsen and Northwestern alumnus and former 7th Ward intern Christian Sorensen, among others.

Grover said because she has school-aged children, she saw how important it was to encourage young students to walk and ride their bikes to school.

“I see the increase in congestion in traffic in and around our school campuses during arrival and dismissal times,” Grover said. “One way to alleviate that congestion and that frustration among drivers, walkers and bikers is to put fewer cars on the road and more walkers and bikers.”

She added that in order to encourage walking and biking, infrastructure problems must be addressed first.

“We have some stretches of walk routes that don’t have sidewalks,” Grover said. “You have to eliminate hazards and you have to create safer crossings.”

Grover said the city is encouraging a new system called “the human school bus,” which urges students to walk to school.

“The idea is that children all gather around a corner of a block and all walk to school together, accompanied by a parent or two,” Grover said. “It’s like a school bus, but a walking school bus of students from a particular neighborhood.”

Grover added that the schools will do promotional activities to encourage walking and riding bikes to school.

“We’ll create things for students to keep track of how many times they walk or ride their bikes to school and also create prizes to get students and their parents comfortable with walking and riding bikes to school,” Grover said.

Gabrielle Rivera is an Evanston Township High School junior who walks five blocks to school. She said she knows many students who could walk to school but drive or get dropped off instead. She said she is not sure students would walk even if the infrastructure was improved.

“I think students don’t walk because they don’t want to get up earlier,” Rivera said. “I really think it’s a time issue. If their parents wouldn’t give them a ride, then they would walk.”

Grover said the grant application was very successful.

“The state had a maximum of $100,000 for the educational component and a maximum of $250,000 for the infrastructure component, and we got nearly the maximum amount in both categories,” Grover said. “It just shows you what a superb application we had, which was a reflection of the people who worked on it and put it together.”

Grover said the city and school district also want to encourage walking and bike riding to encourage “fitness and wellness” and to reduce the air pollution in and around the school.

“It’s good for the kids and good for the community,” Grover said. “We’re going to be in motion this year.”

ETHS junior Christina Burt said although she doesn’t walk, she could think of a few other needed infrastructure improvements.

“In front of our school, there’s this big lawn that everyone walks across in the morning and after school,” Burt said. “They ruined the grass completely. A sidewalk could go there.”

Grover said pushing for infrastructure improvements will help establish better walking practices.

“It’s really about putting yourself in the shoes of a student walking to school,” Grover said. “Once we make it safer for students to walk to school, students and their parents will feel more comfortable having the student navigate their way to school.”

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