By Terry Dean
When Oak Park voters OK'd a tax hike for District 97 early this month, they knew they were saving art, music, drama and extracurriculars. But district officials also said they'd use "modest amounts" of the new money to fund expansion of technology in classrooms, and to pay attention to school grounds that have been virtually ignored — beyond basic maintenance — over recent years.
The district has talked about using outside spaces to create natural classrooms similar to what colleges do with their science classes.
Superintendent Albert Roberts has promoted the idea of turning playgrounds into "outdoor classrooms." He recommended spending nearly $3 million of their referendum funds on that objective and has long maintained that improving school grounds was among their priorities in seeking a tax increase.
"There are some physical needs that need to be taken consideration of," he said. "We've talked about active bodies and active minds and there are green spaces that we can use for educational purposes that's a part of our overall strategy as well for the security of our youngsters."
Roberts has also talked about moving away from referring to outdoor space simply as "playgrounds," and instead encouraging people to think of the space as "outdoor classrooms." In terms of physical education, Roberts insists having kids outdoors will also help combat childhood obesity.
"The ability to use our classroom spaces outdoors, getting kids active and moving, utilizing school gardens, and really having kids participating in outdoor life is an important part of our plan," Roberts said previously.
Norman Lane, the district's building and grounds director, told Wednesday Journal last week about a few other wish-list possibilities — replacing some of the old playground equipment is one item. Lane said it's a matter of safety with the equipment, some of which is pretty old. School officials have also pointed to the mud hole that the front lawn of Percy Julian Middle School has devolved into.
At the PTO level, individual schools have talked up such projects for years. PTOs at various elementary or middle schools have paid for such items as swings, vegetable gardens and outdoor patios. Many of the schools, meanwhile, share or utilize park district grounds and facilities located near their schools.
Still, families from the various schools have argued for more green space. Parents at Irving, 1125 S. Cuyler Ave., for example, have been working the last four years on a plan to replace the enormous blacktop area at their school. Their plans call for green space, athletic fields and improved play areas for kids, in addition to a relocated parking lot for building staff.