New project has Austin school growing green

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Blue skies, green grass, a fresh garden, shiny new playground equipment, and children laughing and playing on soft-rubber mounds of what looks like dirt at first glance.

Last year, the scene would’ve looked very different.

But this year, students at George Leland Elementary School, 512 S. Laverne Ave., have a total makeover of their outdoor facilities thanks to Space to Grow, which brings schools and communities newly designed outdoor spaces that inspire more physical fitness and boosts the environment.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony was held Oct. 25 at Leland to officially unveil the new outdoor space to the public.

Community members, organizers, volunteers, representatives from the organizations that helped fund the project, parents and students all took part in the event.

Leland was one of four schools chosen across the city to participate in the campaign’s kickoff. The others include Virgil I. Grissom School in Hegewisch, Donald L. Morrill Math and Science School in Chicago Lawn and Schmid Elementary in Pullman.

Six more schools are being targeted for next year, said Meg Kelly, project manager for Healthy Schools Campaign.

The design and planning process for the schools started last fall with community meetings to get feedback on what community members wanted to see in their area. Construction at the schools started over the summer.

“We believe nature is vital in people’s lives, and this is a great way to connect generations to green space and open space,” said Jill Allread, an Openlands board member.

Openlands is one of the cooperating groups, along with Healthy Schools Campaign, that helps manage the Space to Grow projects.

The facilities on the grounds of the schools serve an environmental need, in addition to encouraging physical fitness.

The materials used in the construction of the track, basketball court and play mound were designed to reduce runoff from rain by allowing the water to be soaked up by the ground, reducing damage from flooding in the area, Allread said.

A teaching garden was also constructed at the school, where students will work with teachers to plant and harvest edible plants, Leland Principal Loretta Brown-Lawrence said.

Chicago Public Schools, Chicago Department of Water Management, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago and city of Chicago all helped pay for the project.

“When (funding is available), you got to get in and get your elbow in to get the money over here,” Ald. Deborah Graham (29th) said. “We have to work together to make sure our community is in the mix, and that is what’s happening here.”

The total cost of the project was around $1.4 million, said Rochelle Davis, president and CEO of Healthy Schools Campaign.

The grandparent of one Leland student said that was money well spent, and she’d like to see the program expanded.

“I think it’s wonderful, much better than it was last year,” Edna Purches said. “They could do all the schools in Chicago like this … and it would be much better.”

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