At 6:30 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, 10-year-old Navyia Herrera puts on her safety patrol sash and leaves her home in the Southside’s Garden Valley Mobile Home Community to make the one-mile walk to Hutchins Elementary. She joins several other children from the neighborhood, ranging in age from 6 to 12, and one parent, Elva Medina. Although they are accompanied by an adult, Navyia feels responsible for the safety of the younger children.
“If you are [younger], you are more distracted,” Navyia said.
Last year, Garden Valley was served by a South San Antonio Independent School District bus route. This year, the district hired a new transportation director, and the bus service was eliminated.
“Before this year there were no regulations on transportation,” South San Superintendent Abelardo Saavedra said. The on-demand transportation services were too expensive to maintain for the small school district of about 9,000 students. As the district has made strides toward better governance, it adopted a policy similar to that of other districts in San Antonio: Bus service is available to students who live two or more miles from their school, students whose path to school involves safety hazards, and students with disabilities.
The district sent 750 letters to families living between one-and-a-half and two miles away, informing them that they could apply for bus pickup, Saavedra said. Still, he acknowledged, this would not cover everyone.
The relatively short distance disqualifies Garden Valley residents from bus pickup, and the presence of sidewalks and crosswalks along the route to school means it doesn’t qualify as hazardous. However, walking with Navyia and her friends along South Zarzamora Street before sunrise, it’s easy to see why parents are concerned.
Comité de Defensa del Barrio Safety in South San, a grassroots neighborhood advocacy group, invited City Councilman Rey Saldaña (D4) and members of the City of San Antonio Transportation and Capital Improvements (TCI) office to walk to school with the children to explore options to increase safety along the route.
The walk revealed that little could be done to improve the children’s daily walk. More prominent school zone signals would be expensive and could take as long as one year to be put in place, City Engineer Gabby Escamilla said.
Headlights flash by the students as they makes their way up Zarzamora, which is six lanes across. The speed limit on the road is 40 mph, slowing to 20 mph about half a block from the cross walk the children use to get to Hutchins Elementary School. Hurried morning commuters probably don’t notice the school zone demarcations, Escamilla said.
The zooming cars make her nervous, Navyia said. She is afraid a distracted driver will swerve into her group of friends.
Though there are sidewalks, weeds and thorny branches encroach on the path. The group walks single file in order to pass. Adults have to duck their heads to avoid low-hanging branches. Saldaña, on his bicycle, dismounts to weave around obstacles.
While the children cross Zarzamora Street to get to school, cars waiting to make a right turn honk and jockey for position, startling the students. Another mother and son at the crossing negotiate their right-of-way with a driver. Saldaña reminds the pedestrians that they have the right-of-way, but the pair still sprints across the intersection while the frustrated driver inches forward.
The City of San Antonio’s Vision Zero, a public safety campaign aimed at reducing pedestrian casualties, can provide pedestrian safety training to help children like Navyia feel more prepared for their walk, Escamilla said. The program can even offer education to help the community become more aware of pedestrians. However, it can’t reach every driver who might be on the busy road before sunrise. Children are small and hard to see, even when they are using caution and staying in allocated pedestrian zones.
For the first few weeks of school, Saavedra said, the district contracted with the City to provide a crossing guard at the Zarzamora and Hutchins Place intersection closest to the school. Later, a school district police officer took over the post. However, the crossing guard reported that only one family consistently used the intersection, and the district could not justify the expense.
The walk is so time-consuming and unpleasant that people avoid it, Medina said. She does not have a driver’s license and avoids driving students to school as much as possible. Even when she must drive – on rainy days, for instance – her car does not hold all the children in Garden Valley. The walk to the school and back takes about 45 minutes. For working parents who have their own buses to catch, accompanying the children is not always an option.
With so many obstacles in getting to school, absences tend to pile up, Medina said.
Across the city, districts and nonprofit groups are confronting the various causes of absenteeism in public schools. A study from the University of California-Davis showed that transportation issues affected 28% of chronically absent students. It isn’t the only reason, but it is a significant one, the study showed.
The significance of this problem led school-based case management nonprofit Communities in Schools to join with VIA Metropolitan Transit to provide free bus passes for some local high school students who had trouble getting to their campuses.
Even when they can get there, Medina said, they are often late. Because the students walk in a group for safety, one lagging member affects the entire cluster.
On the Tuesday Saldaña walked with them, the children were on time, but Navyia was late for safety patrol, which requires her to be at school early. The group often misses the school breakfast, too. In addition to the added safety, Navyia said, the bus always got them to school on time.
“No bus is going to close the achievement gap,” Saldaña said. “But they can at least get them to school.”
Comité de Defensa del Barrio Safety in South San has helped the residents of Garden Valley take their case before the school board. The district reinstated bus routes to South San High School, because that campus is more than two miles away. The omission of that bus route at the beginning of the school year was an oversight, district spokeswoman Jocelyn Durand said.
The district is now considering routes that could possibly be extended to include Garden Valley, Saavedra said.