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Evanston’s Park School faculty, students and parents have something to crow about. Thanks to a community effort, at last the renovated Park School Playground for All is open and ready for business.  

For more than eight years, the small parent body and faculty of Park School advocated for a safe and useable school playground for their students with significant special needs. Then in 2014 the desire to have a functional school playground gained momentum from a donation targeting a playground upgrade: new and more physically supportive swings.

That tribute gift honoring Park School student, Abigail Spellman, who passed away at age 16, became a catalyst for a comprehensive playground renovation – and the small Park School PTA’s becoming a fundraising and planning agent for a safe and usable playground for all. A chain of events involving Park School neighbors, parents, volunteers, foundations, Park School PTA and Board, Districts 65 and 202, the Evanston/Skokie PTA Council, Equity Project, individuals – including school kids as young as first graders – contributed so that Park School’s new and improved playground opened this fall.

Park School, located at 828 Main St. is a self-contained therapeutic public school day program for students having substantial physical and cognitive disabilities. The current 72 students, ages 3 to 21, learn, play and receive therapeutic services in a setting with adaptive furniture, equipment and learning materials. For years, however, students hadn’t been able to utilize the playground at the rear of the school. Unstable and broken log structures, unsafe swings, a hazardous concrete culvert and a dangerous multi-level cement and wood-chip-covered surface made the space perilous and unusable for the majority of students.

Because approximately 43% of Park students are dependent on wheelchairs and many of the remaining students have impaired gaits, the demolition, regrading and replacement of the 2,250-square-foot playground surface were the priorities and first steps in the construction project. Replacing the old multi-level concrete and wood chip surface materials with a poured two-layer rubberized surface would provide a safe surface for everyone.  

Park School’s PTA President Anna Guillemin said, “The majority of the donations to fund the playground were small gifts. We had an extraordinary number of donors, as so many parents and friends gave what they could; and that was to us the most meaningful part of the fundraising.”

Two generous gifts from funds established by Evanston families kicked off the fundraising initiative. Initial seed money for the playground campaign came from a fund created in memory of Abigail. She had attended Park from the age of 3, and Park was a happy place for her. After her death, Abigail’s parents directed the large outpouring of tribute gifts to Park School, specifically to honor Abigail and what she particularly loved – swings and swinging. Kathy and Michael Spellman, Abigail’s parents, were well aware that Abigail and most of the children at Park School needed adaptive swings and could not safely use the swings on their school playground after they outgrew the baby swings.

“Our intent was to have the donations made in our daughter’s memory go towards the purchase of new swings, ones with supportive high backs,” explained Ms. Spellman, “but we soon discovered that the existing support structures of the swings were unstable and not up to code. And that led to our realization that most of the playground wasn’t really usable for Park’s students and needed updating for safety.”

The initial giving request the Spellmans launched was offered as a “match challenge” and produced a donation of $8,000 toward the playground project. That gift energized the Park PTA to keep reaching out and telling the Park School playground story and to establish the fundraising goal for demolition and rebuilding of the playground.

A second early donation to the Park School Playground project was another matching donation from the Noah’s Playground Fund, which was established more than a decade ago in memory of Julie and Michael Cutter’s son, Noah, who died at 2 1/2 in 2005. These early donations gave the small Park School parent body confidence that the project was doable.

Part of the credit for the Park School playground project’s success goes to Evanston/Skokie PTA Council’s Equity Project. The PTA’s Equity Project (PEP) was formed in late 2016 to determine, in part, if PTA funding inequality exists in District 65, and if so, to address solutions. The lens used to judge policies and actions framed the important question, “Are all students getting what they should get in our district in order to reach their full potential?”

After the PEP committee participated in intense research to determine each of the District’s schools fundraising potential, it was clear that Park School’s small size, its very high-need student body, and its parent demographics showed that the school needed additional financial PTA support to offer its students what they need to reach their full potential.

“Clearly, not every school has all the resources it needs,” said Biz Lindsay-Ryan, co-facilitator of the PTA Equity Project, “but there has been a significant paradigm shift that’s changing thinking from ‘our school’ to ‘our district’.”

