Grants help students head to school the old way

In a steady rain Friday morning and no school bus in sight, New Searles Elementary School students Sage Scribner and Kayla Belanger stood in the Matt Dube Field parking lot ready to make the trek to school.
Belanger, 10, delicately balanced her oversized, red and white umbrella to provide shelter for herself and Scribner.

Even on a day where the most prevalent noise was that of cars splashing through puddles, the weather couldn’t dampen the girls’ enthusiasm as they were just two of approximately one hundred students who celebrated the annual International Walk to School Day.

“It’s awesome,” Belanger beamed. “Rain or shine it’s fun.”

“I just like walking with my friends and having more time together,” said 10-year-old Scribner.

Students who wanted to participate in the walk congregated at Matt Dube Field on Harris Street around 8:30 a.m. Then, guided by parents and teachers, students made the soggy march to the school.

The New Searles Elementary School is one of four elementary schools in Nashua that received grants as part of the New Hampshire Department of Transportation’s Safe Routes to School Initiative.

More than $1 million in grant money was given out to 25 communities in the state. In Nashua, the grants will also help pay for comprehensive travel plans at several schools.

The statewide transportation program encourages students who live within two miles of their school to either walk or bike. Beyond the physical fitness aspect, Safe Routes promotes education and community involvement, according to John Corrigan, the department of transportation’s Safe Routes coordinator.

“(The students) are learning the rules of the road,” Corrigan explained, “they’re learning bike safety, and they’re being active. There’s a whole lot that can be accomplished with this program.”

Interim Principal Jay Harding, a Nashua educator for twelve years, said that the funding would help the school further develop the Safe Routes program.

“This is a great initiative,” Harding said. “Now that we’ve got the funding we can expand our safe routes.”

New Searles received a $6,980 grant. The Birch Hill Elementary School got a total of $33,472 and Bicentennial Elementary received $28,781. In Brookline the Capt. Samuel Douglas Academy and the Richard Maghakian Memorial School combined for over $100,000 in grants.

While ushering children through the rain, Harding noted that funding would be used to improve Safe Route’s street signs and road markings. New Searles Elementary, which is on Shady Lane, has multiple signs along the way with the Safe Routes logo and the streets have an extended sidewalk that is marked off in green and yellow lines of paint.

Corrigan lauded the city of Nashua for being one of the first communities in the country to experiment with the initiative. In fact, New Searles instituted the Safe Routes’ pilot program in 1999 before the initiative was federally funded.

“Nashua is nationally recognized as a model for (Safe Routes),” said Corrigan, an avid biker who commuted from the field to the school with a group of student bikers.

Corrigan added that over the next five years, the federal government plans on giving out over $1 million in grants across the state.

New Searles’ school nurse Debbie Richardson, who coordinates the school’s Safe Routes walks, said that a weekly “walk to school” day has been scheduled for every Tuesday in October.

The state’s Walk-to-School Day is scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 8. Richardson estimated that, even in the rain, more than 100 students participated in Friday’s walk.

“We (walk) in all kinds of weather,” Richardson said as remnants of rain dripped off her hair. “I’m really proud of everyone who came out today.”

Richardson said these walking events usually average 150 or so students, which is a large number considering that the school has an enrollment of less than 400.

Harding credits the large turnout and the program’s continued success to the support of the school’s parents.

“The turnout this morning was very good considering,” he said. “The parent support at this school is great.”

For Debra Lang, whose daughter Lauren is a New Searles second grader, the Safe Routes initiative is a great way to start the day.

“It’s exercise; it gets them going,” Lang said with energy. “They love it.”

Kayla Belanger figured that it was good to get outside for the walk because “we probably won’t get to go out for recess.”