We’ve all heard the stories about teachers and school support staff buying supplies.

Paper and pencils, art supplies, that sort of thing.

But increasingly it seems that quality school playgrounds are evidently also considered an “extra” that school staff and principals are mobilizing to raise private funds to bring up to state-of-the-art standards.

This happened in New Bedford in 2017, when the PTO at Campbell Elementary School raised more than $200,000 and did an inspiring upgrade to a playground that was renamed after police Sgt. Sean Gannon, who grew up in the adjacent neighborhood, and had been recently killed while on duty in Yarmouth.

But the trend has not stopped there.

In the last month, we’ve seen two center city New Bedford elementary schools — Carney Academy and Ellen R. Hathaway — begin fundraising drives to renovate their long-neglected playgrounds.

It’s difficult to know why the playgrounds at these public schools are so meager and why they haven’t been renovated in decades.

At Carney, there’s a couple of small tot playgrounds (one of which is little more than a couple of plastic climbing instruments and chalk colored on the side of the building), but the main school yard where most kids have recess is a fenced-in basketball court in which the backboards are so rusted it’s a good thing none of the kids are tall enough to slam dunk. There’s a second adjacent fenced-in asphalt area, with some sort of rudimentary handball wall, that no one seems to use.

Over at Hathaway, the entire playground consists of a couple aging swing sets and a basketball court.

Across the street from Hathaway is the city’s Harrington Park, which has a relatively new tot playground and much better basketball courts than Hathaway’s. But Principal Alex Pella tells me that it’s safer to keep kids on school grounds for their 20-minute play break. First off, they don’t have to cross a street and second, there can be unsafe materials left on playgrounds overnight.

Assistant Superintendent Andrew O’Leary has an ambitious plan for renovating New Bedford school buildings through a combination of city, state and federal funds, but we haven’t heard a lot about plans for new playgrounds.

O’Leary tells me he thinks some of the $75 million in pandemic relief monies coming to New Bedford, so-called ESSER (Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief), can be used for this purpose. But it’s an application process, so we’ll have to see.

Even if the private fundraising for the two projects should be greatly successful, O’Leary expects the School Department will contribute to the upgrades. He doesn’t expect the fundraisers would raise more than $30,000, and contemporary playgrounds can cost a minimum of $50,000.

In addition, the School Department will want to make sure the fundraisers adhere to some School Department-supervised methods so they are not vulnerable to fundraising scams.

It all makes some sense, I guess. People get all upset about private fundraising for public operations but not so much about corporate ones. No-one thinks a thing of your multimillion-dollar supermarket chain pitching you for money.

True enough. But I can’t help thinking that using private fundraising for public school playgrounds is another example of the trend toward user fees for government services that have previously been thought of as publicly funded by the whole population. After all, aren’t the parents of the children at a particular school going to be a prime target of the fundraising? And doesn’t it bring a community together when the quality of the school system is everyone’s pride and not just the parents of schoolchildren?

Finally, if school playgrounds are going the way of public-private partnerships, do the school playgrounds in the higher-income neighborhoods ultimately end up being better? 

O’Leary says that there is no way the private sector — even if someone of the ilk of Mark Zuckerberg was involved — is going to be able to pay for an entire K-12 public school system. It’s just too expensive. On the other hand, the school systems would not want to discourage these ground-up fundraising efforts — some of which have been remarkably successful through digital fundraising — because they bring an “energy” and a “buy-in” from the community to the operation of the schools.

Principal Pella made the same point.

“It’s always good to try to get everyone involved, to take some pride in our schools,” he said.

Heather Macedo-Medeiros, the Carney Academy adjustment counselor who is spearheading her school’s playground fundraising effort, cited the successful privately- funded construction of the city’s Noah’s Place Playground as an inspiration in a recent story by WBSM’s Tim Weisberg. Noah’s Place is fully accessible to children of all abilities,  and Macedo-Medeiros noted that Carney has a significant population of autistic students.


Related


But even Noah’s Place was not ultimately without expense for New Bedford. After an initial five-year period in which the fundraisers operated the playground, the agreement was for the city to take over the cost of operation this year. Whether that expense was ultimately related to an ill-fated attempt by the Park Board to increase parking fees at Pope’s Island, where the playground is located, is a good question.

The Carney group recently held a comedy show fundraiser, and the Hathaway group will hold a $50 a ticket fundraiser at New Bedford Country Club this Saturday at 6 p.m. Good for both of them. They didn’t wait for the city to act but took the impetus for addressing a longstanding problem into their own hands.

The Hathaway playground upgrade was the idea of Megan Sylvia, the current Miss New Bedford, who is a health instructor at the school. Community service has long been a part of the Miss America program, of which Miss New Bedford is a part.

Kudos to Sylvia who looked at that playground and said to herself what so many others in the city and the school department for decades have not said: “This is something I can do something about.”

I’m not in any way a professional educator, but I’ve long thought recess is an integral part of the elementary school day. It’s a little gift of freedom for the children amid the long hours at an age when their energy is boundless. I think the upgrade of these playgrounds is not some extra frill but a necessary part of children’s overall health.

I thought as much five years ago when I criticized the city for shortsightedness in the construction of the undersized playground at the $36 million new Jacobs Elementary School in a working-class neighborhood of the South End.

Constricted by a bureaucratic school building process, but even more so by a failure to understand the value of quality school recess yard to children, the building committee refused to spend an extra $2 million over 30 years on a $36 million project.

A climbing apparatus in the playground at the Jacobs Elementary Schoo in the South End. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

The result is that the Jacobs building, state-of-the-art in so many other ways, has a very delicate climbing installation that functions as much of its playground. The city, by eminent domain, could have taken three adjacent private properties by spending $2 million and constructing an adequate schoolyard playground. It would have been a commitment to the children who will go to this school over the next 50 years for a comparatively nominal cost in the $36 million project. In any event, the kids need a larger outdoor space to run.

Predictably, there is talk already that the current setup is insufficient to the school’s needs. Even more reason the city should bite the bullet and spend the money to enlarge the Jacobs school yard. That’s something that is never going to happen through GoFundMe.

As for public school playgrounds in general, that’s another question.

Whether for the long run, New Bedford and other communities face a future where neighborhood schools will have to privately raise money in order to install quality playgrounds is the question. Maybe that is the only way to get things done in an era when we imagine our public resources to be so limited. And maybe that’s the only way these days to win buy-in from the community at large.

Perhaps that is the real failure of imagination.

Email Jack Spillane at jspillane@newbedfordlight.org.

Thank you to our sponsors

Founding benefactors:
Irwin and Joan Jacobs, Mary and Jim Ottaway