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SANDAG Offers School Carpool Matching Service For Busy Parents

Audio

Aired 8/31/10

School's back and so is the daily duty of ferrying the kids to class every morning. With traffic only getting more frustrating around San Diego County, we've got an alternative to driving your children to class.

ALISON ST JOHN (Host): And you’re back on These Days with me, Alison St John, filling in for Maureen Cavanaugh. So what is a parent to do? So many schools have cancelled bus services for students, and the roads are getting more and more crowded. It's a major time commitment to get the kids to class in the morning and pick them up again in the afternoon. So School Pool, a program initiated by SANDAG, the San Diego Association of Governments, is here to help out. And here to tell us about it is Colleen Windsor of SANDAG. Thanks for coming in.

COLLEEN WINDSOR (Communications Director, SANDAG): Good morning. Thank you for having me.

ST JOHN: Good morning. So, Colleen, why don’t you start – Oh, and I should also mention if you have any questions at all about this program, we would love to hear from you. You may have some concerns or some interest in the details. 1-888-895-5727 is the number to reach us. So, Colleen, School Pool, tell us about this.

WINDSOR: This is an online tool for parents to log on and get dynamically matched with other parents who have children who attend the same school so that you can share in the transportation needs of your children, so getting the kids to school or getting them – picking them up. You know, it’s entirely up to the parents how often they want to use it. If they want to do it just one day a week or five days a week but it’s a safe and a secure system. If parents want to get involved, all they have to do is contact their school to see if they’re a participating school. They will be given a password at that point.

ST JOHN: Hmm.

WINDSOR: And, in fact, I should say before they get that password, the school will check to make sure that that parent has a child at that particular school because kids are matched only within the school that they attend. The parent can then to online and put their information in and then soon they’ll be given some potential matches. That parent can then contact that other parent or parents, however many they wanted to match with, via e-mail and then they have a conversation as to whether or not they want to carpool together and get their kids to school safely and save themselves some time, save themselves some money. There’s a lot of demands on parents these days, so I know that I could use a little help and I’m sure other parents feel the same need.

ST JOHN: Across the board, yes, for sure. We actually have on line Cindy Wallace, who is the school transportation coordinator at High Tech Middle School North County in San Marcos. And she’s coordinating the School Pool efforts up there. So, Cindy, thanks for joining us.

CINDY WALLACE (School Transportation Coordinator, High Tech Middle School North County): Oh, you’re very welcome.

Thanks for having me.

ST JOHN: So, Cindy, you’re doing all this with parents, you’re sort of coordinating interested parents – is it all done on the phone?

WALLACE: Well, what – My job is actually kind of site manager for the school, trying to meet all parent and teacher and student needs, and one of them is good transportation. In our case, we’re a charter school so we have students coming from all over the North County area, even as far as Riverside County. So carpools often, I think, in the past were set up because you knew your neighbors. Our neighbors often are people who’ve never met each other and they need a tool like School Pool to make those connections. Last year was the first year that we partnered as intensively with School Pool and we had about 50 families enter the program and get linked. We had a lot of support from the staff and SANDAG to help educate our families as to how to use this tool. And they, in fact, took a lot of comments from our teachers and our parents to try to tweak the program to make it work even more efficiently. And we just had our first day of school yesterday.

ST JOHN: Umm-hmm.

WALLACE: I’m already having lots of carpool questions, and I have a feeling we’ll have a lot more School Pool participants this year.

ST JOHN: So, speaking of questions, if you have any, 888-895-5727. So I guess one of the thoughts in my mind – You’re so right, Cindy, about how, you know, neighborhoods are not what they used to be. But how much do parents trust, you know, a phone contact with another parent to make a decision to jump into a carpool program?

WALLACE: Well, I think parents can make this program work in the way they’re most comfortable. Obviously, you’re first starting with almost an internet dating service. You’ve found someone who is coming from your area, goes to the same school, has a time schedule that’s in line with yours, and then you take the next step and you make contact. You might, in fact, try to meet them face to face at the school. It’s a location that’s a safe space for meeting and you may find out that the students actually know each other and it becomes more than just a carpool but friendships can build of it. So I think there’s a way to go beyond a phone call with someone you don’t know to actually get to know them before you make that commitment.

ST JOHN: Colleen, you’re nodding. Have you got any stories to tell us of success?

WINDSOR: Well, that’s what we encourage parents to do because no one wants to just, you know, put their child in the car of a stranger that they’ve never even met before. And I think that we have heard many stories of I didn’t know that, you know, this lady who I see every day dropping off their kids was interested in carpooling. And their kids already know each other, and the parents recognize each other from school events. So I think that’s a great suggestion, that parents meet beforehand, they probably already recognize each other, and get a comfort level.

