Bancroft Elementary in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood of Northwest D.C. is carving a new path to make the street in front of the school safe for students and closed to traffic during arrival and departure times. Here’s how we made this happen and what we learned. Every neighborhood school with dangerous streets out front should consider it.
A popular school both in the neighborhood and among Spanish language-dominant students from outside the neighborhood, enrollment has risen now to 772 from just 473 a decade ago. There’s something about the socioeconomic mix of the dual language school that parents and students love. They want to keep it as it has been – a gem. So when our call to action went out, both young parents and older community residents responded, donating hours of volunteer time to “man the barricades” and make the street safe.
A car-induced safety crisis outside the school
School had opened for the 2022 school year and Principal Jessica Morales shared that she was despondent. Car chaos on the street led to many near misses.
Drivers came off Piney Branch Parkway and parents looked for spots to drop off or pick up students in front of the school, squeezing student and parent pedestrians to the edges of the narrow sidewalk as they lined up each day outside our overcrowded school. Drivers honked, angry. Multiple times, cars and trucks came to a standstill facing each other, unable to move, while elementary students darted across the street. In a conversation, Principal Morales called it “an accident waiting to happen.”
A few parents and community member activists in the Mt. Pleasant Village, a neighborhood nonprofit founded by senior residents for social connectivity and to encourage aging in place, went into action.
Neighbors take action
Our goal: to get the street in front of the school closed off to all traffic for the 8:00 am hour of arrival and 3:00 pm hour of dismissal during the 2022-23 school year. We just wanted the District Department of Transportation (DDOT) to try it out. Although temporary and permanent street closure in front of schools has become commonplace in Europe, particularly in Paris, London, and cities in Italy and Scotland, and on this side of the Atlantic in Toronto and New York City, it had never been done in D.C.
When we requested help from DDOT and from D.C Public Schools (DCPS), the response was a lack of a sense of urgency. They hadn’t budgeted for it, weren’t staffed to do it, and were concerned it might not work. But a one-day DDOT pilot in October 2022 at eight schools, one in each of the eight wards, went smoothly.
We met with our Ward 1 D.C. Councilmember Brianne Nadeau. She was supportive and encouraged us to just do it. She contacted the then-DDOT Director, Everett Lott. But she warned us that the bureaucracies move slowly. Both she and Ward 4 Councilmember Janeese Lewis George had sponsored “safe routes to school” acts on the D.C. Council, and so were supportive of our energy.
The president of the Mt. Pleasant Village, Bill Emmet, wrote a strong letter to Lott. We began a drumbeat about the crisis of lack of safety on Newton Street NW in front of Bancroft. DDOT assigned a staff member, Regina Arlotto, to work with us.
We set a revised goal: To be ready to begin right after spring break in April. We decided not to wait for permission to begin recruiting volunteers to staff the barriers that DDOT said it could provide on either end of the 1700 block of Newton Street.
Then the lawyers at DDOT and DCPS got involved. They insisted that a legal Memorandum of Agreement was needed to guarantee volunteers would be provided and other commitments by DCPS and DDOT. It soon became clear that the earliest we could hope to begin was September 2023. So we and the Bancroft administration started preparing parents and residents, presenting at PTO, community, and tenant association meetings, while DDOT distributed flyers to neighboring homes.
The Chancellor didn’t sign the boilerplate Memorandum of Agreement until the week before school opened. It required that we provide at least four volunteers to move barriers to close the street, two at each end. Fortunately, we parents and neighbors hadn’t waited for permission to organize our barricade teams. The Bancroft PTO and the Mt. Pleasant Village each recruited about half of the 35 volunteers who committed to staff the barricade one morning or afternoon per week for the entire year, and on day one of the 2023 school year we were ready to go.
What unfolded exceeded all our expectations.
Street closures begin
Since September, at around 8:30 to 8:45 each morning, it’s been like a reunion party. Parents and students approach the school, many arriving in small groups on foot. The street in front of the school becomes a safe socializing spot. The boy who just learned to ride a bike shows off. Halloween becomes a costume show-off moment. And each day brings a new level of recognition of the socioeconomic and cultural diversity and friendliness of our school.
We had all anticipated pushback from those parents and neighbors who drive. However, what we thought would be an inconvenience to drivers became the opposite. What had previously been a scramble each day for parent parking spots in front of the school became a process of everyone turning left at the block and those needing to drop off going around to the other side – a shift planned with Regina Arlotto, our contact at DDOT, and Latricia Morgan, our DDOT safety tech. Fewer options meant a more orderly process.
In the first week of closure, a couple of neighbors wanted the barricades moved to get their cars out, and a couple of parents sought special permission to have the barricades moved. But quickly every driver got the message that this permanent hour of closure was working. The exceptions and complaints disappeared.
From traffic chaos to a stronger community
In the end, DDOT stepped up and became – and continues to be – a great partner for our Safe Street experiment. They made improvements to the street signage, the curbs, the traffic assisting barricades. They provided four large but light barricades and fluorescent vests for our volunteers. They trained the volunteers before the first day of school in September and checked in on how it’s going several times during the fall. Latricia Morgan, the regular DDOT safety tech who directs traffic at Mt. Pleasant Street and Newton Street, is the biggest fan of the initiative and her enthusiasm is infectious.
But perhaps the best outcome of all was the sense of community this Safe Street initiative has achieved in our little neighborhood. The Mt. Pleasant Village recruited volunteers. Young parents who moved recently into the neighborhood for its excellent dual language school also recruited volunteers. Together we volunteer and learn from each other.
The potential conflict that we anticipated between parents who drive from other parts of the city and those able to walk never occurred. Instead, the alienating traffic chaos has been replaced with a visible, engaging, powerful sense of community.
It is a continuing effort to maintain the level of volunteers needed. The chart of regulars also lists alternate volunteers, ready in case a regular has a conflict. We communicate on WhatsApp groups (a side benefit is older residents learning to use WhatsApp!).
The success of the Bancroft Safe Street Initiative is so appreciated that everyone wants to step up and help. Just the sight of our volunteers brings “thanks” and big smiles from parents each morning and afternoon. We’re happy to share how to do it.
This op-ed was originally published by Greater Greater Washington.
Mark Simon has been a resident of DC’s Mount Pleasant neighborhood for 50 years, is a former high school teacher and teacher union president in Montgomery County, and is a former DCPS parent. Mark serves as the Community Representative on Bancroft Elementary School’s Local School Advisory Team (LSAT).