For three years, Sarah Petersen had never seen some of her students on the swings during recess.
Petersen, a Developmental Education Classroom teacher at Mendenhall River Community School, said that changed this year. Thanks to City and Borough of Juneau capital improvement project funding, the school installed American Disability Act-compliant swings that are accessible to children of all abilities.
Now, she’s seeing students of hers (she teaches children with more profound disabilities) not only taking advantage of the swings, but even more importantly, they’re interacting with other students they otherwise wouldn’t have talked with.
“Sometimes going into the playground, it’s like, ‘What do I do?’ They need an adult to facilitate the whole interaction,” Petersen said, “but on the (new) swing, it was like, ‘I’ll push you. Is that OK?’ and they were like, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’ It’s been really cool.”
Thanks to the efforts of the school’s Parent Teacher Organization, the playground is set to become even more accessible next year.
In the past two years, the PTO has raised more than $22,000 to replace an outdated piece of equipment with a modern, accessible playground structure called the Desert Oasis.
The installation of the Desert Oasis will begin next summer and should be ready for the 2019-2020 school year, PTO President Andrea Petrie said in an interview last week. Petrie and other PTO representatives presented to the Board of Education last Tuesday, explaining how outdated and inaccessible the current playground structure on the playground is.
Gifts of more than $10,000 are required to go through the Board of Education according to board policy, and the board members unanimously agreed to accept the gift from the PTO.
The school district will pay for the installation of the Desert Oasis. Administrative Services Director Sarah Jahn said during last Tuesday’s meeting that it will likely be around $10,000.
The school district went through a similar process when Auke Bay Elementary School installed new playground equipment a couple years ago. That installation cost $13,000, according to the meeting materials last week, and this project is a smaller endeavor.
Mendenhall River Community School (MRCS) has the highest percentage of students in special education programs, PTO Treasurer Tiara Clark pointed out. MRCS Principal Kristy Dillingham said the school has the highest number of special programs in the district, saying that nearly 30 percent of the students are involved in special classes.
Petersen, who has been teaching in a DEC classroom for eight years in Juneau (and four at the elementary level), said there are a couple main challenges for disabled students on the playground. The rocks make it difficult for wheelchairs to go through, and a slope in the middle of the playground that ices up in the winter also gives students of all abilities trouble. PTO representatives at last Tuesday’s meeting pointed out that the piece of equipment that’s being replaced is often closed in the winter due to ice.
At an assembly this past Friday morning, Dillingham announced to students that the new playground equipment will be coming next year. The students cheered, and an eagle mascot nodded its head enthusiastically as Dillingham presented photos of the playground equipment.
Dillingham said in an interview that there wasn’t anything specific that made them want to do the replacement now, but they didn’t want to wait until the equipment absolutely needed to be replaced.
“I would say, more than anything, our PTO was trying to really be proactive and really trying to support all students and give all students opportunities,” Dillingham said.
For the most part, PTO fundraisers help teachers stock their classrooms and aid with behind-the-scenes functions of the school, Dillingham and Petrie said. Doing a project like this is much more visible, they said.
“This is something that they can see, that they can reap the benefit for,” Petrie said. “This can really boost them and give them something new and exciting and show them that hard work pays off.”
• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.