Due to overcrowding at the main Chapman Elementary School building on Northwest 26th Avenue, kindergarten students were moved off-site to the Ramona Building on Northwest 14th Avenue a year ago.
But the pedestrian protections associated with school zones—crosswalk markings, signs and reduced speed limits—didn’t come along. Some parents and school officials are puzzled that no special safety measures protect their 5-year-old charges.
“The Ramona is a school,” said Scott Kocher, whose child attended the kindergarten last year. “It needs a school zone.”
Nicole Mather, who has two children in the kindergarten this year, agrees.
“It just doesn’t make sense to me,” Mather said. “I just assumed, if a school opens, it’s an automatic next step to make it safe with school zone signs and painted crosswalks to make sure parents like me have a safe walking route to school. It’s just odd to me that there’s nothing for a school in such an urban setting.”
Despite common assumptions, schools do not automatically qualify for school zone safety measures, and whether a school is public or private makes no difference to the Portland Bureau of Transportation.
The advocacy of Portland Public Schools and Chapman parents has not moved PBOT.
It considers the off-site kindergarten a temporary situation that even now raises no special safety concerns.
“Northwest 14th is a one-lane, one-way street, so it has pretty low traffic volumes,” wrote Dylan Rivera, a PBOT spokesperson.
The bureau conducted a traffic study last December and found that 75 percent of motorists obeyed the speed limit, while fewer than 1 percent exceeded the limit by 10 or more miles per hour. Carlos Hernandez, the PBOT traffic engineer assigned to the case, saw no need for corrective action.
“During my 20-minute visit,” Hernandez wrote, “no pedestrians were observed crossing any legs of that intersection. The NCHRP (National Cooperative Highway Research Program) methodology recommends considering marked crosswalks when the peak-hour pedestrian rate is higher than 20.”
PBOT had other reasons for saying no.
“The overwhelming majority of students there arrive at the front door on Northwest 13th Avenue by bus or car, so we would likely consider 13th Avenue for a school zone, rather than 14th Avenue,” wrote Rivera.
“School zone signing is intended for use at all primary and secondary schools, whether they are private schools or public schools. They are not used at pre-kindergarten or daycare centers because children that young should be accompanied by an adult. In this case, with one grade level and a total of 83 students, the student population at this campus is quite small.
“The larger issue is that this is a temporary location for the school, so it would be inappropriate to install permanent signage and markings,” Rivera concluded.
None of the explanations gained much traction with parents.
For one, Kocher said treating the school as temporary makes little sense.
“The Ramona was built in 2011 as a school,” he said. “Even if the kindergarten moves, the first floor will always be a school, and, with 138 units of affordable housing for families with children on the five upper floors, large numbers of kids will continue to live there.”
In addition to the Chapman kindergarten, Scuola Italiana di Portland, or the Italian School of Portland, serving about 25 students up to age 13, also leases space in the Ramona, and Friendly House has classes for all ages in the building.
Kristin, who had a child in kindergarten last year and has another one starting next year, said a safer crossing to the Ramona matters in several ways that the city should care about.
Kristin and her husband, who live at Northwest 20th and Pettygrove, walked or biked their daughter to kindergarten every day last year and now do the same as she attends the main Chapman building on 26th Avenue.
The walk to Chapman is safer and more appealing because many families and children walk, and it becomes obvious to all that they are approaching a school. She thinks more people would walk to the Ramona if it didn’t feel unsafe.
“Why not make these streets safe and walkable for all ages?” she asked, noting that the city prides itself on its walkability.
The city’s Safe Routes to School program, which claims to have increased walking and biking to school by 35 percent since 2016, reflects a broader Portland commitment she wishes was applied to the Chapman kindergarten.
During the school day, students walk several blocks en masse for recess to either The Fields Park or Pearl Court, depending on the weather. Staff members hold up traffic and usher the children across each street, a task complicated by a series of construction projects that block crosswalks.
Kocher asked the Pearl District Neighborhood Association to support efforts to recognize the area around the Ramona as a school zone.
“Seems like a no brainer,” responded Jerry Pike, a member of the PDNA Planning and Transportation Committee.
Former committee chair Patricia Gardner speculated that PBOT is waiting for a proximate future development it can saddle with the full cost of underwriting the infrastructure improvements entailed in a school zone.
Committee co-chair Reza Fahoodi told Kocher his timing was perfect because a grant intended for such projects is available now.
The committee unanimously approved a letter supporting school zone treatment at the Ramona.
Kocher is optimistic that a policy change can be achieved.
But even if all else fails, he has a simple alternative:
“ChildPeace School has a school zone sign on 14th just north of Raleigh, half a block north of the Ramona. If they just moved that sign two blocks south, it would work for both schools.”