Principal Mark Gaither stands outside Wolfe Street Academy most mornings watching children scamper toward the school, some jumping — like frogs on lily pads — from one big green footprint painted on the sidewalk to the next.
The footprints — which rankled some neighbors when they appeared at the start of the school year — are the most conspicuous sign of a nearly $3 million project in Baltimore to make the routes children walk to school safer with additional crosswalk markings, pedestrian countdown signals, strategic placement of crossing guards and signs with flashing beacons.
Tracy North, who walks her first-grade daughter, Olivia Hayden, three or four blocks to school with a younger daughter in tow, says the added safety features are "fantastic." The footprints are stamped along the sidewalk within 500 feet of the schools, lining the designated route for children to walk.
"I love that we go to a neighborhood school where we can walk, and my kids can see the feet on the ground so they know they are heading toward a safe place with their friends," North said.
Studies have shown that Baltimore is one of the country's more dangerous cities for pedestrians, ranking higher than other nearby cities, including Philadelphia and Washington. Dozens of children are hit by cars in Baltimore each year. From 2009 to 2013, more than 1,000 pedestrians, ages 5 to 17, were hit by cars on city streets; five of them died.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said communities around the city are asking the transportation department to make the improvements near their local schools. Most of the money for the improvements comes from federal grants.
"I know personally that feeling any mom gets sending off their child to school and needing to know you did everything possible to ensure their safety," Rawlings-Blake said. "This program is designed to let families know we understand that feeling and are doing everything we can to ensure their children can travel safely to and from school every day."
(The changes come as the city's speed camera program — designed to catch speeding motorists in school zones — has been shut down for more than a year. State records show there were no pedestrian injuries in the zones in either 2012, when the cameras were running, or 2013, when they were turned off most of the year.)
While the Safe Routes to School program focuses on pedestrian safety, city police are making other efforts to protect children from violence, according to the mayor's office. Patrol officers, school police and other authorities work together to pay special attention to schools at the start and end of the day, officials say.
Wolfe Street Academy is one of five schools that have the bright green footprints painted outside, and more are on the way, said Adrienne Barnes, a spokeswoman for the city transportation department. So far, safety improvements have been completed at 90 elementary and middle schools.
Over the next two years, the city will continue to add the footprints and finish safety upgrades at another 36 primary schools, she said. The schools also will receive handicap-accessible ramps off curbs, as necessary, and receive educational materials to teach pedestrian and bike safety.
"It's a very popular project," Barnes said. "We know most of Baltimore City children do walk to school, and that's why this program is very important."
At Wolfe Street Academy, roughly 80 percent to 90 percent of the 220 children walk to school, Gaither said.
Gaither said the freshly painted crosswalk markings, added signs and pedestrian countdowns are necessary around the school with two major thoroughfares nearby — Washington and Wolfe streets.
"They come through very fast," Gaither said. "The feet are the fun aspect of it. There are things that the kids don't notice so much, like the countdowns and crosswalks."
William Anthony III, who walks his 9-year-old son a half-mile to the school each morning, loves the added features.
"It shows them how to get there safely and the right direction to get to the school," Anthony said. "It's a great idea."
The installation of the green footprints caused a flap in the neighborhood, and a lively discussion was sparked on the community's online network. Some residents viewed the bright green paintings on the sidewalks outside their homes as unsightly. But the clamor has since quieted, community members said.
Chrissy Anderson, president of the Fells Prospect Community Association, declined to comment on the remarks left in the community's private forum.
"Overall, I think it's a non-issue and it was just confusing [for residents] to wake up one morning and see neon green footprints down the sidewalk," she said in an email, adding that the community association does not have an official position on the footprints.
Laura Arvizu said the feet are a big hit with children, including her son, 6-year-old Paul Schneider.
"I love them, but I guess some people didn't like them. They wanted them removed," she said. "The kids, we do walk with them, they love them."
Barnes, the transportation spokeswoman, acknowledged the city has received some complaints about the feet, but officials have opted not to remove any. She said the green footprints aren't a universal symbol of the Safe Routes to School program, but one approved by the Federal Highway Administration.
The federal government has given states about $1 billion for the program since 2005, including $20 million in Maryland. Across the country, 16,000 schools participate in the Safe Routes to Schools.
Myra Wieman, traffic safety program manager for AAA Mid-Atlantic Foundation, said the investment will be good for families in Baltimore, where some crosswalk markings are faded due to traffic and wear and tear. The program has made walking to school safer for children across the country, including by paying for cities and towns to build sidewalks and fix the ones they have.
"These grants have really helped," she said. "That's a win-win for everybody."
Besides safety, the Safe Routes to School program is intended to promote physical activity, along with other efforts, such as days designated for walking or biking to school, Barnes said.
Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, chair of the education committee, said drivers must do their part, and she hopes brighter crosswalk markings, new signs and flashing lights will help. She said she also wants to see the city invest in more crossing guards and increase enforcement of the law that mandates drivers stop at crosswalks when pedestrians are walking across the street.
"If we can also get drivers to pay attention, combined with these extra protections for young children, I think it will be very successful," she said.
Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.
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