ST JOHN: How many parents are actually doing this now?

WINDSOR: Well, currently we have about 25 schools who are participating. There are almost a thousand schools in the San Diego County region though.

ST JOHN: Right.

WINDSOR: So we have a lot of opportunities still to grow. Last year, we had about 500 parents who were participating. We are obviously hoping to grow that. We have a lot of need out there with, as you said earlier, you know, school buses being cancelled and parents just not being able to afford it anymore.

ST JOHN: So a parent’s first step would be to find out whether the school is part of the program, right?

WINDSOR: Exactly. They can either contact their school directly or they can go on our website, we have a list of participating schools, to find out if their school is – And if their school is not, then contact their school and invite them to contact us and we can get them easily signed up. It is definitely not too late.

ST JOHN: And what kind of a commitment would a parent typically make if they decide to do this? I mean, do they do it every other day? How do they work it out?

WINDSOR: Again, it is entirely up to the parents. It can be one day a week, five days a week, anywhere in between. Maybe it’s just picking up, maybe it’s just driving to. So it’s entirely what is convenient for the parent and what the parents’ needs are.

ST JOHN: So I was wondering, what are some of the barriers? It sounds like such a good idea that, you know, once it gets started you would think that people would just go with it. But, Cindy, what are some of the things that you’re finding you have to overcome to make this work?

WALLACE: Well, as much as I think our parents today are used to using their computer to shop, to gain information, registering for something, following the correct process sometimes it’s more complicated than they’re comfortable with and we’ve been really fortunate because we’ve invited School Pool staff to come when we’ve had Back to School Nights or Welcome events and said if you’re interested in carpooling, this person sitting at the computer right here in the school office can take you through the process, can help you register, can do the work right along with you so that it’s not going to be intimidating to you when you get home and you’re not quite sure how to follow the process. So that’s worked, making that a more accessible tool for them.

ST JOHN: 888-895-5727, if you’re someone who’s thinking, my goodness, it’s just so hard to get up in the morning and take the kids to school and then get off to work then make sure they’re picked up again. It’s really quite a challenge for many parents, isn’t it? This – Especially as we see fewer and fewer schools. I mean, one thing I was wondering was, is there ever any talk about SANDAG, which is responsible for keeping us from getting to gridlock here in San Diego.

WINDSOR: Right.

ST JOHN: Is there any motivation for SANDAG to be helping to fund school buses which, in some ways, would overcome that problem again.

WINDSOR: You know, that is an area that I have not heard any talk about at SANDAG.

ST JOHN: Nobody’s talked about that? Okay.

WINDSOR: But I can bring it back to our board of directors and see what they think about that idea.

ST JOHN: Because the school budgets are just so devastated recently that…

WINDSOR: Exactly.

ST JOHN: …a lot of them that really has been a peripheral part of their program but it really has a huge impact on parents.

WINDSOR: Definitely. Can I just…

ST JOHN: Yes.

WINDSOR: I would just like to add one thing on what Cindy’s talked about. I think one of the other barriers that for parents is, is it secure? You know, do I really want to put my personal information on this website? And I can reassure parents that it is definitely secure. The information that they put on that website about their address, about their kids, about their school, is not shared with anyone. We don’t send it to the school, we don’t send it to other parents. It is kept confidential. All you get is another parent’s e-mail address and that’s how you make the initial contact. And at the end of the year, all of that information is completely purged and we start fresh with a new school year because, as you know, kids change schools, they graduate, they move on, so we want to make sure that every child that attends that school is getting matched up with kids in the same school, that there’s not other, you know, sharing of information. So I just want to reassure parents that this is definitely a tool that can be – they can count on that’s going to be confidential.

ST JOHN: So if you’re a parent and you call your school and you discover it’s not part of the program, how easy or difficult is it for the school to get involved?

WINDSOR: Very simple. All the school has to do is call 5-1-1 and say I Commute and they will be linked up with someone who can help them quickly get signed up and they’re on the road to carpooling.

ST JOHN: Hmm, 5-1-1, I Commute. Now is that for commuting, carpooling, other than just school carpooling?

WINDSOR: It – Actually, 5-1-1, as you know, is a transportation…

ST JOHN: Yeah.

WINDSOR: …service for many different things. But we use it for I Commute as well.

ST JOHN: So what was SANDAG’s motivation to get this program going and how important is it to SANDAG that it grows?

WINDSOR: Well, it’s vitally important. As you know, our main mission of SANDAG is to reduce congestion around the San Diego region, and that’s not just on highways, and it’s also on our local roads and also helping with transit. So we’re kind of across the board looking at how we can more efficiently and effectively move people. And making the areas around the schools safe is vitally important to SANDAG as well, and if more people are carpooling that’s fewer cars on the road. It’s a safer environment around schools themselves. And, of course, then we get to the greenhouse gas emissions. We’re going to have less of that and that’s another role of SANDAG, is to make sure that we’re reducing our greenhouse gas emissions.

