Saturday, August 14, 2010

Look at something pretty, play in the dirt

We've been waiting years to see some improvement at our local elementary school. It's a beautiful old building named for James Monroe, which makes you think it might have a little more, I don't know, ambition. But for the last few years, the building and its grounds have stagnated. Indifferent principals and lacking resources have made for a lifeless site where there should be energy and vision. It's no wonder the kids sullenly walk into school and often stir up trouble when they leave.

Enter my friend Dawn Marie. She runs a local nonprofit arts agency for neighborhood kids. They teach everything from dance to painting to circus performance to spoken-word poetry. In partnership with a new, enthusiastic principal at the school, she was able to put together a program that would actually get the kids involved in transforming the vista of their school.

First step: A school garden. They built planting boxes out of recycled materials and are now seeing the fruits of their labor come to life. Tomatoes, corn, "the hottest pepper in the world" -- a garden that reflects the cultural heritage of the students. Our new neighbors, Conor and Tim, live across the street from the school and are raising backyard chickens. I was able to connect them to these efforts, and they've already arranged one visit by the kids to learn about chickens, eggs, and the importance of letting animals roam free.

Next step: A mural. I wish I'd taken a Before picture of this cement wall so you could see how desolate it made the playground (really a giant asphalt lot with some broken-down plastic equipment) feel. But refurbished, it's a focal point of the grounds.

Oh, about those grounds: A soft-surface playlot is in progress. They've already started drilling into the concrete to make room for construction. And in the grave left behind by the old playground equipment? An expanded garden!

I'm sympathetic to the hardships most Chicago Public Schools principals are facing. Mayor Daley's Renaissance 2010 program ties a school's survival to the students' performance on standardized tests. Many principals and teachers feel all they have time to do is teach to the test. It's a deplorable way to run public education.

This makes it all the more exciting to see a school -- set in its ways, and grateful for mere survival -- reinvigorated this way. I have to believe, if we're stuck with Renaissance 2010, that these students will fare better on tests because of the new vigor in the school. The improvements remind the kids that they should be defined by more than a gray slab of concrete or Scantron form.


Rosemary said...

This completely makes my day. It makes me happy to know that *some* kids will be returning to a more beautiful, nurturing place. Good for everybody except Mayor Daley. "Ranaissance 2010" should be renamed "Dark Ages 2010."

Christy said...

I promise to post the After pictures once the fence is down and new playground and garden are in. After that, I need nothing for Christmas. Ever again.

leslie said...

Hats off to them! We've tried for years to get something like this going at our neighborhood school, but we just can't rally enough hands/time/resources. It's such HARD work. I'm in awe of how great this has turned out.