Miller-Driscoll Principal: We’re Working on the Traffic Issues

The chatter is getting louder amongst the Miller-Driscoll parents–on Facebook, in the supermarket line, and on soccer sidelines. It seems talk at the start of the school year centers on a much more congested pickup process than ever before at Wilton’s K-2 and pre-K elementary school.

Cheryl Jensen-Gerner, the school’s principal, is as concerned about it as the parents are, and she’s trying to figure out how to help alleviate the problem. Some of the factors perhaps adding to this year’s increase in traffic snafus include buses arriving later to start loading students; more students at dismissal with the start of five-day full-day kindergarten for all; and newer parents not yet accustomed to the rules and how-to’s of traffic patterns in the roadway areas of the campus.

“I do think there are more people picking up. I do think the buses are later—I’ve noticed that. [In past years] we used to finish loading up the buses and the last bus would leave closer to ten-minutes-to-four [o’clock] and now it’s closer to 4 o’clock. I was watching to see if the pickup line was prohibiting the buses from getting on the campus, and I don’t see that that’s really the case, maybe they’re delayed a couple seconds or so. There’s usually maybe four buses that are early, and then there’s a little lag and then all the buses seem to come at the same time toward the end.”

Jensen-Gerner said that typically the start of a school year is when kinks do have to get worked out, but that once everyone gets more used to regular schedules and routines–for both the school (e.g. bus drivers learning new routes) and the families (e.g. longer days, new activities, and parking lot procedure etc.)–she hopes the situation will improve.

“It always takes a little bit for people to figure out which way goes one-way, or two-ways perhaps, or which is the best way to go in. For instance, if you’re going to the south end, it’s better to enter on Belden because if you come off Wolfpit, it doesn’t make sense to come all the way through the facility and out the driveway and join the end of the line,” she explained.

Pick-up procedures: there is a method to the madness.

For the north side pickup circle, just off Wolfpit Rd., cars start lining up at the circle and snake back through the north parking lot, southward along the frontage fire lane, and back into the south teacher’s parking lot, forming a sort of “U”  around the lawn in front of the school.

For the south side pickup area, cars are supposed to enter the campus from Belden Rd. and enter at the rear gate at the south field, at the furthest point from the school, following the paved drive around the field and line up along the curb of the blacktop between the two playgrounds on the south end.

One trouble area comes when cars enter from opposite directions, sometimes trying to cut in line in front of other cars that have been on line, or when cars try to navigate the narrow fire lane in two different directions with potentially four cars deep–parked cars, cars waiting on line for pickup, and two lanes of traffic, including buses.

Unfortunately, says Jensen-Gerner, everyone has to figure out how to cope with the way the roadways are engineered; there’s no changing that. It helps when people know the traffic patterns and follow the procedures.

“On occasion, the buses have gotten trapped on that frontage road, but that’s usually at the beginning of the year until people kind of sort that out. There’s nothing that makes people madder, they’ve been sitting in that line and somebody comes off Wolfpit and tries to cut into the line. That will block the buses from coming in, that will block things on Wolfpit. I have gone out there to try and help facilitate that a bit. Once they figure that out, that usually gets better.”

Hopefully, Jensen-Gerner said, she’ll have a flyer finished by the end of the week to send home to parents. The handout will explain the procedures and suggested ways to go through the roadways.

Some of the other things Jensen-Gerner wanted to remind parents of:

1. Stay in your car if you’re in the pickup line. “Parents are still getting out of the car, buckling in their kids. We do ask them that if they do need to do that, we suggest they pull up and over [after the child gets in the car]—it helps us move the line faster. The more efficiently we move, the less long the line is.

2. Pickup tends to finish by 3:40 p.m. If you don’t need to be there so early, wait a bit to arrive toward the end. “I would suggest people stagger a little bit. They know the line is that long, they know they’re going to be in a line, they don’t have to be here right at 3:20 p.m. because otherwise they’re going to sit for a bit. if you know you’re going to be in the line at the end, if it’s possible not to get there quite as early. If you come at 3:35 p.m., you know you’re still going to get there at the same time.”

3. Pull up as close to the car in front as possible. “Some people leave a huge gap in front. [Head custodian] Willie [de Hostos] tried to go out and get the cars to move closer. If you can get a few more cars in that helps.”

