In the article written by Dale Faulkner on June 27, we find out, as our children already know, that many of the precious elementary playgrounds at our public schools are in serious decay and unsafe. We find out that “the failing equipment will be removed at the direction of the School Committee, which reached consensus on the approach during a meeting Wednesday at Town Hall.” We also find that “John Pagano, the district’s director of facilities, said removal of the defective equipment will cost about $10,000.”
Whether or not you know of the importance of playgrounds: Here are 5 key features of playgrounds from the Miracle Recreation Corp.:
1. Playgrounds get children into action so they can grow physically.
2. Playgrounds encourage children to build social skills.
3. Playgrounds help with cognitive development.
4. Playgrounds help children build sensory activity.
5. Playgrounds encourage healthy emotional development. If these are not key important child and social emotional learning factors, I do not know what are.
But here is our current playground problem, and we all know it quite well. This is not the first, nor the fifth, time playgrounds around our schools have been considered unsafe or deteriorating without any consideration as to why. Westerly has a significant history of poor facilities management of any and all of our Westerly School facilities and grounds. I know it is a blanket statement, and many elected officials will say they have improved the funding and others in the last 2-4 years, but has it been enough?
My own experiences from 2004-06 led me to run the Dunn’s Corner Playground Construction Committee until my wife’s illness and Dr. Rob Gitzendanner’s very capable taking of the reins and completion of our $30,000 privately funded upgrade of the Dunns Corners playground facilities. At that time, the same Westerly Public Schools refused to even acknowledge the playgrounds as under their authority for service and repair. The Town of Westerly did as well, even though the playgrounds are a key place on every elementary school’s lot. The town and school department would rather see just grass fields for football or other high school sports rather than support the elementary children’s most favorite places at their schools. The amount of decay when I inspected was obvious the first day my child came home with splinters from an original 1963 playground jungle gym that was not maintained at the school.
That was the day I went to the head of the Parent Teacher Organization and volunteered. I then talked to the principal and through them I found that neither the town nor the School Department wanted any ownership at all and would not help. So, unless I could fix it or get others to help me, it would be brought down and Dunn’s Corners would have no playground. I brought this to the concerned parents of Dunn’s Corners and we began a committee as I repaired, sanded, stained and stabilized the main structure, as close to 360 children played on the gym each day, five days a week. During this time we raised money, reached out to the community, and brought in the students to help us decide what playground elements they wanted for the playground’s future. In the end, we had a cleaning day for refurbishment in year one, and in year two, under Dr. Gitzendanner, an old playground piece was taken out and a new one and others to complement it were put into place. Without much fanfare, the public worked together and had made a huge change. Parents still come up to me years later to tell me how much their children enjoy the Dunn’s Corners School playground.
That being said, I was assured, and even further, given a promise, as was Bradford Principal Deb Pendola and other Parent Teacher Organizations in other Westerly Elementary Schools that on their own raised money for upgrades for the other Westerly Elementary Schools themselves and followed suit. “If you build it, we will take care of it,” said town and school Facilities Director John Sutcliffe. He told us that if we (the elementary parent organizations) were able to improve the playground sites and utilize a vendor that was a long-term parts supplier and a company that made products of industrial strength for school playgrounds, the school district would keep the playgrounds functional for years to come. The people of Westerly did that, and here we are 10 to 13 years later with fenced-off jungle gyms, broken swings and responsibility only for removing the products that all of us labored and made amazing, exciting and fun for our last generation of Westerly schoolchildren. Long gone were the promises, the commitments made and the beautiful new playgrounds from the community’s hard work.
The years of unkept maintenance and irresponsibility by the Westerly Public Schools has led us to the place we are now that disrespects the memory of all who took a stand for our children’s play. For the current superintendent to say, “We do want to address this and we will address this. It’s just a matter of how desperate we are and how big a priority is this to address, prior to reopening in the fall, when we’ve got these other moving parts,” Garceau said.
Although we know the lack of maintenance did not begin on his watch, it did continue under it. I hope we all can find the time to come to the next School Committee meeting and show our support to children’s play and the lack of facilities maintenance at our schools as well as our elementary playgrounds that again brings us back to where our children lose, and all we as citizens and taxpayers have left are the bills from our school district for not keeping its promises and not paying attention to our schoolchildren’s play and the importance of it.
The writer is a resident of Westerly.