On a brisk, sunny day with small rain puddles underfoot from the early-morning drizzle, Marshall Elementary School students gathered at Kidpower Park on Capp Street to make the three-block journey to school.
“¡Buenos días!” shouted a representative from San Francisco’s Recreation and Park Department, who gathered the kids together for a warm-up exercise.
“¡¿Vamos a caminar a la escuela?!”
“Are we going to walk to school today?”
Marshall’s three dozen or so students were among the thousands across the city who participated in Walk to School Day, an international event that drew 44 San Francisco schools to participate. Organized by Walk SF in conjunction with the Safe Routes to School program of the city’s Department of Public Health, an estimated 7,000 kids made the trek to school.
“Our city is very walkable,” said Elizabeth Stampe, executive director of Walk SF. “The more kids can create good habits to start with, the more they’ll have healthy habits their whole lives.”
Marshall Elementary is a “stellar school,” said Mayor Ed Lee, referring to the 133 students — over half of Marshall’s student body — who walk to school every day. It has one of the highest rates in the city.
For Lee, who walked to school with Marshall’s students, it wasn’t just about healthy habits; it was also about raising awareness of kids on the streets.
“The Mission is a complicated area — lots of traffic,” Lee told Mission Loc@l. “We want people, when they see kids, to slow down.”
To help make that happen, Marshall has a new 15 mph sign designating it a slow zone when school’s in session. Marshall is the fifteenth school to receive the designation as part of a larger plan to install 213 signs at public and private schools across the city by December 2013.
Across the Mission, other schools have high healthy commute rates, as well. More than 60 percent of Buena Vista Horace Mann students are within a mile from school, and many of them bike to school. Similarly, 160 kids at Bryant Elementary — more than 65 percent — commute by walking every day.
Back at the lively Kidpower Park, dozens of Marshall students collected purple bracelets, hand-colored walking signs and bright yellow reflectors for their backpacks and shoes. Parents held laminated signs that read “Nos encanta caminar a la escuela!” and “Be cool, walk to school!”
“It’s nice to see kids and family get together,” said Willie Beranga, father of a Marshall student. “When you see kids walking together like this, they stand out.”
Mayor Lee’s entrance to the park caused a mini-frenzy as the eager kids rallied to shake his hand.
“I want to see the special man,” said Nick, 7, who was so excited he kept breaking into song — Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance.”
When he got his chance to shake the mayor’s hand, Nick said, “It was cool.” With a hint of disappointment, he added, “It was only for, like, five seconds.”
The walk itself was a short one, just a couple of blocks around the corner to the school on Capp Street. The kids waved hello to everyone, including the not-as-perky group of people waiting for the bus alongside the Burger King at 16th and Mission.
At the school’s playground, Michael Jackson songs blared, kids got in line for bananas and pencils, and parents chatted with Principal Peter Ávila and the mayor about safety.
“Crossing the streets can be brutal,” said Jon Stevens, who lives nearby and usually bikes to school with his daughter. The intersection of 16th and Capp, he said, is particularly hectic.
“We don’t cross there,” Stevens said.
Stevens said Mission streets should “incorporate a little more kid consciousness.” This would involve, he said, cleaning up the area around the gritty 16th BART station.
“Kids see on a day-to-day basis disturbing things,” Ávila said, referring to the BART station and the nearby Walden House, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center. This event, he said, added the presence of children to the neighborhood.
“More kids on the street means a community feel,” he said.
Both Lee and District 6 Supervisor Jane Kim spoke to the crowd of parents and kids. Kim announced that the night before, the school board had voted unanimously to officially designate Wednesday as Walk to School day in San Francisco. The crowd cheered.
And did the youngsters enjoy the day? Overwhelmingly, yes.
“I like the fresh air,” said Carmela, 5.
“It’s good for your health,” said Alejandra, 6.
Briana, 10, pumped her first in the air like a superhero. “Exercise!”