THE PLAYGROUND at Jenks Academy for the Arts and Sciences in Chestnut Hill - with its spacious sandbox and chunky wood structures - is a place of imagination, as Eden Kainer describes it.
In a city of cracked asphalt schoolyards, Jenks' playground is a model of green architecture. But in the cash-starved Philadelphia School District, playground equipment and green fields are secondary to more urgent needs - such as replacing fire alarms, hiring nurses, buying books, and repairing decades-old buildings.
That is why six elementary schools in Northwest Philadelphia are taking on the job of greening schoolyards. The schools (Anna B. Day, Eleanor C. Emlen, Charles W. Henry, Henry H. Houston, Jenks Academy for the Arts and Sciences, and Anna L. Lingelbach) are all part of Mount Airy Schools Coalition, a branch of the large nonprofit Mount Airy U.S.A.
Last fall, the schools worked with Philadelphia nonprofits and community members to draft new design plans for playgrounds. And this fall, they will continue collaborating in the hope of raising funds through grant applications to begin smaller-scale renovations such as installing gardens and picnic tables.
The local efforts mirror initiatives in other large urban districts, such as Chicago and New York, where volunteers are raising funds independently of the school district, said Lois Brink, chief strategist of the Big SandBox, a city-based nonprofit that focuses on creating urban parks and green schoolyards.
Brink is a major force in the Mount Airy schools' greening efforts. A Philadelphia native, she founded a program in Colorado, Learning Landscapes, that helped transform 96 schoolyards in Denver.
"Greening schoolyards is especially important for underprivileged students to get away from these negative stereotypes about the area," she said.
Brink and Bambi Yost, an assistant professor of landscape architecture at Iowa State University, were the key organizers of the planning last fall. Over a period of a week, they meet with landscape architects, observed student routines, and evaluated schoolyard accessibility and storm water management to sketch initial designs for the playgrounds.
The schoolyard renovation movement in Mount Airy, however, has a history that predates Brink and Yost.
In October 2002, more than 1,000 parents, students, and neighbors of Houston School, on Rural Lane in West Mount Airy, gathered to build a new playground. The volunteers built wooden swing sets, set up a jungle gym behind the school, and installed a wooden fence around the playground. They had the help of Leathers & Associates, a national firm that specializes in custom-designed playgrounds.
Fifteen years later, the organization has a formal name, Friends of Houston Playground, and a singular focus: raising funds to maintain the schoolyard.
Formed in 1997, the Friends of the Children's Park in Chestnut Hill is another volunteer organization that annually raises $5,000 to $10,000 to maintain the Jenks playground, said Kainer, the president of the group. The money is used to seal and repaint the wooden play equipment.
Brink has also worked in schools outside Northwest Philadelphia. She's leading a project to remake the schoolyard at Kensington's Hackett School. The K-5 school has a large asphalt field behind it for its 425 students. That's all.
Brink is working with the Philadelphia Water Department (which is contributing $1 million for the project) and the Friends of Hackett School to install, among other things, slides, a jungle gym, and green spaces.
Community funding and planning is driving the playground renovation process, but some Mount Airy community members said that they get little help from the School District.
Leah Hood, one of the parents involved in greening Germantown's Lingelbach School, said School District officials have little enthusiasm for the parents' efforts.
They "don't seem to be matching the energy of the local community," Hood said, adding that she had a hard time setting up meetings with district officials to get needed information, such as the list of district-approved contractors for playground equipment.
Danielle Floyd, the district director of capital programs, said the district applauds the volunteer groups' efforts.
"Thanks to the greening these local organizations are doing, the value of our district property goes up," she said.
The district plans to hire more representatives in the next few years and put up a basic guide on the website to deal with higher greening demand.
Last year, the district spent around $1.5 million - out of a total budget of $2.7 billion - on greening schoolyards, and it has pledged to spend $1 million each year for the next five years on greening, Floyd said.
"Public schools are at a crossroads," said Hood. "Greening is mostly a community initiative right now, but the district is realizing that green schoolyards are incredible assets to the community."