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Parents seek to raise funds for first playground at Walker

Students at Charlottesville’s Walker Upper Elementary need a better space for recess, according to a group of parents and community members who are working to raise $90,000 for a playground at the school.

“Research shows that having adequate play spaces and time is the best thing we can do to promote brain development,” said Christa Bennett, a parent who is leading the effort.

Right now, students at recess can play on fields and on a blacktop that has four-square and other game markings. Parents also have worked over the years to purchase equipment.

But in the 31 years that the school has served Charlottesville’s fifth- and sixth-graders, students have never had an actual playground.

Bennett said better play spaces, which she is collectively calling a playground, can help with student behavior and social-emotional regulation.

“It’s a positive intervention,” she said.

The group, A Playground at Walker, has partnered with

Wildrock and other local organizations as it looks to secure grant funding for the project. Bennett expects the bulk of the money to come from grants, but, she said, the group is starting a GoFundMe to give community members an opportunity to get involved.

Bennett said the lack of a playground is an equity issue. Each elementary school funnels students to Walker, which is the first place where all students from the division come together. About 55% of Walker students are from low-income backgrounds, compared with 44% of the division overall.

Bennett said the group wants all students to have access to adequate play spaces.

At $90,000, she said a playground would be one of the more cost-effective school services, coming out to $134 per student, based on this school year’s enrollment of 671.

The actual design of the proposed play structure is up in the air. Volunteer architects created preliminary designs for the space, but Bennett said the group wants to include current elementary students in the design process.

Bennett said the project has been in the works for a year.

“I think it is an optimistic but not unrealistic goal that this will be built over the summer,” she said.

The playground idea coincides with a division plan to reconfigure the middle schools and turn Walker into an early childhood center. Planning for that project is in the preliminary stages, and a formal project proposal is expected in December 2020.

Bennett said the playground should move forward even with reconfiguration in the works.

“Kids need it now,” she said.

She added that the reconfiguration project is several years out and new students arrive at Walker each school year. If the full reconfiguration plan takes five years, nearly 3,000 students could benefit from the playground.

Bennett said she’s envisioning a play space that could be adapted to use with the early childhood center.

Walker’s principal, Adam Hastings, said he supports the project. It feeds into his efforts to spark more interest and excitement in students about school. To support that goal, students could add a second elective to their schedule this school year.

“Our kids deserve it,” he said of the playground.

Walker students have shown interest in the idea before, Bennett and Hastings said. A playground topped the wish list of Walker sixth-graders last year during a participatory budgeting project.

Kim Powell, assistant superintendent for finance and operations for city schools, said the division is happy to support adding a play structure if the group can get funding.

Bennett has cited a 2018 study from Oregon State University that found that the quality of play equipment, including having plenty of choices in play equipment and games, has an impact on the physical, cognitive, social and emotional benefits recess can provide.

She discussed the effort with parents during a recent PTO meeting. Parents were supportive of the idea and planned to form a committee to assist in the project.

Once the funding goal is reached, Bennett said the group will go to the School Board and the City Council for support. She said she’s not sure right now what approvals are needed to make the project a reality.

“It’s easier for them to agree to something if we say we are going to pay for it,” she said.

The Playground at Walker organization expects to find out about potential grant funding within the next month.


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