Jensen-Gerner said the teachers and administrators are trying to focus on efficiency at the actual pickup circles, and she felt the lines do move very efficiently once they start. “Our bell rings at 3:20 p.m. for pickup, and at 3:20 p.m. we’re very ready to walk that kindergarten out. Right after that, the second graders are ready on one side, and then the first graders are ready. So they get out there pretty quickly. One thing we did was open the south gate sooner. The cars are ready. Some people get here very early. Yesterday I came back from a meeting at 2:38 p.m., I looked at my watch.  We already had two cars parked at the gate, waiting to get in. We don’t even dismiss until 3:20 p.m.”

One additional thing she wants to try is to have name signs in each of the pick-up cars.

“Years ago we did this on the Miller side. I was going to give a sheet of colored paper to each of the grades, put your last name on the front and if you’re a pickup put it on the dashboard. If we could see the kids’ names sooner, it would help us identify the car and make the match to the child that much quicker.”

She can’t, however, station any school personnel in the parking lots or roadways to direct traffic, as some parents have suggested.

“I’m not even supposed to be out there directing traffic—that’s something the police tell us we should not be doing. As it is, Willie, Juan and I are out there, trying to facilitate all of that . But I can’t station people out there to do that because I can’t put them in harm’s way. I can’t assign people to be in the middle of roads and driveways.

More kids, more activities, earlier starts

Part of Jensen-Gerner’s job now requires her to be aware of what the K-2 students are doing after school as well as at her school during the day.

“More and more activities are logically not able to be held at the time. For instance, a 4 o’clock activity somewhere in this town is very hard to get out of school at 3:30 p.m. and expect you’re going to get to an activity at 4 o’clock. It’s just hard. So I know why parents pick up for that purpose. It’s just that it seems like there are a lot of activities and they’re early. There’s soccer, there’s CCD, there are private lessons, there’s cheerleading, I’ve heard of some of the activities.”

Most pressing this week was the start of CCD, mainly at Our Lady of Fatima Church. “CCD just started this week, and we’re just going through our first week of it. We’re looking to see which days are the heavier days based on whatever that particular grade is doing. We keep a spreadsheet of how many children are picked up. We’ve gone through that by grade. One thing we try to decide if we are top-heavy on the south side or on the north side, and would it be helpful to move students,” Jensen-Gerner said, adding that despite the growth in numbers of pickups, few parents share the load with each other:

“There are not a lot of people who carpool, just a few.”

One of the things administrators always do each year is encourage parents to have their children ride the bus as much as they can. Jensen-Gerner, however, is seeing the trend go the other way, and it has an impact as well.

“We have a large number of children, particularly second graders, that are picked up every single day. You add that to the mix, there are not many schools that could accommodate 50 kids getting picked up every single day. We do understand that people have certain things, and there might be family things, but those are big numbers.” She said the numbers of students with daily pickups aren’t as large in the ranks of first graders or kindergarteners.

Opening the dialogue with parents–Jensen-Gerner very open to that

As for the suggestion that teachers help direct traffic, as she explained earlier Jensen-Gerner can’t make that happen, especially as the Wilton Police have suggested they avoid doing so. The school resource officer, Ofc. Richard Ross has been in touch with the Board of Education interim human resources director Michael Cicchetti to discuss “several problem areas related to school traffic congestion, to include Miller Driscoll.  Officer Ross will be monitoring traffic conditions at Miller Driscoll and elsewhere while working further with the schools to help determine how improvements can be made,” according to Lt. Donald Wakeman of the WPD.

Unfortunately, Wakeman said the police department could not regularly schedule an officer to direct traffic there. “It would be hard to have an officer at whatever school every day at the same time because normally they’re on patrol or off fielding other calls. To have someone day in day out would be a real challenge. But the school resource officer will observe traffic activity and give an opinion on how to help alleviate some of it.”

One parent, Mara Lamanna, suggested a possible solution on known days when larger groups of children will be dismissed simultaneously, for instance, for CCD. “…the kids could go to a ‘CCD Bus room’ and wait until 3:40 p.m. for pick up…or even 3:45. That way the first round clears before second round [parents] come to school. I personally like that because the children are all together in a room waiting and we as the parents, don’t have to get to the school so early, especially when bringing our Cider Mill Students. So the CM students have a longer time at home to do homework. CCD doesn’t start until 4:00 p.m. so the kids would still be on time.” 

Jensen-Gerner is very open to hearing suggestions or ideas parents have to help improve the situation. “I appreciate hearing what people think because it helps gear my thinking to what they’re thinking,” she said. “If there are specific suggestions, I’d be happy to hear them. If you have things you hear, or that you know about, people can give me the suggestions. I hear, ‘What are you doing about it?’ I’m doing what I can do, but if there are better suggestions, I’d be happy to hear them.”