By Susan Hale Thomas (Photo/Susan Hale Thomas)
Maury Elementary School second grader Jack Estabrook, dressed in a suit and tie, hair combed neatly to the side, climbed onto a chair, placed behind the podium just for him so he could reach the microphone, and addressed the Alexandria School Board last week.
“When it rains, we have to stay on the blacktop because the playground is squishy, wet and muddy,” he said. “The blacktop gets really crowded because there are so many people.”
Having raised over $200,000 toward a new playground, parents, students and Rosemont residents stood before the board to share their Maury playground stories and its importance to the Rosemont community. The Maury Schoolyard Initiative proposed a public-private partnership to raise the remaining money to complete their playground renovation project.
John Buscher, a parent leading the Maury Schoolyard Initiative’s efforts, said Maury’s situation is unique compared to the rest of Alexandria City Public Schools’ playgrounds.
“Maury sits at the bottom of a 34-acre gulch,” he said.
Parents, students and residents alike complained about poor drainage at the school. Portions of the sidewalks are frequently covered in mud and standing water. The playground itself is unusable at times because of the problem.
In an effort to prevent water from overflowing onto the public sidewalk along Russell Road, the school district installed plastic garden edging along portions of the sidewalk.
Hay bales have been wedged behind the cyclone fencing of the muddy baseball field to curb water flow as well. Sod was laid on a portion of the field as another means of water control, but, according to the students, the sod is off limits. Their soccer goals were removed from the playground.
“Low-cost efforts to correct this problem … have failed,” Buscher said. “This is not something that can be solved piece-meal by installing a drain over here or planting some new sod over there.”
In an initial concept rendering by Alexandria-based landscape architectural firm LandDesign, the Maury playground would be graded and a storm water management system would be installed. Plans include a basketball court, a multipurpose turf field, garden with raised beds, a fruit orchard, rubberized surfaces under all play equipment, a natural play area and an outdoor classroom.
The price tag for the initial design is $1.4 million, but Buscher said the price doesn’t include discounts, in-kind, grants and foundation support.
“The Maury Schoolyard Initiative is proposing a one-of-a-kind public-private partnership that could serve as a template for schools elsewhere,” he said.
For now, the LandDesign plans are the only cost estimate the group has received due to the cost of drafting plans.
In their search for support, the group partnered with REAL School Gardens, a nonprofit organization that creates learning gardens so that students in low-income areas can benefit from hands-on outdoor learning. The non-profit offered to cover 80 percent of the garden portion of the project, just over $70,000.
Students also are chipping in to raise funds for the project.
“You should know we are also doing our part,” said Maury fifth grader Alena Cooper. “I run my own business and sell lemonade in support of the Maury schoolyard.”
But Maury isn’t the only school in Alexandria looking to renovate their playground. Mount Vernon Community School is raising funds to resolve its own drainage issues, and William Ramsay Elementary is in need of playground renovations as well. Some city schools don’t have the donations or depth of parent involvement that can raise $200,000 for a new playground.
One of the latest playground renovations in the city was George Mason Elementary School. The city covered the cost of major re-grading that was needed, but no city money was put toward the playground. The school system covered roughly $170,000 of the playground expense while the school’s PTA paid for the remaining $55,000. An additional $25,000 was spent on a walking path around the back of the property.
The George Mason property is twice the size of Maury’s, but the topography is quite different. While School Board Member Marc Williams sympathized with the students and parents, he said they should manage their expectations, given the tight budget situation city leaders face.
“There is no need to reinvent the wheel here,” Williams said. “We have a precedent in what the city, schools and community did with the George Mason playground.
“It was a playground project with the same set of facts — a city park with drainage problems next to a school playground that the community raised money to renovate.”