Fresno Unified Board Clerk Susan Wittrup said Starr Elementary School got an “early Christmas present” recently when the city switched on a long-awaited left-turn signal at the intersection of Sierra and West avenues in northwest Fresno.
“There have been so many near-misses and actual accidents at this intersection that this signal is going to make a big difference for the safety of our students and our staff and our parents. Thank you to the city of Fresno.” — Susan Wittrup, board clerk, Fresno Unified
A left-turn signal might not be on every kid’s list for Santa, but for Wittrup, who worked at the school before she retired and ran for the School Board, the signal could be a matter of life or death for children coming and going to school.
Too often cars would swing right around vehicles waiting to make a left turn, posing a risk to kids and families, she said Monday afternoon at the busy intersection.
The Sierra Avenue turn signal is one of the many improvements needed around Fresno Unified schools, which tend to be in the older and more congested parts of the city.
It Takes a Partnership
Fresno Unified has to depend on its partners in the city and county, on lawmakers, planners, and transportation specialists to recognize and address the many safety gaps in the routes taken by kids to get to school, Board President Veva Islas said.
Islas has long been an advocate for Safe Routes to School. The health advocacy organization she heads, Cultiva La Salud, partnered in 2018 with the national Safe Routes to School organization, Berkeley Safe Transportation Research and Education Center, and the California Office of Traffic Safety to produce an action plan with statistics about injury accidents and fatalities and recommendations.
Getting the turn signal for Sierra is “huge. I want it to be definitely impressed upon that we’re very grateful for it,” Islas said.
Wittrup credited city officials and Councilmember Mike Karbassi with continuing to push for the signal’s installation as a needed safety improvement.
“There have been so many near-misses and actual accidents at this intersection that this signal is going to make a big difference for the safety of our students and our staff and our parents,” she said. “Thank you to the city of Fresno.”
The partnership between the district and the city is critical because schools all over the district have unsafe routes, she said.
There will be a Safe Pathways to School community meeting for the Bullard area at 6 p.m. on Jan. 22 at Bullard High School, Wittrup said.
“Parents are encouraged to come and give their input about safety, walking to and from school for their students,” she said.
In addition, Wednesday’s School Board meeting will include a presentation by district staff on efforts to improve school safety and security. The meeting will start at 5:30 p.m. in the boardroom of the Education Center at M and Tulare Streets.
More Resources Needed
The city and county need to devote resources, whether that’s traffic signals, bike lanes, or even just education efforts to remind drivers to slow down in school zones and remind parents and kids of their responsibility to act safely, Islas said.
There are many safety issues for students across the district, including those attending Mayfair Elementary School who have to dodge cars while crossing First Avenue in a crosswalk without benefit of a traffic light to reach their school on Home Avenue. — Veva Islas, trustee, Fresno Unified School District
But city and county officials also need to act as advocates, such as seeking grants and including pedestrian safety in Measure C, the county sales tax for transportation projects, she said.
There are many safety issues for students across the district, including those attending Mayfair Elementary School who have to dodge cars while crossing First Avenue in a crosswalk without benefit of a traffic light to reach their school on Home Avenue, Islas said.
Champions of Safety for Older Neighborhoods
Why does it take so long to address student safety issues?
“I do think that it is a lack of having a champion within our city, in our county. I think most of them will give lip service about how they want to make sure kids are safe,” she said. “But this is where the rubber hits the road, right? Make the investments, invest the dollars, direct funding, apply for grants, you know, bring in the resources that actually take your words to action.
“We haven’t had that. And it’s very easy for an elected official to get drawn by a new development, and ‘Oh, we’re creating housing’ and, ‘Oh, look at how beautiful we can make it,’ which is very different from ‘Here’s an older established neighborhood and let’s drive investments to beef up this neighborhood.’ ”
Every School Needs to Have Crossing Guards: Islas
Islas said she would like the district to be able to hire part-time crossing guards for every school. Right now crossing guards are volunteers who are signed up by a district contractor, and not every school has a volunteer.
Parents are likelier to drive their kids to school if they feel that’s the best way to keep them safe, and it takes just one accident to convince them that their child’s route to school isn’t a safe one, Islas said. But walking and biking to school are among the ways that students can get some much-needed exercise and be more fit, and more kids on bikes means fewer in cars, which reduces traffic congestion as well as air pollution, she said.
Starr Principal Charles Reynolds said he’s already seen a difference in front of the school when students are arriving and departing. In the past, vehicles would be backed up to the school as drivers waited to turn at the intersection, and the decrease in congestion in front of the school has been noticeable, he said.