Every child should have a safe place to play. This was the guiding vision of the Washington Irving Elementary PTO in Oak Park, Ill., recipient of the award for Outstanding Job on a Completed Major Project in PTO Today’s 2013 Parent Group of the Year search.
For more than 50 years, students attending the preK-5 school west of Chicago spent recess on an 80,000-square-foot asphalt slab surrounding the school building. Over time, the asphalt had deteriorated, forcing students to play on a broken, uneven surface. The situation was unsafe: An assessment of head injuries at the local elementary schools showed that Irving Elementary’s approximately 500 students accounted for 58 percent of all head injuries in the district.
Eight years ago, the Irving PTO set out to create a schoolyard that would be not only safe but also aesthetically pleasing and environmentally responsible. It would have been a daunting task for most, but this group was determined. By engaging the entire school community, local government agencies, and community groups, the PTO helped build momentum for the $1.1 million project. When students returned for the 2013-14 school year, they found the blacktop transformed into a turf field, a new playground, and an outdoor classroom.
The effort to create a new schoolyard began in 2005. From 2005 to 2008, PTO members contributed hundreds of volunteer hours toward creating a plan for the space. By 2009, they formed the Irving Schoolyard Project Committee to bring their vision to life. “That was a turning point when we started meeting weekly,” says Barbara Hoffman, a member of the Irving Schoolyard Project. “That’s when the project picked up steam.”
For the next two years, four subcommittees toiled over construction plans, community outreach, fundraising, and curriculum development to ensure that the new schoolyard met the educational needs of the students and staff. The group also reached out to the Park District of Oak Park, soccer leagues, and other community groups who could benefit from the new facilities.
“We wanted to think beyond the school and think about the community,” Hoffman says. “While this project was about a playground and a schoolyard, we knew it would benefit the entire community.”
Committee members built support for the project by sharing their plans with anyone who would listen. Through open forum meetings, they collected input and secured buy-in from the families at Irving Elementary. They presented the plans at community meetings, directly to business leaders, and even at the local farmers market.
The community responded by signing on to help. The student council at a nearby elementary school donated proceeds from a fundraiser. The boards of each of the local school PTOs signed a letter of support for the project, as did several business and community leaders. Local newspapers kept the public informed of what was transpiring at the school.
With a strong showing of community support, the project committee was able to secure a necessary mix of both public and private funding. The PTO raised an impressive $140,000 for the project over four years, including several grants. The remaining funds came from public sources.
Gaining the support of the Park District was critical. Every school in the district except for Washington Irving benefits from the use of an adjacent property owned and managed by the Park District. PTO members met with Park District leaders, made presentations, and attended public meetings. The Park District agreed to pay for half the cost of a new athletic field and to maintain the field.
The PTO also worked closely with the school district as it negotiated an agreement to allow community members to use the turf field after school and on weekends. From there, the project committee voiced its support of a tax referendum to improve schoolyards at each of the district’s elementary schools. The referendum passed, providing the majority of funds for the schoolyard project.
Perhaps most important, the project committee involved the students and the staff at Irving through every stage of the project. The faculty created lessons in topics such as recycling and architectural drawing that promoted awareness of the project. And the PTO hosted a “Bye-Bye, Blacktop” party, which shattered all previous attendance records for a schoolwide event and helped raise funds to purchase the remaining playground equipment. Students wore commemorative T-shirts and sang a special anthem written for the occasion. And finally, on the last day of school, everyone from students, teachers, and staff to parents, district leaders, and funders attended a groundbreaking for the project.
“So many of us parents and teachers are driving by the school on a sometimes daily basis, sometimes multiple times a day to see the progress,” Hoffman says. “It’s just extraordinary.”
Many Stakeholders, One Vision
Barbara Hoffman, a member of the Irving Schoolyard Project, says having a clear vision and not wavering from the goal was key to the multiyear project to transform an asphalt schoolyard into a community play area. Other critical factors in the project planning included:
Marketing: More than just marketing the schoolyard project to the larger community, the PTO treated the project like a brand. The group developed consistent messages and communication tools to reach out to others in the community and build important partnerships.
Leadership: Because the renovation took several years from inception to groundbreaking, many parents cycled through the project. “Hundreds and hundreds of folks were involved every step of the way,” Hoffman says. A clear vision kept volunteers on track and created consistency of leadership.
Dedication: Often, support wanes for long-term projects. But because the schoolyard committee had such a clear goal, they were able to rely on the dedication of many in the community. Hoffman noted how many hours the teachers at the school gave. “If [the teachers] are showing that kind of dedication outside the school, you can imagine what they’re doing inside the school,” she says.