Hegewisch school unveils plan for 'green' playground

Rochelle Davis, left, president and CEO of the Healthy Schools Campaign, holds up a blueprint of the new schoolyard at Grissom Elementary School with Alderman John Pope, D-10th Ward, and Mariyana Spyropoulos, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago chairman of finance.

CHICAGO | The asphalt yard behind Grissom Elementary School in Hegewisch floods after every big storm, but officials hope that's a thing of the past after the unveiling of a plan to transform the area into a green space that will drain much better.

"It's really a full-blown campus renewal," Principal Dennis Sweeney said. "We have a lot of land, but it's all asphalt. It'll just be a much more inviting place than it is now."

Residents, students, parents, officials and school faculty and staff gathered Wednesday to see a blueprint for a yard that will contain a large outdoor track, a new playground, new basketball courts, a volleyball court, an outdoor-learning area, gardens and green space. Sweeney said it will be open to the public, allowing the surrounding community to enjoy the area. Construction is expected to begin later this year.

The outdoor classroom area could be used by arts or science classes. Sweeney said he could envision a science class exploring plant life or students writing poetry in the open air.

The project is part of a four-school pilot program for the Healthy Schools Campaign and conservation organization Openlands called "Space to Grow: Greening Chicago Schoolyards." The other schools are Donald Morrill Math & Science Elementary School, George Leland Elementary School and Theophilus Schmid Elementary School.

"Everything that's being installed, there's a green-infrastructure component so that they're capturing all the rainwater, so instead of that going off into the streets it'll be staying here on site," Openlands Education Coordinator Kristin LoVerde said. "Having the school and the community involved, it provides a lot of pride for the community as a whole."

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Healthy Schools Campaign President Rochelle Davis hopes it will expand in the future. The search for funding is not yet finished, but the selection process for which schools may be candidates for similar projects is underway, Davis said.

"We believe in the very simple and common sense notion that healthy students are better learners," Davis said. "Making sure that students have an appropriate place to play and do outdoor learning is really critical."

The pricetag is $1.5 million, footed by the Department of Water Management, Chicago Public Schools, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District and other groups. The project is part of Mayor Rahm Emanuel's $50 million Green Stormwater Infrastructure Strategy, announced in April.

Alderman John Pope of the 10th Ward attended Grissom as a kid and spoke to the crowd Wednesday.

"It's exciting to see that we're evolving, recognizing the need for more diverse activities and being more conscious of the environment," Pope said. "It's going to take a commitment by us to make sure it's maintained."

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