ST JOHN: So, Cindy, how much work has it been for you? If there’s a school thinking about this or a parent thinking, boy, I wish my school was part of this, how much extra time has it taken out of your day to make this program work?

WALLACE: Not – not a bit. It’s very simple because the work is done at School Pool by the I Commute staff. My job is really just to answer questions and help parents make that connection, make that link. So for me it hasn’t added any work to our job and I think, just as you stated, it helps present a green message. And I think that schools in general love to have students get used to using public transportation, get used to carpooling, start to make that part of their life at an early age and realize that that’s the most efficient and the greener way to get to work or get to school every day.

ST JOHN: Right, well, as someone who lives close to a school and I see the lines of traffic that build up around a school every morning and then again in the afternoon, this is obviously something that might be a significant part of SANDAG’s efforts to – your goal is to cut down on greenhouse gases at the same time that the region is growing by, what, a million people in the next 20 years or something.

WINDSOR: 20 years, right.

ST JOHN: 20 years. So every little bit helps, right?

WINDSOR: Definitely.

ST JOHN: And I – I’m sure this is not a major part of your program but it’s part of a shift in consciousness really that we in San Diego are probably going to be faced with, right?

WINDSOR: Well, we have some state mandates coming our way.

ST JOHN: Umm-hmm.

WINDSOR: With the SB-375, we have some levels that we need to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and this is definitely one of the tools that is going to contribute to that. So the more dynamic it is, the more parents that get involved, obviously there’s more matches out there or potential matches and so it can just grow into a great tool.

ST JOHN: What other things are you doing to promote this program?

WINDSOR: We have been going out to, as Cindy said, going out to the schools. If a school is interested in having us come out and participate in a Back to School Night or a PTA meeting, we’re more than happy to go out and talk to them. We’re dealing with several different PTAs so we’re trying to get to parents from different angles, you know, putting out newspaper ads in local community newspapers to let them know that this is available. Those are very popular these days, everyone wants to know what’s going around in their area. So talking to people like you and trying to get people to hear and – I think that the – our biggest obstacle is that people just don’t know it exists and so we’re just trying to get the message out.

ST JOHN: There may be – I mean, always with these things you’re trying to look for, well, what’s stopping it from growing because it does make so much sense. I mean, I suppose people may have some concerns about liability. Everybody is so concerned about the safety of their children.

WINDSOR: Right.

ST JOHN: What can you say about that?

WINDSOR: Well, I think that it’s – it definitely has to take a comfort level. I think that if you are meeting people who live near you and you take the time to establish a relationship with them, meet them beforehand. You know, maybe you have – if you have younger kids, maybe it’s a playdate, maybe you’re meeting for coffee, and maybe you have to get a comfort level before you even decide, you know, yes, I will trust you with my child because that’s a big commitment. I have two very small children. I’m not in the realm of putting them on – in a bus or putting them in someone else’s car to bring them to school but I can understand that hesitance and I think that establishing those relationships – and the thing is that I think that knowing that the schools are backing this system as well should give them some comfort level.

ST JOHN: Umm-hmm. Yeah, it is all about relationships, isn’t it? I mean, it’s not just something that you do on the computer.

WINDSOR: No.

ST JOHN: And for a busy parent, you know, it may take a little bit of a time investment up front to find out if this works for them.

WINDSOR: Exactly.

ST JOHN: Uh-huh, but what would you say to a parent who, you know, is maybe out there listening and would like to get involved but feels like, geez, I just don’t – I don’t know where to start. I don’t have the time to follow this up.

WINDSOR: It’s – All you have to do is take about five minutes on your computer, whether you have a lunch break or when you get home, after the kids go to bed. Go to the website, it’s Icommutesd.com and click on School Pool and it – there is a step by step process of exactly what you do. And maybe you’re not so sure that you want to do it but why don’t you go ahead and get signed up…

ST JOHN: Umm-hmm.

WINDSOR: …and see what kind of matches come your way.

ST JOHN: Yeah.

WINDSOR: And if you just take it step by step and not look at the big picture and get overwhelmed, I think it’s a lot easier. You know, people are so busy. And looking at the end result, you know, you’re going to save some time, you’re not going to be stressed out every morning. So it’s just a good tool to take step by step.

ST JOHN: Good advice for life in general. Thank you so much, Colleen Windsor, communications director of SANDAG. And Cindy Wallace, we’d also like to thank you for being on the phone from San Marcos. So stay with us. Coming up in the next hour of These Days, a fascinating account of the history of the pill in America looking at how the politics have affected its development and how it has affected men and women.

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