by Carrie McWilliams
When I was a principal in Providence, my school was the only elementary school in town without a playground. Every day I watched my students go out to play on a blacktop parking lot behind a chain-link fence. When I posed the question of why we did not have a playground, I was told that because we were across the street from a park, we did not need a playground. However, our school did not maintain the park and it was not on school property, so students needed a permission slip to go there; there were also many hazards, such as broken glass and used needles, so our teachers did not tend to take students there. Developmentally, students at this age need space to play and develop gross motor skills, but this was harder for our students because they had no swings, no climbing structure, and no grass to cushion falls. (Their physical education classes were held in a multi-purpose room.) The students in this school were 99% white, with a staff of all-white teachers; however, they faced inequity every day. The lack of a playground was just one example of a challenge that they faced due to the school’s location and social-economic make-up of the student population.
When I was brought into this school, I was brought in because it was in danger of failing; however, I found that addressing the inequity of the playground was connected with addressing the test scores. I knew that I had to do something to provide the students with a place to play; however, I knew that I could not do it alone. I would need the community behind me.
I established a group of parents who wanted to help and called them the Principal’s Advisory Council. I opened the council up to parents from all grades, but I really encouraged parents from the lower grades to join because those parents would be with us the longest. The most vocal parents, and the ones who contributed the most, were the kindergarten parents.
These parents were thoughtful and ambitious in tackling critical issues in the school. Asbestos abatement had been required in the school five to ten years prior, but the money for this had been re-allocated to a school in a wealthier area of the school district. The Principal’s Advisory Council selected asbestos abatement and the playground as the issues they would tackle during their first year.
This group wrote grants and created fundraisers. They sold popcorn on Fridays, held fun themed days once or twice a month, and held a “Zumbathon” on a Saturday with organized raffles; additionally, they campaigned for corporate sponsorships. They also used dances and book fairs to raise money and established a GoFundMe page. Over the course of the year, they raised $16,000 for the playground project.
Once the money had been raised, the students were recruited to help envision the playground. A recreation construction company came and did a presentation on the features of safe and healthy playgrounds. Then, the school devoted half a day to activities in which each classroom brainstormed and proposed features they would like in the playground. One classroom proposed a quiet grassy area with a bench for reading. Another classroom designed features for differently-abled students. One classroom focused on climbing, and sketched a design with a rope climbing structure. The playground that was eventually designed incorporated elements from many of the classroom designs.
Meanwhile, members from the Parents’ Advisory Council presented to the school committee and the town council. This helped us obtain all the permits necessary for the construction of the playground.
By the end of the 2014-2015 school year, the Parents’ Advisory Council had raised $16,000. By the summer of 2017, the playground, designed by the students and featuring a colorful structure that looked like a castle, was in place on the school grounds. The assembly of the playground was completed by parents and community volunteers. By the start of the 2017 school year, what had been an ugly blacktop lot was transformed into a joyful space filled with the sound of children laughing and playing.
Takeaways: What can school leaders do when facing inequities to draw upon the strength of the community?
- Focus on the parents of the youngest students in the school. They are not jaded or biased, and they possess a vision of what they hope the school will be. They will also be at the school for the longest, so they can build a strong and consistent parent group with an infrequent turnover.
- Let volunteers know that they will have autonomy. Tell them, “This is your school. It will be in your community after I am gone.” Give them the power to design and enact their own vision. The principal or school leader should not feel that they always have to be in the meetings; the principal just needs to be honest with the parents about the parameters and limiting factors, and the parents’ council needs to have a plan for how they will share meeting minutes back with the principal.
- Empower and prepare your parents to speak to the town council, school council, and other decision-making boards. You may need to provide training in how these meetings work, how to get on the agenda, how to prepare a presentation, and what to expect when they get there.
- Be honest with parents about inequities that exist; then empower them to address and change these.
- Be sure that all financial statements are shared with the whole group.
- If the school is engaged in a project to address an inequity in the building, encourage teachers to incorporate elements of that project into their classes. Teachers at this school integrated the project into math and social studies classes; the school as a whole also designed activities for the students about playground design and selection of the final blueprint.