Kindergarten prep offered at Safety Town

Ask any parent — it’s not the numbers and letters they’re afraid their youngsters can’t handle in kindergarten.

It’s the walk to school or getting off the bus. The fear they’ll talk to the wrong stranger. Wondering if they’ll be able to handle challenges that may face them outside the classroom.

That’s why “Safety Town,” in its third year at the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School District, was formed.

The safety workshops, scheduled in short two-hour blocks during five mornings in August, are designed to get kindergartners acquainted with various safety procedures before they set out for school.

Covered in the sessions are:

• bus safety in approaching, boarding, riding, disembarking and leaving the area of a parked bus

• walking safety, such as rules for crossing streets and recognizing “walk/don’t walk” signals

• what to do when approached by a stranger

• fire safety

• safety when riding in passenger vehicles

• how to dial 911 and speak to the operator

• bicycle safety

• safety around iced lakes and open water

“It’s basically trying to cover anything that’s germane to a kid out by himself for the first time,” says organizer Doug Ronsberg of Oakdale.

Ronsberg and Jennifer Clark, another parent from North St. Paul, organized Safety Town after meeting at an Early Childhood/Family Education class.

“Jen had grown up in Kettering, Ohio, where she’d gone through Safety Town as a child, and as we were leaving one of the ECFE classes, she just turned to the rest of us and asked ‘So when is Safety Town?’” Ronsberg recalled. “We all just looked at her, because we’d never heard of it. So later, as she was describing it to me, it just sounded like such a great idea, I volunteered to help her put one together up here.”

Though the lessons taught at Safety Town are designed to be age-appropriate, easy to remember and delivered in a positive and friendly way, any adult who’s seen news reports of youngsters’ deaths under bus wheels knows bus safety is an especially serious matter.

Ronsberg, a former bus driver, says he’s seen firsthand the confusion and potential tragedy that attends the introduction of a 40-pound kindergartner to a 30,000-pound school bus. “I drove school bus for two years for the district, and the first two weeks of school are just scary with the little ones,” he says. “It’s especially important they learn about bus safety in a district like this, with half-day kindergarten, because they get off the bus alone instead of with older children.”

At Safety Town, kids practice boarding and disembarking from a real bus, with red carpeting laid around it to help them understand how far away the “safe zone” is for approaching and leaving the vehicle.

“We use those red carpets to show them the danger zones because with little kids, you can tell ‘em ‘10 feet around the bus’ as long as you want but that’s just too abstract a concept for them,” Ronsberg says. The children also learn proper conduct on the bus so as not to distract the driver and the importance of making eye contact with the driver to make sure they’re seen before crossing in front of the bus.

Peg Lindlof of District 622 ECFE, which is sponsoring the program, agrees that bus safety is a primary concern. “I know some of the instructors and volunteers who have been involved have said one of the things that keeps them coming back is they’re sure that if those children (killed in pedestrian-bus crashes) had been through Safety Town they’d be alive now.”

“Walkers” are also a concern, and the Ramsey County Sheriff’s Department will be providing speakers and crossing guards to discuss walking safety. As part of that unit, children will observe an adult or teenage volunteer crossing at the intersection of White Bear and Frost avenues from the safety of the sidewalk.

“The reality is they don’t cross at an intersection that busy,” Ronsberg says. “But we want them to see how fast those trucks and vehicles go zooming by there. Having a healthy respect for the traffic on those busy roads is very important.”

Safety Town students also get to meet a real police officer from the Maplewood department who will advise them on “stranger danger” and lead an age-appropriate discussion of unwanted touch. “The officer sits down and visits with the kids,” Ronsberg says, explaining that this session is very non-threatening. “He does just a great job.”

The children will meet other safety professionals such as a fully-suited firefighter, to get them acquainted with the protective gear firefighters must wear.

“Most kids will see this ‘monster’ when they’re already in a scary situation and run from them instead of running to them,” Ronsberg explains. “This way, they can see what the firefighter looks like and hear what he sounds like when he’s wearing all this equipment.” The fire department will also provide its mobile “Smoke House” to demonstrate how important it is to stay low and know escape routes from a smoky interior.

Also on hand will be Maplewood 911 operators and volunteers to demonstrate how to call 911 and give operators the information they need. “We set it up with an imaginary, less-threatening situation in which a child ‘sees’ a neighbor’s garage on fire,” Ronsberg explains. “We actually have telephone line simulators so kids can make the call and talk to the operator.”

Safety Town is offered at a cost of $20 per child; other costs are supported by various groups, from the agencies who provide speakers to the school district, Maplewood and Maplewood-Oakdale Lions, North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale Rotary and Kinko’s.

Adult and teen volunteers are also necessary to make the event a success. “We’re looking for parents, grandparents, retired teachers — we’re even getting help this year from the National Honor Society students,” Ronsberg says. “There’s a wide variety of things you can do to help — it’s not all teaching in a classroom.” To volunteer, call him at 779-8186.

With that community support, Safety Town “is absolutely one of the best values around,” Lindlof of District 622 says. “I can’t say enough about it. What the families and children get is phenomenal.”

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