Thursday, November 30, 2000

'Daily battle'


The rocky path to an education

map
        I arrived on time. This is one of my few good habits, and usually no one is there to appreciate it. But the front door opened right on the dot of 7:15 a.m., and Vanessa Sparks stepped outside, bathed in the light from inside her house.

        Her 8-year-old twins, Zack and Mariah, were dressed and waiting.

        It was still dark and felt darker than it really was. Empty eye sockets of windows in vacant buildings. Some overflowing trash cans. A yellow ice control barrel, signal of the cold to come. And of the ice that makes the steep hill in her Over-the-Rhine neighborhood even more treacherous.

Broken glass, trash
        Pretty soon, little heads came bobbing down the sidewalk. Knit watch caps pulled low. Puffy jackets. Book bags. Kids, the littlest one was 5, the oldest 11.

        We walked.

        Nine children on their way to school. Stepping around a fire hydrant, they entered the woods. No more sidewalk. This is the beginning of the shortcut. About a quarter-mile. Otherwise they would walk nearly four times farther. Just under one mile, in fact. Not far enough to qualify for bus service.

        They know the path. I'd have missed it, despite the dim glow from the nearby street lamp. Broken glass crunched under our feet. I stumbled over a curtain rod. Tires. Some paper cups. Potato chip bags.

        It could have been worse.

        Last month, volunteers cleaned up what they could. Still there are big chunks of concrete and the worn path is rocky and uneven. And creepy.

Shoestring, volunteers
        It's getting light by the time we emerge from the woods onto Clifton Avenue. Cars are moving fast, and there's no crosswalk. Then down an alley and over to Vine Street. Miss Buelah, the crossing guard, stops traffic and shepherds the children to the door of Vine Street Elementary School.

        This is a school where volunteers clean up litter. A school that was honored this year for its sixth-grade proficiency scores. A school with a relentless truancy policy. A school with a principal, Greg Hook, who has been around for a while. And is good at his job.

        As is Vanessa Sparks. “She's a good one,” Alexander McEntire says. He could use more “good ones.” Coordinator of a program called Safe Pathways, Alexander's assignment is simply to get kids to school safely.

        Sometimes it's speeders. Sometimes it's drug dealers. Sometimes it's big dogs. And sometimes it's a creepy woods.

        “A daily battle,” he says.

        This is one of those programs that runs on a shoestring and volunteers. Right now, children from eight elementary schools are covered. Escorts. Signs designating safe houses.

        As we retrace our steps, we pass some young boys. Vanessa doesn't let them off the hook. “Running a little late?” she says. “How 'bout I call you tomorrow?” She shakes her head. “They have challenges at home.”

        That's a nice way to put it. Officials in the truancy program sometimes hand out alarm clocks to parents with orders to use them.

        Or else.

        This neighborhood is poor. Nobody is going to fire up an SUV to haul the stragglers to school. There are more children than adults. Small children help smaller children get ready for school.

        “Vine Street Elementary is an excellent school,” Alexander says. “A great place for kids to get an education.”

        But they have to be there to appreciate it.

       E-mail Laura at lpulfer@enquirer.com or call 768-8393.

       



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