Children all over Evanston look forward to outdoor recess, but for the last several years students at Park School have not had a playground that is accessible and safe. Located in south Evanston, Park School serves the most disabled and vulnerable of District 65 and District 202’s students. The student body consists of children, ages 3 to 22, with severe cognitive disabilities, autism, significant hearing and sight impairments, communication disorders, as well as sensory and behavioral impairments. For years Park School’s small PTA has grappled with the challenge of replacing the broken or non-accessible playground, but now the recently formed Park School Playground and Fundraising Committee has gained momentum, expanding its stakeholders and launching a campaign to inform the larger Evanston community in order to get the job done.
Park School’s current playground covers approximately 2,240 square feet, not a large area but adequate for the fluid population of 69 students. The current space is divided into different play pods and elevations – each having either a concrete or a wood-chip surface. Principal Marlene Grossman says a major factor for the playground not serving the school’s needs is the playground surface.
The population attending Park School requires an intensive therapeutic learning environment. “Thirty students (43% of Park’s current student body) are in wheelchairs, and a significant percentage of the rest of the students have an unsteady gait,” Dr. Grossman said. “The uneven and hard concrete covering much of the current playground isn’t totally safe, and the wood chips covering the rest make it impossible for pushing students in wheelchairs. What we desperately need is a poured, soft rubberized surface for our special needs population. Admittedly it is costly, but it is urgently needed.”
Dr. Grossman said the Park School community is pleased with the small sensory garden installed in front of the school last fall, which helped launch a valued horticulture therapy program, but the playground is another story. “The school playground is nearly unusable. The swings, very popular and suitable for elementary-schoolers and older kids, have had to be removed because the supporting timbers were rotted and not strong or safe enough to be load-bearing,” she said. “It’s too bad because the children love to swing. And swings are good for sensory feedback and for developing core strength also.”
Heather Shaffer, Park School’s adaptive physical education teacher, is a major stakeholder for a new playground and also plays the informal role of Park School historian. “Our playground got a real boost in about 2005 when District 65 purchased and installed a large piece of play equipment that’s accessible for students,” said Ms. Shaffer. Although not new, the blue, yellow, and green play structure provides multiple activity areas that the school physical therapists are able to use with students. During mild weather days the play structure is used to increase students’ balance, strength, and coordination.
Ms. Shaffer said the ramps, stairs, bridge, slide, platforms, and rope ladder work well for closely supervised therapy and play for Park’s students. “And after school and on weekends, the play structure is also a popular attraction for neighborhood children,” she said. “However, with the swings gone, there’s little left that is safe and practical for Park’s students. The large cement sewer culvert and the sizeable log structure with its uneven and widely-spaced walking surfaces are hazards for students with mobility impairments.”
Evanston resident Julie Cutter has been a valuable member of the Playground Committee, both for helping to realize the project’s scope and vision and to secure its financial viability. Ms. Cutter has had the unique experience of raising money for and overseeing the design and installation of a park for children with widely varied needs and abilities. Eleven years ago she and her husband, David, partnered with the City of Evanston to build Noah’s Playground for Everyone in memory of the Cutters’ son, Noah, who was born with significant disabilities and died at age 2½. The Cutters were dedicated to making Noah’s Playground completely accessible, but also engaging and fun for everyone. With the ongoing popularity of the playground, the Cutters have continued to lend support to other projects benefitting children with special needs. Ms. Cutter’s attitude from the time she joined the Park School Playground Committee has been, “There is no doubt we will be successful getting this playground funded and done. It’s important and will happen.”
Two other highly committed members of the Park School Playground and Fundraising Committee are Park School parent and PTA Treasurer Aimee King and Jarrett Dapier, an Evanston librarian and parent of two Oakton School children. Ms. King is the parent of two children, one with multiple disabilities. She became committed to the Park School Playground initiative because her kindergarten son, Ben, is very unsteady on his feet and not able to utilize anything on his school’s playground. “My husband and I want Ben to have the special yet highly ordinary experience of playing outside on his school playground. And we want him to be able to enjoy that sense of community his brother has had by playing outside with other kids,” she says.
Although Mr. Dapier does not have children attending Park School, he is a cheerleader for the playground renovation project. He first learned about the non-functional playground at Park School when he happened upon a September 2016 piece by Evanstonian Laurie Levy in the online journal ChicagoNow. What caught his eye was the title of the essay: “Park School Has a Playground Its Students Can’t Use.”
“I got involved in the Park School Playground initiative to secure resources for the kids at Park after reading Ms. Levy’s article in ChicagoNow. I was humbled knowing that my kids don’t have disabilities, but that there are very vulnerable kids here who do – and are being denied an accessible play space,” said Mr. Dapier. “Ideally a school district with great services should put compassion first. That [compassion] will benefit all of us, I think. And actually Park is more than a neighborhood school, because it serves students from every corner of Evanston. It’s a citywide school.”
After considerable research and planning, the Park School PTA Playground Fundraising Committee has launched a $150,000 appeal to the Park School community and the general public. Because school district funds are already committed and include a limited number of capital projects, Park School is responsible for raising most funds privately
The dozen-member Park School committee is asking for financial support from the public to rebuild the playground. People who would like to donate to the Park School Playground can access the online fundraising site: https//park-school-s-playground-for-all-58190.chedddarup.com or send a check made out to Park School PTA, 828 Main Street, Evanston, Illinois 60201.or send a check made out to Park School PTA, 828 Main St., Evanston, Ill. 60202.