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Irving Park Parents Fought For Years To Better Their School. A New Playground Could Be Coming, But Other Problems Remain

Scammon Elementary parents and teachers say they're tired of waiting for CPS to fix the school's many problems as kids are forced to learn in leaking trailers and play on crumbling asphalt.

Damage can be seen at the mobile classrooms and the asphalt surrounding them at Jonathan Y Scammon Public School in Irving Park on July 15, 2021.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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IRVING PARK — At Scammon Elementary School, the mobile classrooms are dilapidated. Parents say kids are forced to learn in leaky outdoor trailers with no heat and air conditioning.

The campus doesn’t have a playground. When it’s time for recess, students play in the asphalt lots, which are riddled with deep cracks and potholes.

“I have a daughter with juvenile arthritis … . If her foot gets stuck in any of those holes, the damage that can go to her joints can be severe,” said Kelly Cirino, who has three children at Scammon and was formerly the chair of its local school council.

Scammon parents said for years they have pressed Chicago Public Schools for upgrades to the campus, calling for a new playground, refurbished blacktop and either new mobile classrooms or an annex to address overcrowding. None of that has come to fruition. Tired of waiting for the district, Scammon parents found a local nonprofit that could help them get a new playground — but CPS refused to sign off on the agreement.

Now, Scammon parents are mobilizing again, launching a petition to push CPS to act and fundraising to support other improvements. The district recently promised a new playground in its next budget, but there’s only a tentative time frame for how long that would take and parents say the pledge doesn’t address the other updates the school needs.

“I am very grateful we’re getting a playground,” Principal Christos Liberos said at a school council meeting Thursday. “I’m just going to say those modular [trailers] would not be standing on any school further northwest. When we talk about equity, let’s keep that in mind.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
Damage can be seen at the mobile classrooms and the asphalt surrounding them at Jonathan Y Scammon Public School in Irving Park on July 15, 2021.

Scammon, 4201 W. Henderson St., serves about 500 students from preschool through eighth grade. The majority of the school’s population is Hispanic or low-income, according to CPS data.

Julio Rodriguez, a school council member and former student, said the trailers were installed in 1995 or 1996. When they were new, he remembers students wanting to be the “cool kids” who went to class in the trailers.  

“I think they were built as a short-term solution to overcrowding. I don’t think they are meant to be there in perpetuity,” Rodriguez said.

Now, they are beyond repair, teachers said.

Amanda Valdez, a preschool teacher who has held class in the trailers for the past three years, said their heat is “incredibly inconsistent,” the gutters are shoddy, the exterior doors don’t close properly, the door locks don’t work, the air conditioning and internet don’t work, there are cracked floor tiles and the water quality and pressure in the bathroom is poor.

“And the overall size is just not appropriate for 20 preschoolers in the classroom. I just want to vocalize how important the issues in these module [trailers] are and keep pressing for change,” Valdez said. “Myself and the other teacher repeatedly get sick in those” trailers.

The conversation about campus improvements has been going on since at least 2017, parents said. Rodriguez said the district’s approval process is incredibly slow and convoluted.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

As the community’s requests to the district went nowhere, Scammon parents doubled down on trying another way to at least get a playground for the kids.

In 2018, they connected with Dream Build Play, a suburban nonprofit that helps communities design, fundraise for and build playgrounds. The group agreed to help them speed up the process.

That, too, was thwarted by the district’s rules.

Margaret Chaidez, a project manager at Dream Build Play, said a major sticking point was that the organization offered a playground from a Wisconsin-based company that is not an approved vendor with the district.

“We were trying to help them raise the money to build a playground…In the last meeting we had the budget they were in the ballpark of was $1 million. That was covering everything from site excavation, getting the civil engineers involved,” Chaidez said. “We would help the parents fundraise and then build this amazing playground through this whole process of CPS. The fact we were someone who was willing to help fundraise for and build this playground, well that was just a unique situation.”

Ultimately, CPS rejected the company’s help.

In a statement, a CPS spokesperson said “there were a number of process and funding items that remained unclear related to the proposed partnership” and the district “was not able to finalize this opportunity.”

After this story published, CPS spokesperson James Gherardi said the district declined to work with the nonprofit in part because “the organization was only recently established and their ability to fundraise for the project was unknown.”

Dream Build Play has helped fundraise for and build accessible playgrounds at two Downers Grove elementary schools. For the playground at Hillcrest School, unveiled in 2016, the organization worked with another nonprofit to raise $600,000 for the project, according to the suburban school district.

Last month, Cirino and other parents launched a Facebook group to again galvanize community members to advocate for upgrades, including the playground. Last week, parents also launched a petition to CPS demanding a new blacktop and replacements for the mobile classrooms.

This week, CPS added the Scammon playground to the district’s $9.3-billion budget proposal. The budget is focused, in part, on improving older schools using federal stimulus funding.

It’s not a quite done deal, though. The full cost of the new playground and the timeline for its design and construction depend on the school board approving the spending plan. It will be voted on July 28, district officials said. 

If the budget is approved, the district could begin the design phase and request bids for construction this winter. Construction would be complete by fall 2022, Eban Smith, CPS’ director of planning and design, told parents Thursday. 

If built, the playground would replace the site of one of the current classroom trailers.

As for replacing the trailers completely, there are no plans for that, district officials said. Lauro Roman, director of intergovernmental affairs, told parents at the school council meeting the district only has discussed the possibility of replacing one trailer with a playground. Anything beyond that needs to involve Liberos and other CPS departments.

“But also understand that if there are infrastructure concerns with the modular [trailers] then I would ask our capital team and Eban … if we can have someone to also take a look at the conditions of the modulars too to ensure overall safety for students, staff and families,” Roman said.

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

After years of pushing for better facilities, some said this wasn’t the outcome they’d hoped for.

Katy Schafer, a parent who plans to send her daughter to kindergarten at Scammon, said it was concerning the district was putting money toward just the playground and not the trailers or blacktop.

She’s lived across from the school for six years; sometimes after dinner, she and her daughter go to play on the school campus. About a month ago, her daughter accidentally kicked in a rusted part of the stairway to the trailers while running up and down them.

“The modular [trailers], I wouldn’t send a kid there. I would not send my daughter if she were going to preschool in those modular units,” Schafer said. “And I haven’t seen the interior; I’ve just seen the exterior.”

Ald. Ariel Reboyras (30th) said he supports the parents pushing for the playground but also urges the district to fix the larger structural issues with the campus. He said CPS’ maintenance division should be able to quickly repair the potholes and sewer catch basin sinking in the campus lot.

“I’ve been in that school numerous times, and the matter that we’re addressing right now, it’s great we’re getting a new playground. That it’s part of the 2022 budget,” Reboyras said at the meeting. “But the matter folks are referring to … is the maintenance of the school.

“Before you put a new playground you need to fix the structure, the site, for the new playground. That includes potholes, that sewer and the area where the [trailer] units are located. It’s a maintenance issue. It has to be addressed.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

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