Pre-kindergarteners wave to Clifford

It’s been difficult not having a playground for the 150 students at St. Edmund Parish School. The younger kids have been making the trek—if it’s not raining—to a nearby tot lot on Oak Park Avenue, while the older ones dodge parked cars in a parking lot.

“It’s so sad,” said Andrea de Avila, who teaches three-year-olds at the pre-kindergarten to eighth grade school at 200 S. Oak Park Ave.

Last Wednesday morning, the fidgety kids sitting in the school gym had no idea that was about to change. But first, they were introduced to a special furry visitor.

“Oh my God!” some kids exclaimed as others cheered, clapped and waved at the big red dog. “It’s Clifford!”

Clifford – that would be Clifford the Big Red Dog – has big ideas are about sharing, being fair and having a big spirit and heart, Daisy Kline, the vice president of brand marketing for Scholastic, told the excited kids.

Clifford is the symbol of the Scholastic BE BIG in Your Community contest, whose winners were sitting in the very same gym.As part of the Scholastic contest, de Avila and three of her colleagues at St. Edmund won a $25,000 grant to convert a window-level rooftop into a garden and playground for the students.

“I read the first line and I really couldn’t believe it,” de Avila, 25, said. She ran to tell the rest of the team—Doris Loong, Kakie Conroy-Lovaas and Jennie Izaguirro. All were clad in red that morning in honor of Clifford.

“It was a team effort,” she said. “It was a goal we wanted to meet, so we went for it.”

“We liked the space,” Loong added about the 90-foot by 15-foot area outside her and de Avila’s classroom, about 12 feet off the ground. Only three carpeted steps and a window inside the room stand between it and the students.

On one side of the space will be a garden, where all the students can do experiments and grow fruits and vegetables. The other side will have turf and toys and can be used by the younger kids. De Avila said she hoped it could be ready by May of next year.

The idea seemed obvious to de Avila, who is in her second year at the school. She said teachers have wanted a playground, but the lack of funding has been holding it back.

Her classroom gets Clifford magazines from Scholastic, which is where de Avila saw the promotional material in April for the contest. She sent the material back in May, and found out in August that the group had won.

The playground’s future remains uncertain, as staff will be working with Chicago Cares, an affiliate of the HandsOn Network, to hammer out the design in the next couple of months. They’ve talked about doing a Noah’s Ark theme, said Maria Allori, the school’s marketing coordinator.

Allori, who has a son in sixth grade at the school, said she’s seen their need for a playground.

She’s sure the kids will be really happy when they fully absorb it, but the hype of Clifford’s visit seemed to be what they cared about most.

“It probably hasn’t sunk in,” Allori said.

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