By Alex Lippa
---- — PLAISTOW — Pollard Elementary School is located right in the middle of town. But few students walk or ride to school. Town and school officials are hoping to change that.
The town has applied for a $200,000 Safe Routes to School grant through the state Department of Transportation. The grant would fund improvements to sidewalks and other projects to make it safer for students to walk and bike to the school at 120 Main St.
“The focus is on pedestrian safety,” Town Manager Sean Fitzgerald said. “We want a conducive environment for students and families to be able to walk to school.”
Now, sidewalks are not protected by a raised curb which separates cars from the sidewalks. The town also hopes to put sidewalks in surrounding neighborhoods which don’t have any.
The grant doesn’t just cover infrastructure. It also would provide 100 bike helmets and two bike racks for the school.
“This is the most exciting part for me,” Pollard School principal Michelle Gaydos said. “We don’t have enough bike racks to support the kids who want to bike to school. There are also so many kids who ride to school and don’t make great choices and ride without a helmet.”
The hope is that with more students walking and biking to school, it would decrease motor vehicle traffic, while increasing students’ physical fitness.
“Health is the most obvious piece,” Gaydos said. “Kids riding their bike or walking to school gives them good exercise.”
A study done by the school found that 27 percent of Pollard students live within a mile of the school. Only 7 percent of those students walk or ride their bikes to school. A parent survey showed safety concerns was the top reason they didn’t allow their children to walk to school.
If the grant is approved, safety is something the school will focus on. The Department of Transportation also would sponsor a bicycle rodeo to teach skills to students to allow them to become better cyclists and avoid crashes.
“There has never been a bike or safety conversation with students, unless something specific has happened,” Gaydos said. “Kids aren’t aware of what safety precautions they should be doing unless they are talking with their parents.”
Terri Rousseau, a parent of a Pollard fourth-grader, said she lives too far away for her child to walk to school, but is glad the town is making an effort to make it safer.
“I wish the sidewalks were extended further,” she said.
Rousseau also said more kids walking would reduce the traffic in the area.
“It can get pretty crowded around pickup time,” she said.
Fitzgerald said he hopes this grant will just be the start of a major reconfiguration of the area. In 2010, the town conducted a study designed to improve the appearance and the efficiency of Main Street.
“We want to currently evolve these strategies,” he said. “ With major projects happening on Route 125, you are seeing significant investments which may potentially divert traffic onto Main Street. We are critically challenged to come up with strategies which would support safety.”
Town Planner Leigh Komornick said the town still has to make one more presentation to the state in order to secure the grant. The grant will be announced next month.