Ms. Lindsay-Ryan, an equity/diversity/inclusion consultant and District 65 parent, said the committee’s two years of work and information-sharing will mean that in the near future many of the District 65 elementary school PTAs will donate a percentages of their fundraising efforts to the Park and Rice schools.

The PEP group realizes that equity means a new budgeting template. In that spirit, before the schools’ summer break, 10 PTAs had donated money to Park’s new playground.

A heartwarming part of the Park playground story is about the youngest fundraisers, children. Last fall, with encouragement from the school psychologists at Dewey Elementary School and Park School, a Buddy Program was launched between a classroom of Dewey first graders and first graders at Park.

Dewey first-grade teacher Jaime Cohen and her Park School counterpart, Lauren Heckathorne, planned and facilitated the every-other-month get-togethers hosted at Dewey. Before the first meeting of the two classrooms, Ms. Heckathorne introduced her Park students to the Dewey first-graders with a book of photos and comments about what each of her students enjoyed. The Dewey students learned there would be some differences between themselves and the Park students but there would be lots of things that they’d have in common.

“The children loved the get-togethers,” said Ms. Cohen. “They looked forward to the activities and the books we read.” It was after the Dewey first-graders paid a visit to their buddies at Park School and toured the school that the Dewey students questioned why there would be a playground that their new buddies at Park School could not even use.

The idea of raising money to help build a better playground was born, and in record time the 24 Dewey students developed a flourishing enterprise: They made and sold enough beaded friendship bracelets to send a $1,200 check for a new playground to Park School.

Dewey parent and room mother Jasmine Carpin helped oversee the activities. “The whole experience of the Buddy Project and subsequent student-run fundraiser, was an incomparable learning experience,” she said.

The students designed and made the bracelets, created posters to market their products, decided on the selling price ($3 per bracelet), and even made change and wrote receipts for their customers. Ms. Carpin said, “Every part of this project was impressive and worthwhile. The Dewey kids developed empathy and learned that while we’re all different, we are alike in many ways too.”

Students at Orrington School also raised funds for the new playground. Fourth-graders who had visited Park School’s drama program subsequently organized a bake sale resulting in a $600 donation. Orrington’s fifth-graders made a sizable donation – more than $6,000 – generated from their Pennies for Park fundraiser.  

Inspired by Park’s students’ needing an outdoor play space, several Evanston middle-school students chose Park’s playground project as the recipient of their service project fundraising efforts and birthday gifts.

Oct. 14 was a beautiful day for a celebration. On that Sunday, five weeks after the completion of construction, more than 150 people arrived at Park School’s new playground.

Under a huge raspberry-colored awning, the bank of beautiful new swings was a center of activity. Parents and children, teachers and neighbors, District 65 administrators, City Council members and other stakeholders explored the new play equipment on the springy floor surface.

Nibbling on donuts and other snacks, the crowd listened to heartwarming remarks by PTA members Ms. Guillimen and Aimee King; Park’s new principal Jill Anderson; District 65 Assistant Superintendent for Special Services Joyce Bartz; and District 65 Superintendent Paul Goren. Gratitude was expressed to the business owners, district-wide PTAs, foundations, organizations, synagogues, school districts, and individuals who cumulatively raised more than $170,000 to make Park School’s Playground for All a reality.

Ms. Guillemin told guests at the celebration that a small space on the playground, still empty, will be the site of one more special feature. In spring a sensory garden named Noah’s Nook will be built to both beautify the playground and become a teaching element. Ms. King left the crowd at the Sunday afternoon celebration with a message of unity and pride: “Look what we’ve accomplished – as a community.”

Park Principal Retires

After 11 years, Marlene Grossman retired as principal of Park School in June. Prior to that, she was a Special Education Director in Elgin. Dr. Grossman’s warmth, advocacy for and dedication to students, staff and families at Park will be remembered. Her enthusiasm and passionate support will be acknowledged by a plaque in the new playground that she dreamed of for her students. Dr. Grossman is currently working part-time in the District 65 Office of Special Services in the area of special education placements.

Judy Chiss

Judy Chiss has been a feature writer at the RoundTable since 2007 and especially enjoys writing about interesting happenings in the schools, as well as how our local not-for-profits impact the community....