When Sharon Kirin heard that Carroll County school administrators had proposed a policy change that would allow all elementary children, including those currently designated as walkers, to take a bus to school, the Eldersburg mother had to see it to believe it.
She and her neighbors, after all, have been fighting for nearly five months to persuade school officials to allow their children to take the bus to nearby Freedom Elementary School rather than walk on roads that the parents say are too narrow, curvy and dangerous.
In reviewing the families' appeal, Carroll school administrators decided to review the entire policy. They recommended spending $32,000 a year to give all of the system's youngest pupils the right to ride the school bus.
Guidelines would remain unchanged for middle and high school students, retaining for secondary schools what administrators call "non-transported areas" -- neighborhoods within a mile of a school that can be reached on roads with "acceptable levels of safety."
If approved, the plan would make Carroll only the second county in Maryland to make every elementary school pupil eligible to ride a bus to and from school, said James Doolan, the school system's transportation director. Calvert County provides transportation for all its students, he said.
School board members are scheduled to vote on the proposal at their March 10 meeting. After driving to Westminster to see the proposed policy, Kirin said she couldn't be happier with the superintendent's recommendation. "My individual concern was for the route they would have expected my child to walk," she said. "But my concerns were compounded when I heard from other parents who had unsuccessfully fought the same battles over the years. I think this change is timely and appropriate and in the best interest of all the little kids in the county."
Kirin's crusade began in September when she called the school system's transportation department in an effort to have her son's bus stop moved closer to home. She was surprised to hear that with the roads of their new housing development nearly complete and their quiet cul-de-sac just eight-tenths of a mile from Freedom Elementary, her 5-year-old and 31 other neighborhood children would not be allowed on the bus for much longer.
Kirin and some of her neighbors in Stone Manor and Strawbridge Estates housing developments complained to school officials that their neighborhood roads, particularly Placid Drive, are not suitable for young pedestrians, even those escorted by adults. That road crests and banks as it winds toward speeding vehicles on Route 32, the 50-mph, two-lane road that slices through Carroll County's rolling landscape.
The parents also complained that their only alternative -- driving their children to school -- was not a better option because Freedom's small parking lot is equally hazardous and clogged with vehicles.
Stephen Guthrie, the school system's assistant superintendent of administration, said all those factors played a role in administrators' decision to recommend a change.
"There is a difference between walking a kindergartner to school and walking a sixth-grader," he said. "A kindergartner is much harder to control, so the safety concerns at a middle school drop-off zone are not at the same level as an elementary school because of the maturity level of the kids."
The school district's "unscientific survey" also revealed a tendency for the parents of elementary-schoolers to have younger children in tow as they accompanied kids to school, Guthrie said.
"We'd see mothers carrying an infant or pushing a stroller and sometimes hanging onto a dog as they walked their children to school," he said. Finding ways to ensure that those parents -- and their children -- made it safely along walking routes and across crowded school parking lots every day "also was a concern."
Also, only about 2,300 students -- a fraction of Carroll County's 28,825 public school children -- live in neighborhoods designated as non-transported areas. Elementary school pupils make up the majority of the designated walkers at 1,480, leaving only 835 secondary students who are not eligible for school bus transportation.
But school officials know that those statistics do not reflect the actual number of walkers.
"Recent observations by transportation staff and reports from schools reveal that very few students walk to school," Doolan wrote in his report to the board. "High school students drive themselves or ride with friends. A majority of middle school students are brought to school by parents. Elementary students who reside in non-transported zones are almost all transported to school by their parents."
Doolan reported, however, that the number of parents driving elementary school-age children to school "may have created a more significant safety issue."
"Schools report concern over parent pickup and drop-off zones," he wrote. "Buses, loading and unloading students, compete with many parents dropping their children off at school."
Schools have attempted to mitigate the problem by staggering the drop-off and pickup times of buses and parents, and by designating areas for parents' vehicles, he said.
But "given the short amount of time available, the late or early arrival of parents, the lack of space at some schools and limited staff available for supervision," Doolan wrote, "a potentially hazardous condition still exists."
Superintendent Charles I. Ecker and his staff have recommended that the school board approve the policy for the next school year.
Kirin and her neighbors say they will be at the March 10 meeting.
"People might still decide to walk, or they might decide to drive their child to school, but that's their prerogative," she said. "I thought my child's safest choice was riding the bus, and we didn't have that choice."