Political work pays for a place to play

School: A Howard Park elementary has a place for recess thanks to a community campaign.

November 09, 2003|By Gail Gibson | Gail Gibson,SUN STAFF

When she arrived at Calvin M. Rodwell Elementary School six years ago, Principal Cynthia M. Winkler was astounded to learn that her students had virtually no recess, and with good reason - what should have been the playground was nothing more than scrubby grass, cracked asphalt and broken glass.

"The children didn't even go outside," Winkler recalled. "They ate lunch, and then they went back to their classrooms."

To the school's teachers and parents, the situation was plain wrong. Children, even those from the city's poorest corners, should have swings and slides and monkey bars.

So without the cash on hand to buy those things, the Howard Park community in Northwest Baltimore tapped something else to fix the problem: political capital.

Working with the activist group Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development, community members went house to house to register voters before the 1998 governor's race and prod neighborhood involvement with the promise that their efforts could bring results.

The payoff came yesterday as the neighborhood dedicated a $150,000 playground at the school and - while dozens of children scrambled over the brightly colored equipment - leaders pledged that it was the start of a broader revitalization effort that could include bringing a supermarket to the area and building a community or recreation center.

"It is an honor to stand here before you today and say, `We did it,'" Sonya Goodwyn, a fifth-grade teacher at Calvin Rodwell told the crowd gathered in yesterday's fall sunshine. "And now that we have a playground, what's next? ... Our goal is to rebuild our community and make it safe for our children."

The playground at Calvin Rodwell was paid for with money from a state grant to build state-of-the-art playgrounds at city schools affiliated with the Child First Authority, the educational arm of BUILD. The group has kept the pressure on politicians in Annapolis and at City Hall since its voter registration efforts helped re-elect then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening in 1998.

Since then, six Child First schools have built playgrounds. Calvin Rodwell is the seventh.

Winkler, the principal, said she initially looked to see whether the school could raise money for a playground on its own. But when it quickly became apparent that the thinly stretched budget could not accommodate playground equipment, "parents and community members stepped up to help fight for it," she said.

Cheryl Carter-Taylor - whose 11-year-old daughter, Destiny, is in fifth grade at Calvin Rodwell - summed up the school grounds before the makeover as "humdrum."

"It was torn down, beat up - there was really no outside activity for our children," Carter-Taylor said. "This is one of the best things that could have happened for our neighborhood and this school."

PTA President Pamela Latimer, who has a son and grandson at the school, said the playground is a monument to perseverance.

"The parents and the teachers - they had to really be committed in order to get this thing done because it did take awhile," Latimer said.

More than four years in the preparation, work on the Calvin Rodwell playground began during the summer and was completed last month.

Yesterday, the playground was greeted with speeches and drum lines, step groups and the Pledge of Allegiance. It also received a warm welcome from the children, who gave it rave reviews.

"It's fun. It's very colorful, and it don't get you dirty," 11-year-old Rasheeda Gillis said, jumping a bit on the soft rubber surface of the play area.

Fourth-grader Corey Jones, 9, praised the monkey bars and the scope of the project: "It is very big," he said. "And it has a lot of colors."

"I think it's great," said Corey's friend 9-year-old Justin McCready. "We used to have to go all over on the weekend to try to find a playground, and now we can just come here."

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