Cheers of “Dig! Dig!” rang out at the Jennie Reed Elementary schoolyard Thursday afternoon as students watched a handful of their classmates ceremoniously dig their shovels into a mound of dirt.
After years of promised improvements to the playground, the elementary school will be one of five others in Tacoma that will get an upgrade. Hopefully by next fall, the grass field at Jennie Reed Elementary will be ringed with an asphalt track. More trees will line the barrier overlooking Interstate 5, and new playground equipment will be installed for students and families to enjoy.
The effort is part of a pilot program to increase the percentage of Tacoma residents living within a 10-minute walk of a public park.
More than 65,000 people in Tacoma don’t, and the gaps are particularly evident in the east and southern sides of the city, as well as the Hilltop neighborhood, which aligns with Tacoma’s documented history of redlining, said Andrew McConnico, a project manager for Trust for Public Land.
With the price of land increasing, transforming existing schoolyards into community parks has proved to be a cost-effective and innovative solution, McConnico said.
There are ongoing efforts to revamp the playgrounds at Helen B. Stafford Elementary School, Whitman Elementary School, Mann Elementary School and Larchmont Elementary School as well.
The initiative is through a collaboration with Tacoma Metro Parks, Tacoma Public Schools and national nonprofit Trust for Public Land. Design concepts for the green spaces came from workshops with current students attending each school, and funding comes largely from private donors, McConnico said. The cost is about $1 million per site.
Having more trees in a community reduces the heat island effect, where urban structures like buildings and roads absorb heat and create “islands” of higher temperatures relative to areas with more natural landscapes. Trees also create a visual buffer against traffic, which could help students living and learning next to a busy highway, McConnico said.
Many of the projects incorporate stormwater management, like rain gardens, to capture stormwater and reduce pollution in South Puget Sound.
“Some of that serves as an educational opportunity for students [too],” McConnico said.
‘We owe it to them’
For many students at Jennie Reed Elementary, the playground is the only green space they have access to, said principal Abby Sloan. About 75% of her students live in an industrialized area or an apartment complex surrounded by concrete, she said.
“When you talk about our kids, our kids are the only ones that if they don’t have recess out here, they don’t see grass for 24 hours,” Sloan said. “That means we owe it to them to have a space in the daytime that everyone has access to.”
Three years ago, when the fifth graders who were running around the playground Thursday afternoon were in second grade, Sloan said she promised them a new playground.
Sloan said she gets questions from students every day about when those changes will happen. Now, they have hope.
“The power of community is huge,” Sloan said. “The biggest thing is, I can keep my promise … I love this community because they really supported me.”
Although some fifth graders will graduate before the park improvements are complete, involving them in the groundbreaking ceremony and showing them that change is coming was important, Sloan said.
Trust for Public Land program director Sarneshea Evans said the changes will also be important to Tacoma residents who grew up attending these schools and have multi-generational connections to that land.
“Children, students, neighbors should have the opportunity to have a park that’s local and has their own layer of personality and speaks to what they’re needing in the space,” Evans said. “And the schoolyard has a great opportunity to have a space that works for the students during the day, helps them with their development, their way of thinking, but also is a space that they’re comfortable with and allows them to bring their families too.”