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For More Hartford Students This Year, Getting To School Is A Good Walk Spoiled

STEVEN GOODE

September 01, 2009

HARTFORD - Aniela Ocasio's first day walking to school was an uneventful one. The weather was nice and traffic was light as the sixth-grader made her way across intersections and through neighborhoods without encountering a single soul for a good 20 minutes of the half-hour walk.

But that was little solace for her mother, Maria Rivera, who trailed close behind, watching as Aniela, 12, stepped absent-mindedly two paces onto Maple Avenue before she realized that the traffic light was green and retreated back onto the sidewalk.

And then there was the climb up the hill in the seemingly deserted neighborhood on West Preston Street before the turn onto Fairfield Avenue, where the first school crossing guard could be seen in the distance.

Rivera is nervous about the nine-tenths-mile trek her daughter must make to Kennelly School.

"With the bus, I had peace of mind," Rivera said. "It's not like it used to be. You just can't trust anybody."

Rivera's daughter is one of about 1,900 city students who could ride school buses last year but aren't eligible to this year because of budget cuts implemented to offset an expected $21 million education budget deficit.

Walking distances are: up to one-half mile for students in kindergarten through Grade 2; up to 1 mile for third- through fifth-graders; up to 1.5 miles for sixth- through eighth-graders; and up to 2 miles for high school students. All the distances follow state maximums, but the limit for kindergartners through second-graders is half the state's 1-mile limit.

School officials estimate that making more students walk to school will save more than $4 million this year. Last year, the school provided transportation to more students to accommodate the Open Choice program, which allowed some of the city's 23,000 students to enroll in schools outside their neighborhoods.

"That's $4 million that was able to be preserved for instruction and staff," Superintendent Steven Adamowski said Monday.

But Adamowski said he understood and expected some anxiety from parents.

"We should be able to have a city where it's safe for kids to walk to school," said Adamowski, who said the schools had a "very good" opening day on Monday.

David Medina, a spokesman for the school system, said some bus seats are expected to open up at the end of September as the system gets a fix on ridership and as free city bus passes become available for high school students.

Some parents don't see the bus pass as solving all transportation problems. In the case of Angel Medina, a student at Bulkeley High School, a city bus pass would require him to switch buses downtown to get to school. That's something his mother, Seana Cleary, is not sure she wants. But she'll take it over the 40-minute walk he made on Monday to get to school.

"I don't want him to get picked on," Cleary said, adding that she waited, worrying, until Angel, 17, called her when he arrived at school.

Rivera has continuing concerns about Aniela. Rivera's changing work schedule might make it difficult for her to accompany her daughter every morning, and the ride she has arranged for Aniela in the afternoon is probably temporary.

Aniela, who stood at a stop sign on Fairfield Avenue waiting as several cars stopped and made right turns without giving her a wave to cross ahead of them, has already decided what she's going to do this winter when the sidewalks and crosswalks are packed with snow and ice.

"I'm not going," she said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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