Language program brings traffic, headaches to area near Franklin Elementary

By Sue Vorenberg, Columbian features reporter

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Most of the time, the neighborhood around Franklin Elementary is quiet, punctuated only by the occasional barking dog or laughing children enjoying recess in the playground.

Twice a day, though, starting at around 8:20 a.m. and again at 2:45 p.m., that calm is broken by throngs of cars driving in from all over town.

The culprit? A popular Mandarin Chinese language immersion program that launched in the 2009-2010 school year.

The program draws students from far beyond the neighborhood, and it’s growing progressively larger as it expands by about 48 students each year. The brick school building has added portable classroom buildings to meet the growing program.

It’s a very different environment from when Gary Wiggins moved to the neighborhood with his wife and kids 30 years ago, he said.

“When my kids went to Franklin, there was no real traffic,” Wiggins said. “It was just neighborhood kids. About 90 percent of them walked to school.”

Wiggins, who lives on the back side of the school, 5206 Franklin St., said the punctuated traffic jams at drop-off and pickup times are sort of a hindrance — but at the same time since he’s retired, it’s not a major inconvenience to him.

“It’s pretty congested here with people dropping their kids off, but they’re all real polite about it,” Wiggins said. “One of the issues now is the enrollment is so much larger.”

Neighbors talked to parents who were clogging the small back street and got them to agree to back up against the school’s fence line and park when getting their kids. That’s helped some, but the parents still sometimes park with the back of their cars to the street, which creates issues when they pull out.

“One backed into my mailbox last year,” Wiggins said. “But the parent who did it gave me the money and I fixed it.”

Other residents said they’ve seen drivers come close to hitting students when pulling out along the back fence line.

And the situation in front of the school during those times creates another headache for area residents. Ann Morrison, who’s lived in the area for 45 years, said she just plain avoids driving at those times.

“I have to watch the times that I leave the house so I can get out of my driveway,” Morrison said. “I certainly do not go around to Franklin (Street) around school time. It’s bad. The cars are just stopped for five or six blocks and you can’t get around.”

That said, though, she thinks the school has done a decent job of trying to streamline the process for parents. School officials have tried to organize the pickup process for parents in the afternoon so the cars move a bit faster.

“I understand that parents need to drive their kids from out of the neighborhood,” Morrison said. “There has been a good effort by the school and the district to improve the situation.”

The school’s principal, Laura Dilley, did not return phone calls from The Columbian requesting comment. But she has sent out a letter to parents asking that they pay more attention to traffic issues in the neighborhood.

“Families who reside in (nearby) homes are extremely concerned about their driveways and mailboxes being blocked by parked cars,” the letter said. “In addition to the parking issue, there are huge safety issues with people not using the designated crosswalk to cross Franklin Street when coming to and from school property once they have parked.”

Pat Mattison, a spokesperson for Vancouver Public Schools, said she was aware of the complaints and that the district has been looking into it.

“We’ve had our security out there and they’ve been monitoring the situation and will continue to do that,” Mattison said. “Our number one priority is the safety of the kids.”

Parents of students accepted by the program, which is so popular it requires winning a lottery spot to attend, are responsible for their children’s transportation if they live outside of the school’s area.

Trisha Wickham, who lives in Hazel Dell and has two children at the school, including a daughter in the program, said the traffic situation at the school isn’t nearly as bad as the Mandarin Chinese immersion program her daughter was in when the family lived in Portland.

“The school in Portland, there was no option for pick up, no parking,” said Wickham, who moved to Hazel Dell in January. “The situation here, I think it’s getting better. Parking in the back (on Harney) and waiting is better than (going through the traffic jam at the front of the school).”

Mike Matthews, who recently moved to the neighborhood in hopes of getting his 4-year-old daughter into the program, said the pick up and drop off issues don’t concern him as much as the people who speed on Northwest 53rd Street and use it as a short cut to get to Northwest Lincoln Avenue.

“It gets pretty crowded, and the street fills up, but we work at home so it’s not a big problem,” Matthews said. “The only thing I don’t like is the speed on this street. People speed through, I can’t let my daughter play in the front yard. I’d be happy if they put speed bumps out there.”