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Published in Print: May 26, 1999, as Boston Effort Adds Some Green to Playground Blacktop

Boston Effort Adds Some Green to Playground Blacktop

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Slowly, over the past few decades, a sea of asphalt washed over the schoolyards of Boston, turning grass and gardens into knee-skinning, nature-destroying, eye-depriving black.

But Tom Hocker's kindergartners know nothing about that as they tumble out of their classroom at William Monroe Trotter Elementary School in the city's Roxbury section. A spring breeze lifts their shirttails as they gather around trees just beginning to flower.

A year ago, there were no trees in the schoolyard to beckon the children, only an expanse of asphalt. Next door, the city keeps a park, but going there during school hours constituted a field trip, with permission slips required.

Over the summer, though, the school's own property was transformed. Mr. Hocker was one of a small band of parents and teachers who brought about the change with the help of neighbors, philanthropies, and the city of Boston. He recalls choking up when he first walked past the new cement benches, set with decorative tiles designed by the children, past the mini-track with its springy surface and neat white lines, past the future nature trail.

Now, among the cherry trees, Mr. Hocker helps his students examine leaf buds, opening them to reveal the tiny, perfect structures within.

Grounds for Learning

Similar delights are pushing back the blacktop all over Boston.

In four years, the Boston Schoolyard Initiative has helped 16 schools convert their bleak grounds into spaces for play and learning that are open to the neighborhood as well as the school. Another 30 or so schools have embarked on the process.

So far, the city has committed $2 million each year--a total of $8 million altogether--with the private donors chipping in about $2.5 million more. With another three years of funding promised, half the city's schoolyards could be revitalized.

The notion of school grounds as places for learning and as resources for the neighborhood has received considerable attention in Europe and Canada, said Kirk Meyer, the lone staff member of the Boston Schoolyard Funders Collaborative, the 11 private foundations that formed a partnership with the city to pay for the program. And now, interest has blossomed in the United States.

"So many more things can happen outside," said Mary S. Rivkin, a professor of early childhood education at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County.

Ms. Rivkin, who studies play spaces, said the Boston project dwarfs other efforts and is a model for improving schoolyards.

Neighbors, Leaders

The Boston program has its roots in smaller schoolyard "greening" projects around town. It aims to speed up the makeovers while building on the grassroots involvement that fueled many of those early efforts.

In a classroom with towering windows, 10 people connected to the James Otis Elementary School in East Boston go over a long list of details for the second annual Schoolyard Festival. Brian Rigolizzo, who lives across the street, says he first got involved because he had heard talk of painting murals on his side of the 94-year-old red-brick structure. That turned out to be a rumor, but Mr. Rigolizzo stuck around to help with the schoolyard.

"Since I've lived here all my life and went to grade school here, I felt I was being a good neighbor," he says.

He is one of the people Dawn Marie Turner, a community organizer who works half-time with the schoolyard committee, helped find. Ms. Turner chairs the festival meeting, occasionally stopping to translate the discussion into Spanish.

The school's small blacktop yard is relieved only by several large concrete planters. The building has no auditorium, no multipurpose room, and no gymnasium.

Festival organizers want the event to raise not only money but also parent and community awareness of the project.

But there is also a sense among organizers of these playground campaigns that they are working toward a bigger goal.

"It's not just to renovate the schoolyard, but equally to develop community leaders," says Stacey Chaker, Ms. Turner's boss at Neighborhood of Affordable Housing, a nonprofit East Boston development group.

"We want people to think of it not just as a nice schoolyard but our nice schoolyard," Ms. Chaker explains. So that when, for instance, a prostitute begins hanging around the renovated play areas, neighbors call the police. That happened at Hugh Roe O'Donnell Elementary School, a few blocks from Otis Elementary.

In fact, the funding organization requires that the first chunk of money schools receive be used to hire a community organizer. That person seeks participation from neighbors, community groups such as a neighborhood watch, and other likely users of a playground, such as a day-care center.

Customized Yards

Typically, the grants run for two to three years and range from about $150,000 to $300,000, depending largely on the nature of the site. Groups are not limited to the collaborative's money, however. Some have raised as much as $100,000 locally.

A landscape architect works with the group to draft a plan for the space. Proposed lessons or, at the high school level, group-learning projects are considered, and students are included in the design process.

At Trotter Elementary, more than half the "dream playground" drawings from students showed a running track. Hence the mini-track.

Once the city-supervised construction is complete, the social groundwork is supposed to pay off in a "friends of the schoolyard" group that will help the city with maintenance and suggest additional uses for the space. "But," Mr. Meyer acknowledges, "we're prepared for the bulk of the responsibilities to revert to the school and for the success of the schoolyard to be based on the school's relationship with its neighbors."

Raising the Flag

Since September, the school day at Dennis C. Haley Elementary School in the city's Roslindale section has officially started at the flagpole. The children gather on the plaza in front of the school, say the Pledge of Allegiance, and watch as one of their classmates hoists the flag.

When Jean L. Dorcus became the school's principal three years ago, there was no flagpole, there was no plaza, and the main entrance to the school, a former bowling alley, was hard to find.

She noticed in those early days that recess didn't help her 300 students settle down. "When they went out to recess, they returned more out of control than before," she says. The cracked blacktop and dusty fields weren't conducive to organized activities.

On a recent day, Ms. Dorcus sweeps an appreciative eye over the ball field defined by the cinder track, the small basketball court, the elaborate jungle gym alive with children, and the beginnings of a strawberry patch.

But her gaze lingers longest on the "reading garden," a flagstone patio set with granite sitting rocks and bordered by a metal fence. The fence is studded with plaques bearing the names of favorite books and authors suggested by the students.

"I want the playground to reflect what's going on in the school," she says. "The kids need to play, but they need to learn, too." In her mind's eye, the principal sees ever-wider horizons for her students, many of whom have never traveled beyond Boston.

Outside, within a few feet of the school's classrooms, are the garden, a "wetland" with a pond, and a host of hands-on lessons in all the subjects.

Things are looking up for the school, and in one way the changes started with the playground. "It has made the biggest difference in the world," the principal says.

Vol. 18, Issue 39, Page 6

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