Living across from Lowell Elementary School, Kim Neuschel looked out at a vast expanse of asphalt and pondered the potential of the playground and other outdoor space.
She was struck by how much of the students’ engagement in their outdoor environment was asphalt, which covered a good portion of playground along with pea gravel. The mini-forest — a green space in the middle of the C-shaped school building — couldn’t be used during recess because of a fence. And while a group of parents earlier had created a garden in the front yard, it was underutilized because there was no fence to separate it from busy Atwood Avenue.
“To me, fundamentally, it was the question of how do our kids access the outdoors and what does that outdoor space say to them,” said Neuschel, whose son, Finnegan Neuschel-Dornan, attended the school.
Five years ago she mentioned the idea of redoing the outdoor space to John Burkholder, who came to Lowell when Finnegan was in first grade, and to the Lowell Community Organization, which is the school’s parent-teacher group.
Neuschel said the parent group took up the idea and excitement started to build when the school community painted a mural on the playground surface.
The school also took part in a master planning process with a local landscape architect. A working group was formed by the parent-teacher organization to carry out the project and Neuschel said she was surprised by the extent of the commitment.
“The people who showed up at that table said, ‘We want it all,’” she said. “The energy of that group is actually what moved this project to its full fruition.”
She said the project got a fundraising boost by connecting it to the school’s centennial celebration in 2016.
Donors step up
The Lowell Community Organization raised about $194,000 from 483 different donors, many of them parents, alumni and students, said Carrie Hinterthuer, the organization’s president. About $120,000 came from 35 community groups, foundations and businesses, including Madison-Kipp Corp., which gave the largest amount of $20,500.
Burkholder, who became principal at Hamilton Middle School this fall, said in addition to reconfiguring the area surfaced in asphalt to include green space, other ideas included making the playground equipment more accessible. The changes made the Near East Side school’s back entrance — where parents wait to pick up students after school — more welcoming.
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Chad Wiese, executive director of building and administrative services for the Madison School District, said as new equipment is replaced in the district at least a portion is accessible. Similarly, the Madison Parks Division has been constructing “fully inclusive” playgrounds.
The campus renovation was completed in three phases over four years, according to Jason Waller, one of the parent volunteer project coordinators. The first phase involved placing large stones to create outdoor classroom space. Then a new fence was erected around the front yard and a new garden and play space with natural objects were installed. The final phase was the playground at the back of the school.
He said he visited the playground as it was nearing completion and overheard a child tell her dad that it was “the best playground ever,” which made all of the effort seem worthwhile. Then later when he dropped off his second-grade daughter, Tenley, on the first day of school his “heart skipped a beat.”
A favorite piece of new equipment seems to be the “big boat swing,” which is a much larger version of a tire swing that it replaced. Third-grader Paige Voss said she likes it because it can fit more than the three kids who could get on the tire swing.
Fourth-grader Marta Sturm said a climbing piece, which resembles a big spider web, functions as a “marker” near the center of the playground much like a concrete rock painted like the Earth, which was removed.
Marta said she likes the new landscaping interspersed around the playground.
“I like nature and the Earth and these are really good additions,” she said.