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Playground parity out of schools' reach

Hyacinth Kirlew plays on grass, dirt and asphalt during school recess.

The Seminole Heights Elementary fifth-grader runs and kicks balls with her classmates on land behind the school. But on this 79-year-old urban school's makeshift playground, you won't find slides and swings.

"We just have a big field," says Hyacinth, 10. "If the school had a playground, it'd be much better."

But it won't be getting any better for Kirlew unless parents, neighbors or businesses open their wallets for a steel and plastic play paradise.

The Hillsborough County School Board, which runs the nation's 11th largest school district, pays for playground equipment only at new schools, most of which are opening in growing, suburban neighborhoods such as New Tampa and Brandon.

The school system mostly leaves it up to parents to replace antiquated monkey bars and wobbly balance beams at older schools.

The result: Most schools in affluent neighborhoods have top-of-the-line playgrounds thanks to PTAs, compared with only a few in poor neighborhoods, according to an analysis by the St. Petersburg Times.

Across the district, 46 of the district's 109 elementary schools have inadequate playgrounds, and 22 of those still have metal playgrounds that were popular decades ago, records show. Six schools have no equipment at all.

Schools such as McDonald in east Hillsborough and Dunbar in central Tampa have only basketball courts and fields.

But Chiles, McKitrick, Symmes and Oak Grove will be fully equipped with modular play centers when they open in August.

Some parents object to the inequity.

"I just want every school to be treated fairly," said Mille Ann Brown, who has two children at Oak Park Elementary, which has an older playground paid for with federal dollars. "I feel like if you can do it for one, you should be able to do it for all."

School district officials say they can't afford to install new playgrounds at all schools.

"Playgrounds are important to us," said Superintendent Earl Lennard. "But they do not necessarily have the same priority for us as providing classroom space."

The disparity in school playgrounds throughout the county echoes the complaints lodged by the NAACP that schools in poor, black neighborhoods are not treated equally, despite a 30-year-old desegregation order.

Of the 46 schools needing equipment, 35 are schools where more than 60 percent of students receive free or reduced-price lunches based on low family income.

The district's approach _ paying for playgrounds at new schools but not at older schools _ raises the issue of who should pay for such equipment and what role playgrounds play in a child's education.

Recreation experts say playgrounds are more than just a fun diversion.

Children benefit from unstructured play by learning social skills in playing with other children, said Fran Zavacky, who sits on the Council on Physical Education for Children. Playgrounds also allow them to relax outside the learning environment, develop their muscles and burn calories, which is of growing importance given the growing problem of childhood obesity.

She's not surprised that 42 percent of Hillsborough elementary schools need new playgrounds.

"So many schools are so very concerned about standardized testing scores, one of the first areas to be neglected is physical education, health and the arts," Zavacky said. "As a result, a lot of school systems find it difficult to prioritize playgrounds. They tend to pour much more money into reading and math."

Hillsborough school officials estimate it would cost a minimum of $3-million to outfit all older schools with new playgrounds, or between $19,000 and $45,000 each.

The district has applied for a $350,000 federal grant for playgrounds at seven schools in impoverished areas.

The rest will have to wait. But parents, teachers and principals at dozens of schools have grown tired of waiting.

Some schools, including Ruskin Elementary in south Hillsborough, where many of the children's parents are migrant farm workers, organized communitywide fundraisers. Children collected pennies and local businesses gave donations to get equipment at the school.

At Chiaramonte Elementary, Principal Marie Valenti led a five-year effort to gather about $20,000 for a playground for children in kindergarten through third grade. There were bake sales and snow cone stands. Children recycled phone books and gathered cereal box tops.

"I would take World's Finest Chocolate to our principals' meetings," Valenti said. "They would buy it just to shut me up."

The school got its playground, and eventually another for grades four and five, after a bequest from the school's namesake, Alfonso Chiaramonte. Benefactors have also paid for playgrounds at Seffner, Anderson and Foster elementary schools.

Parents at Buckhorn, Ballast Point and Roosevelt elementary schools recently completed fundraisers and are getting playgrounds installed this summer.

Buckhorn parent Jennifer Faliero was shocked to learn the district couldn't replace the school's old playground. The PTA struggled to raise more than $20,000 for a partial playground by sponsoring a carnival and walk-a-thon.

But she believes it's the role of the school district, not the parents, to pay for playgrounds.

"If you look at the priorities of the school and teacher salaries, I guess playground equipment is lower on the priority list of the School Board," Faliero said. "But as a parent, me personally, I can't imagine an elementary school without a playground. I don't think there should be a trade-off."

Ballast Point was fortunate enough to get the community and neighborhood association to give bout $7,000 toward a playground and persuade CVS, which was opening a pharmacy in the neighborhood, to donate an estimated $20,000 to get a partial playground.

"I couldn't believe these new schools were getting all this equipment and these old schools had nothing," said parent Shari Brauer. "I felt slighted. But that really catapulted us."

Roosevelt parent Diana Jeffries said if parents can afford it, they ought to pay for playgrounds. But perhaps the district should do more to help the poorer schools.

Eric Stamets, the district's supervisor of elementary physical education, said his ultimate goal is to get playgrounds at every elementary school. But he sees the main problem as inadequate state funding.

Stamets said asking the PTAs to raise $45,000 for playgrounds is a bit much.

"But I love them to death for what they do for our schools," he said. "I truly believe it's the state's responsibility. When you look at the funding we get for education in the state of Florida, I'm amazed at what we can do."

The Rev. W.F. Leonard, president of the Hillsborough Organization for Progress and Equality, said the school system needs to take another look.

"In my working with the School Board, all I hear is no money," said Leonard, a minister with Peace Missionary Baptist Church. "Then I wonder, what price do we put on our kids?"

_ Melanie Ave covers education and can be reached at (813) 226-3400.

Old equipment

The following Hillsborough County elementary schools have that have old, inadequate or no playground equipment: Alexander, Bay Crest, Bellamy, Bing, Broward, Cahoon, Citrus Park, Clair-Mel, Cleveland, Crestwood, DeSoto, Dover, Dunbar, Edison, Folsom, Forest Hills, Gibsonton, Graham, Jackson, Kenly, Knights, Lanier, Lee, Lutz, McDonald, Mendenhall, Miles, Mintz, Oak Park, Palm River, Pinecrest, Riverview, Robles, Seminole, Shaw, Shore, Springhead, Temple Terrace, Thonotosassa, Town & Country, Trapnell, West Tampa, Wilson, Wimauma, Witter, Yates.

Source: Hillsborough County schools and Miracle Recreation.