ANN ARBOR – Young Safety Town participants and their parents were in for a treat on Tuesday morning when they arrived for the annual safety training program.
They were greeted by Mayor Christopher Taylor, Ann Arbor Public School Superintendent Jeanice Kerr Swift, Dicken Elementary Principal Michael Madison, Ann Arbor's new police chief Michael Cox, members of the Ann Arbor police and fire departments and officers from University of Michigan's Division of Public Safety and Security.
"It’s wonderful to celebrate 40 years of Safety Town," said Swift. "Safety Town is part of Ann Arbor. We have generations now that have come through it. It’s one of the memories that many Ann Arborites have of growing up here.
"And it’s a great celebration of our partnership with the Ann Arbor Police Department and our fire department and our shared goal of keeping children safe."
How it began
Founded in 1979, the Ann Arbor Safety Town program began to educate entering kindergartners on how to be safe inside their homes and in the community.
It began as a partnership between Ann Arbor Public Schools and the Ann Arbor police and fire departments. At the time, founder Iris Mintz had moved to Ann Arbor and approached police chief Kenneth Klinge and AAPS Board of Education trustee Wendy Barhydt with the idea of starting Safety Town, after she had attended and taught at the program in her hometown in Ohio.
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After two years, the trio raised $6,000 to launch the program with support from AAPS, the Kiwanis Club and the police department.
Since its inception, other community partners have been added, including:
- Ann Arbor Fire Department
- Huron Valley Ambulance
- Huron Valley Safe Kids Coalition
The summer program is now overseen by the AAPS Community Education and Recreation Department and serves more than 700 preschoolers annually. AAPS estimates that 28,000 preschoolers have graduated from the program since it began.
Safety Town has taken place at several schools in Ann Arbor, with its current home being Dicken Elementary on the west side. The weekly program runs for eight weeks each summer.
"I want to say it’s been seven or eight years (now)," said Madison. "I love this community setting. No one knows about this school. It’s off the main drag and it’s a great place to do the firehouse safety stuff, the bicycle riding and I think it’s a great location.
"I love that the kids learn that the police are their friends and they learn to respect them, appreciate them, and they learn they can ask them for help instead of raising a culture of kids who are scared of the police."
So what do the students learn?
"How to ride a bicycle, how to put a helmet on, how to walk your bike on the sidewalk when you have to, how to look both ways, how to stop at stop signs," explained Madison. "They teach them all the things that sometimes we as parents forget or don’t have all the details to."
Taylor said both of his children attended Safety Town.
"I have two students who have gone their entire lives through Ann Arbor Public Schools and we absolutely are Safety Town graduates and proud of it," the mayor said.
Safety Town's simulation includes a miniature "town" where children learn to safely navigate as cyclists and pedestrians. Miniature stop signs, bike lanes and a tiny operational stop light make up the outdoor area, where children can be heard counting to five at stop signs and waiting for the light to change from red to green.
Volunteers from Rec and Ed oversee each activity, ranging from bus safety with Buster the Bus to evacuating a "smoke" house as part of the fire safety simulation.
"One of the memories I hear from parents all the time is, 'After my child went through Safety Town, I could no longer go through a yellow light or roll through the stop sign,' because the kids are keeping track of their parents and their safety," said Swift.
With just two weeks under his belt as Ann Arbor's newest police chief, Michael Cox greeted and spoke with families as they arrived. One of his main platforms as a candidate for the position was the importance of community policing.
"This is exactly the kind of thing which I was hoping that we’d have," said Cox. "This is a tremendous program that’s been going on for 40 years. This is exactly what community policing is. I appreciate it and it warms my heart to know that these kinds of programs exist and have been going on for such a long time. So I’m both impressed and very pleased."
As the last of the families arrived for the day and the children began their safety drills, Madison reflected on the years the program has taken place at Dicken.
"It's so amazing to see all these people, kids of all different races, cultures, religions, backgrounds, all come together in the summertime to learn together," said Madison. "And they make friends that sometimes last a lifetime."
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