The deterioration of the grounds has caused injuries among children
(Somerville Wire) – Parental and community concern about the condition of the Benjamin G. Brown School’s play yard came to a head at a recent School Committee meeting, culminating in the successful passage of a resolution that calls for a quick and efficient fix to the space. Members of the Brown School PTA Infrastructure Committee have supported what they call a “band aid” solution to the problem, a temporary but urgently needed repair to the dangerous area where some 250 injuries have taken place in the past school year. While parents are hopeful about a timeline that would likely mean construction would begin over the summer, they are anxiously awaiting a bigger conversation with Mayor Katjana Ballantyne.
“With the number of injuries requiring medical attention this year approaching 300, the urgency of this situation is obvious. For far too long, the City has demonstrated that the Brown School facilities are simply not a priority, not for accessibility, not for safety,” said Ryan Williams, president of the Brown School PTA and parent to two daughters at the Brown School. “Since the start of the pandemic, there has been a 27% reduction in enrollment at the Brown. … This detrition is due to the calculated and frankly cynical decision to allow the facilities to deteriorate and decay … Five years after the City pledged to fully renovate the schoolyard, it remains, in the City’s own words, ‘cracked and patched asphalt, devoid of features.’ Devoid. Should that word ever be used to describe a schoolyard?”
Williams added that children are being denied the freedom of play, an essential part of their growth, with the play yard being in the condition that it is in. He also noted that the Brown School, a public school, is predominantly attended by girls, asking what kind of message are we sending to young girls, who do not have a safe place for recreation. Sean Becker, a parent from the PTA who has been working to address this issue for over nine years, said that the Brown School does not have a lunchroom, gym, or auditorium, making the outdoor space all the more essential. Becker said that back in 2000, there had been talk about closing the school, and today, there is a mentality that “Brown is an old decrepit school that we should close,” even with its higher test scores.
The PTA put together a letter of support, signed by 205 Somerville residents, calling for the rapid design and construction of a “safe, level, and well drained surface” during the summer of 2022 window. School Committee member Ellenor Barish put forth a resolution, which was passed unanimously at a Feb. 7 meeting, advocating for the “band aid” solution that parents have expressed a need for. While in the past, the Brown School was intended to have a plan for a more full-fledged playground, parents stated that time is of the essence and that they would prefer to see the temporary, softer surface implemented sooner rather than later.
Barish emphasized that if construction were to begin over the summer and be completed by the fall, the work would not interfere with student life and vice versa. She also pointed out “the way the deterioration of the surface impacts the safety of students and the ability of staff to supervise recess, have productive physical education classes, and also the impact on the school nurse.”
“In the wake of the pandemic, because the outdoor space is being used also for lunch time and additional mask breaks, it’s getting more use and is potentially more crowded,” Barish continued. “Also, the district has made social-emotional learning a priority and has recognized the importance of structured and unstructured play in education. Those things can happen outside. [We’d like to] make sure the Brown School community has access to a place where all of those things can happen and can happen as safely as possible.”
Parents said that they felt encouraged by the passage of the resolution but have not yet had a meeting with Ballantyne. Time is of the essence, said Williams, and many fear that if the situation is not handled effectively, the result will be that “nothing substantial [will] happen this summer, or they’ll just throw a bunch of tar there to fill a couple cracks.” Members of the PTA are eager to get on the City’s calendar.
“We arranged a political calendar so that this thing had incredible support,” said Becker. “We had a unanimous City Council resolution. Not a single councilor opposed … Unfortunately, we’ve been asking since Jan. 14 for a meeting [with Ballantyne]. We have yet to get one scheduled. In our system of government, the City Council can approve funds, the School Board can give gestures of support, the superintendent of schools can strongly vote in support, but the only person who can make a decision is the mayor.”
Ballantyne, who spoke at the Feb.7 meeting, released a statement to the Somerville Wire regarding the timeframe of construction and her intentions regarding the play yard.
“We are working to begin construction this summer on improvements that will address safety concerns and expand play opportunities at the Brown School,” wrote Ballantyne. “We recognize the urgency here, and our plans are nearly finalized. We’ll be sharing next steps in the coming weeks. I’m grateful to the Brown School community for their continued engagement and look forward to making these critical upgrades for our students.”
Lynda Barros-Mitova, a vice president of the Brown School PTA, said that the school needs to see action before any more injuries take place.
“Brown is such a lovely community,” said Barros-Mitova. “We’re a small school, but we’re a tight knit community. It’s a true mix of Somerville. I think Brown has had this image in the past that it’s mostly white. My daughter and I are not white. I know many families of color. We don’t just pull from the neighborhood; we pull from all over Somerville. So it is a true representation of what we look like. And we want equity for all of our kids.”
This article is syndicated by the Somerville Wire municipal news service of the Somerville News Garden project of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism.
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Shira Laucharoen is assistant director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and assistant editor and staff reporter of the Somerville Wire.