Last month, West Boulevard Elementary School students Quanah and Rafael Leija-Elias got a lesson in civic participation.
Quanah, a fifth-grader, and Rafael, a first-grader, raised their voices at the Oct. 13 Columbia Board of Education meeting about the poor state of their school’s playground.
Among their complaints: The concrete on the playground is uneven and riddled with weeds. The main piece of equipment is wooden and splintered. The tetherball poles are being uprooted, and the soccer goals lack nets.
“I think that you can see the difference between our playground and other playgrounds,” Quanah said. “Some of the nails are coming out, and they’re rusty. The basketball courts have rust all over them.”
Last Monday, the two boys saw their efforts rewarded. The Columbia City Council voted to give $15,000 toward new equipment for the school.
“I know that they were talking about wanting to do something like this, aside from us speaking at the meeting,” said Paula Elias, mother of the two children, who attended the Oct. 13 meeting. “One of the most powerful lessons we can learn in a democracy is to raise our voices respectfully.”
Quanah said the new equipment is needed because the playground’s dilapidated condition prevents children from playing.
“There’s not as many games to play now,” Quanah said. “We get splinters if we play tag or something. We can’t really go over there because we get hurt.”
West Boulevard is taking advantage of a policy resolution passed by the council in 1998. That resolution allowed the city to give funds to public schools for equipment in return for public usage of the playgrounds during nonschool hours. Grant, Benton, Field and Lee Elementary schools have all updated their playgrounds with funds from the city.
Columbia school officials said the public does take advantage of the renovated playgrounds during nonschool hours.
“I don’t know which one is used most, but I do see people from the community using our school playgrounds on a frequent basis,” said Cheryl Cozette, assistant superintendent for elementary education in Columbia. “It’s a wonderful working relationship.”
Public schools that receive money must submit and follow an approved plan. The city is not liable for any accidents on the playgrounds.
The West Boulevard money will come from the federal Community Development Block Grant program, which funds projects that revitalize neighborhoods for low- and moderate-income people.
The funds were originally set aside for Parkade Elementary School. However, the school didn’t qualify for the CDBG money, so the city had to look elsewhere.
“We put in a request in the city’s 2004 budget for $15,000 in city general fund money that could be used to fund the Parkade project,” said Mike Hood, director of the Columbia Parks and Recreation Department. “Meanwhile, we had received a request from West Boulevard for improvements, too.”
As it turned out, things worked out for both West Boulevard and Parkade. West Boulevard qualified for the federal money. Parkade will receive public improvement funds from the city.
Second Ward Councilman Chris Janku originally suggested Parkade for the project, but he is pleased to see both projects moving forward.
“I think it’s great,” he said. “The schools have a lot of needs, and this way we can help them with recreation. In return, we get the benefit of the school property.”
The paperwork for the West Boulevard project most likely will be passed on to the school district next week, Hood said. The district will spend the money up front and be reimbursed for up to $15,000 worth of purchases and installations. The new playground equipment should be installed in the spring of 2004.
“I think it’s a really great example of two public entities, the school and the city, working together to make improvements that benefit the whole community,” Hood said.
Still, playground equipment is expensive, and Elias said the school’s PTA is continuing to raise money. Its goal is to match the city’s $15,000.
“If anyone wants to help, their dollar would never go further,” she said.