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By Terry Dean
Irving Elementary students have experienced more head injuries this school year compared to kids at any other elementary school in District 97, a result of playing on the school's massive asphalt surface, according to data from the district.
Among the eight public elementary schools, Irving, the data shows, has had the most head injuries due to kids falling on the blacktop surface. The information comes from school nurses and was attained by a group of Irving parents who filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the district.
The decades-old blacktop at Irving, 1125 S. Cuyler, covers 80,000 square feet and extends along Ridgeland Avenue from Harvard Street to a row of houses just off Fillmore.
Laura Crawford, co-chair of the Irving PTO, said parents have long known of the safety issues concerning kids playing on the hard, asphalt blacktop — Irving has the least green space of any school in the district. The Irving PTO has been working to replace that surface with an eco-friendly green space for the last five years. Their master plan includes such features as a fitness area and an athletic field.
The parents have been raising money for their estimated $2 million-plus schoolyard. They have just over $100,000 in their coffer so far. D97 has committed $500,000 toward the project. Crawford said the FOIA request was filed in order to provide more quantitative data for potential funders of their project. The parents did not request head injury data from the two middle schools. Still, what the parents did find was disturbing, Crawford said.
Looking specifically at the rate of head injury per 100 students at the eight schools, Irving has a rate of 7.5 head injuries. Whittier and Longfellow has a rate of about 1.7. Beye and Mann both have a rate of just under one, while Holmes, Lincoln and Hatch had a rate of zero.
"Students are far more likely to become seriously injured outside on school property at Irving than at any other school in the district," Crawford said.
Along with D97, the PTO has garnered support from the Park District of Oak Park. But the recent head injury data has created a greater sense of urgency for Irving parents, who'd like to see their project break ground sooner than later, Crawford said.
She and two other Irving parents made their case at the May 22, D97 school board meeting. They urged administrators to take the lead in the project and start construction by next summer. Crawford said the PTO is currently pursing grants but insist they need additional help from D97. She added that parents were not aware of the injury statistics until filing the FOIA.
Entering this school year, the district set aside $250,000 in its budget for playground upgrades at every school over the next few years. This summer, Beye, Longfellow and Holmes will receive new playgrounds and other landscaping upgrades.
At the May 22 meeting, Supt. Albert Roberts and board President Peter Barber both reiterated the district's support for the Irving schoolyard project. Barber and other trustees did not dispute the injury data but urged the district to verify the information. Roberts expressed surprise that the parents filed a FOIA request, saying he was unaware of that request until the parents spoke that night. But the superintendent said he's always been troubled with the Irving blacktop.
"I'm a little surprised by the presentation tonight because it seems as if we were not seeing that blacktop as a high priority. I would've had that blacktop removed already. That's one of the first things I noticed when I came to the community," Roberts said.
Barber also responded to the urgency expressed by parents for the district to play a greater role in the project. He noted the project has thus far been led by the PTO.
"I want to make it real clear that at least my own personal expectation is that the Irving schoolyard community will continue to have a positive relationship that we have had up to this point, working with the administration and the board to make this a reality," he said.