On the first day of class, Chris Marx asks his fifth-grade students how they get to school and what they encounter along the way.
Even though most students at Garfield Elementary in Santa Ana walk only a few blocks to class, they often trudge over broken sidewalks and through littered alleyways, rub up against graffiti-covered walls and step over rubble from construction sites. Some dodge roving dogs, homeless people or gang members.
"You ask the kids how many times they've heard gunshots and there are some hands raised," Marx said.
Students at thousands of schools nationwide walked en masse to school Wednesday in events timed for International Walk to School Day, meant to encourage physical fitness and to reduce carbon emissions.
But in poor, urban communities like Santa Ana, where most students are not driven or bused to school but go by foot, the annual event served as a forum for long-held concerns that the journey can be a treacherous one. A "walkability" survey completed by nearly 200 Garfield students shows they worry about a wide range of eyesores and obstacles, from poorly maintained streets and sidewalks to gang activity and graffiti.
Students at the school, located in one of Orange County's poorest neighborhoods and just blocks from a row of scrap metal yards and train tracks, performed a "walk audit" last month in preparation for Wednesday, cataloging all the obstacles, dangers and nuisances that might stand in the way of getting to school.
In the 45-minute exercise, fifth-graders accompanied by teachers and public health officials traced their steps to and from school with checklists, notepads and an eye for things that made them feel at risk or uncomfortable.
Denise Ibarra, 11, wrote down "broken curb" during her walk as a scavenger came by pushing a grocery cart full of bottles and cans. As the group slowly walked on, she added "barbed wire," "broken cracked sidewalk," "big rock" and "broken mirrors" to the list. And that was just the first block.
In the next few blocks, they found more barriers and blight, passing grimy alleyways, dirt footpaths through littered vacant lots and gaping potholes. The group turned back when they came to a thoroughfare where cars sped through intersections. There were no crosswalks.
Nearly 200 other students at the school also completed surveys about their walk to school. Their responses were compiled by the county healthcare agency.
Students presented the results in hand-drawn bar charts to parents, police and community leaders Wednesday morning.
Among the students' top worries were broken sidewalks, traffic, lack of crosswalks, speeding drivers, trash and graffiti. Most students said they didn't have enough room to walk safely, that it was difficult to cross streets and that they had trouble with reckless drivers.
Half reported they didn't feel safe because of loiterers, panhandlers "scary people" or "scary dogs."
The students also offered solutions. The city, they said, could install more stoplights and stop signs and remove trash and graffiti.
"We ask the city to fix the problems so we feel safe walking to school," Ruby Arellano, 10, said before handing the results to police officers, who promised to "begin work right away."
County healthcare officials hope that detailing such obstacles and presenting them to the city will lead to improvements. They credit similar studies at several Santa Ana elementary schools over the last several years with prompting the city to repair sidewalks and install new stop signs, traffic lights and crosswalks.
State transit officials said there is a huge need for such improvements near schools, especially in poor communities.
Caltrans announced this week that it has awarded $46 million in federal funding for projects to improve crosswalks, stop signs and sidewalk repairs along routes to schools. But that will cover only a fourth of the needed improvements, said Joyce Parks, coordinator of the state's Safe Routes to School program.
"Oftentimes, economically depressed areas lack infrastructure such as sidewalks or bicycle trails, it becomes very difficult for children to walk safely and they're forced to walk along heavily traveled streets," she said.
But Santa Ana parents and teachers are not just worried about traffic signals. In a city where gang violence has surged in recent months, they are also worried about their children being caught in the crossfire.
Last month, a 13-year-old boy was shot to death by alleged gang members. The youth was crossing the street 20 minutes after classes ended at nearby Santa Ana High School.
"Parents are really deeply concerned about their kids' safety," Garfield Principal Linda DeLeon said, adding that she doesn't let any student go home without a parent or a signed permission slip.
So just before the bell rings, Garfield parents gather protectively outside the school gates to walk their children home.
Reyna Artero always makes sure she or her husband walks her fifth-grade daughter Ruby to school and back.
Ruby said sometimes there isn't enough room on the sidewalk, but brushed off concerns about the barking dogs, graffiti and customers emerging from two nearby bars that she passes as she walks with her mother.
"I talk to her about safety a lot," her mother said. "So maybe she's not scared anymore, but she's brave."