A request to remake the Sheridan Elementary schoolyard — with its broken concrete, busted fence, and no real space for kids to play — languished inside the Philadelphia School District for a decade.
Then came the Change Makers.
The group of fourth graders at the Kensington school, organized to fight for things they believe in, told their truth to the Philadelphia school board — kids speaking in loud, clear voices about how much they love their school, but how much it needs.
Jayden Hughes, 10, told the board that Sheridan needed a new yard “because my friend Brian tripped and hurt his knee and it was bleeding.”
”The pavement is cracked all over the schoolyard and it’s a dangerous hazard. ... Also the fence is super wiggly and people can tear it down and break in!” Jayden told the school board in October. “Then we have to go on lockdown, and that’s no fun at all — the kindergartners will be almost in tears.”
District officials arrived at the Kensington school to begin work on the yard the next day.
“We made that happen,” Devyn Smith, 10, said Monday, still a little incredulous. “We just asked for it.”
The story of grassroots change started with a school visit.
Last October, Sheridan officials invited school board vice president Leticia Egea-Hinton to Kensington for Hispanic Heritage Month. When she visited, student ambassadors gave her a tour — rolling out the red carpet but also pulling no punches. Their school is old, they pointed out, with a lot that needs fixing.
The district of 120,000 students has about 300 buildings, many of which are 70-plus years old and in need of significant repairs. Systemwide, about $5 billion in fixes are needed. The district has just begun a strategic planning process that could result in new buildings and even school closings and consolidations.
Sheridan, a K-4 school at G and Ontario that educates 400 students, was built in 1889 — more than 130 years ago.
At least 40 students were injured on the yard, all bare concrete with no play equipment, in the first two months of the school year, staff said. Soccer games were stopped because there were too many kids getting hurt.
“Our nurse broke both of her wrists in the yard,” principal Awilda Balbuena said. “The injuries were insane.”
Egea-Hinton wasn’t surprised by the kids’ poise and eloquence.
But she was moved.
“The needs are enormous around the district, and we’re governance, so we’re looking at things from a much larger scope,” Egea-Hinton said. “But when you hear from the actual people that are in the schools, actually living in the community, that’s powerful.”
Egea-Hinton suggested that Balbuena and assistant principal Julio Nuñez help students take their thoughts about Sheridan public, to the larger school board. So Balbuena and Nuñez organized a group of fourth graders to think about a question: What do you wish was different about Sheridan?
The new social-justice group now meets twice a week. They call themselves the Change Makers.
“We told them, ‘The adults can only do so much,’” Nuñez said. “We need to hear from you.”
The schoolyard was Priority No. 1. The students helped collect more than 100 signatures on a petition asking for improvements. And at last October’s board meeting, Jayden and Devyn spoke, along with Nuñez, another staffer, and a parent, waiting hours for their turn to tell officials about Sheridan.
By 10:30 the next morning, crews had arrived at Sheridan to begin pulling up the 239 concrete blocks that needed replacing.
“It’s something I will never forget,” Jayden said.
The school community also successfully advocated to add fifth-grade classes next year.
The Change Makers aren’t stopping. Now they want a playground. And their newest campaign centers on an issue that’s been especially relevant these past few sweltering weeks.
“We want air-conditioning for all the classes,” said Ronald Perez, 10. Sheridan is one of the 111 schools districtwide that lack adequate cooling; its electrical system can’t currently support schoolwide air-conditioning.
“In all the years that I’ve been at my school, I have always wanted to have a classroom with an air conditioner. ... It makes me not want to come to school, but I still come to school,” said Cindy Hernandez, 10
Egea-Hinton wants to keep hearing from young people at Sheridan and schools like it that often lack the parent organizations present in higher-income schools.
“I was proud of them the way I was proud of my children and grandchildren,” she said. At Egea-Hinton’s behest, most of the school board visited Sheridan a few weeks ago.
“We’re a district with a lot of problems, but if there are things that are low-hanging fruit that can be responded to, it encourages these kids that their voice will be heard,” Egea-Hinton said. “They believe in their schools, they love their schools, and they want to make a difference.”
Balbuena and Nuñez said they can’t wait to see the Change Makers grow and take on more issues of importance to the community.
“If they have a voice now, their voices will only get louder next year,” Balbuena said. “Whatever school they’re going to, they’re going to be heard. They’re their own advocates now.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.