Thursday, August 2, 2012

Do children deserve playgrounds? "Maybe," says Milwaukee's Common Council


By Barbara J. Miner

I thought that asking whether the children of Milwaukee deserve school playgrounds would be a slam-dunk question — sort of like asking whether it would be cool for the Brewers to win the World Series.

But I was apparently wrong. A pro-voucher group complained about a proposed ordinance requiring that all new elementary schools in Milwaukee have playgrounds. Such a measure would “significantly limit parent’s educational choices” and would “restrict education reform,” School Choice Wisconsin argued.

It would look bad to outright oppose playgrounds. The voucher group called for Milwaukee's Common Council to “pause” and give the ordinance “a complete review.”


Last week the Common Council did what School Choice Wisconsin wanted. With a 14-1 vote it put the ordinance on hold, with Ald. Tony Zielinski the only “no” vote. 

School Choice Wisconsin includes some heavy hitters. Tim Sheehy of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce is on its board, and the board chair is Andrew Neumann, head of the voucher HOPE Christian Schools and son of GOP U.S. Senate candidate Mark Neumann. Long-time voucher proponent Howard Fuller is a former board member.

The proposal will now go back to committee. The soonest it will come up again is in September, thus allowing another round of new voucher and charter schools to open without playgrounds. (MPS is not planning new schools in new buildings, so the ordinance primarily speaks to concerns about voucher and charter schools.)

It is unclear how much the proposal will be sliced and diced and watered down before it returns to the council. Or, in a worst-case scenario, it could get buried, never to rise again. It wouldn’t be the first time that the word “committee” was merely a euphemism for “cemetery.”

PLAYGROUNDS ARE IMPORTANT
Not trusting School Choice Wisconsin’s word that playgrounds would set back reform, I looked at the playground space (or lack thereof) at some of the proposed and existing voucher schools in Milwaukee. It was depressing.

Photos #1 and #2 below show the “playground” that will be shared by Carter’s Christian Academy and Imani Academy, two schools across the street from each other on 35th Street just north of Villard Avenue. Carter’s Christian Academy, a K-8 school, had 135 voucher students last year, according to the state Department of Public Instruction (DPI). Imani, which has applied as a voucher school for the fall, will serve students up to fourth grade. Photo #3 is a side view of Carter’s Christian Academy.


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It could be worse, however. Some voucher schools have no playgrounds.

The photos below are of some voucher schools without playgrounds. The school buildings come up to the sidewalk and are only a few feet from the street. The photos are of the back and/or side that are not along the sidewalk.

Photo #4 is of a new voucher school due to open in the fall, the Academy of Excellence at 12th and Pierce Street on the South Side. The academy is located in the third floor of a building used primarily by Blackhawk Antiques Market.

Photo #5 is from the Clara Mohammed School on MLKing Drive and Wright Street. The school served 225 students last year, according to the DPI. The DPI also lists a second address for the coming school year at 20th and Vliet Street.

Photos #6 and #7 are the front and back of Calvary’s Christian Academy, a K4-5 school on Burleigh Street just east of Holton Avenue. The school is next to a hardware store and, in the back, abuts on the alley.

Photo #8 is from the Ceria M. Travis Academy on Wisconsin Avenue near 27th Street. The K-12 school served 703 students last year, according to the DPI. The DPI lists a second address for the coming school year, at a former Catholic school on the north side.


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WHEN DID PLAYGROUNDS BECOME CONTROVERSIAL?
The proposed ordinance requiring playgrounds at all new schools in the City of Milwaukee — charter, voucher and MPS — had unanimously passed the Zoning, Neighborhoods & Development Committee. But a week before the Common Council meeting, School Choice Wisconsin complained.

In addition to saying that the ordinance restricted parental choice and hampered education reform, the voucher advocacy group said that the policy is “impractical” and “will be difficult to implement in an urban environment like Milwaukee.”

What’s next? Complaints that cities don’t have room for parks and green space?

School Choice Wisconsin also complained that the ordinance would require “large amounts of play space to be set aside.” Large, however, is a relative term.

Based on state standards for child care centers, the proposal called for 75 square feet of outdoor play space for each child using the playground at any time. Overall, the playground was to accommodate at least a third of the children at a school.

Yes, 75 square feet per child can seem a lot. Until you do the math.

Assume a school of 200 students, which means a playground that can accommodate about 65 children. In terms of space, that would mean a playground roughly the size needed for a high school basketball court.

If anything, the requirement should be even stricter. Imagine having 65 14-year-old boys on a basketball court, after they were cooped up in a classroom all morning. Sure, they might have space for yoga or calisthenics or military drills, but certainly not for kickball or dodgeball or even just running around.

What’s more, the state’s child care regulation is for centers serving children seven years old or younger. The regulations also recognize that children need more space as they grow older, so it sets a lower standard for very young children.

Is School Choice Wisconsin arguing that adolescent boys and girls need less space than children at daycare?

More troubling: why did the Common Council do the bidding of School Choice Wisconsin and table the ordinance? 

Granted, many private and charter schools in Milwaukee have good playgrounds. But the point of public policy is to not only encourage the best, but also to guard against the worst.

Perhaps a decent ordinance will pass in September. Let’s hope so. Unfortunately, it will be too late for the hundreds of young children who will go to new voucher and charter schools this fall.

Part 2, coming Monday August 6: Who is School Choice Wisconsin?
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This blog is cross-posted at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Purple Wisconsin project.  


Correction: The original post said the council voted without discussion. Ald. Nik Kovac reports the matter was discussed before the 14-1 vote.

2 comments:

  1. This article is incendiary nonsense. There are a good many schools all over Milwaukee–-voucher, charter, private non-voucher, AND MPS schools–-that could not be permitted under the Baumann/Murphy ordinance, which requires fenced outdoor playspace “on the premises of the school” equal to 75SF x 1/3 of a school’s enrollment. Ms. Miner’s high dudgeon aside, the ordinance imposes cost and de-facto curriculum requirements that are not required either under state law or under the City’s building code and ordinances. More importantly, it effectively makes development of new schools cost-prohibitive in the very areas of the City where student density and the need for both catalytic development and school improvement are most acute, and where site assembly for new schools is by far the most difficult: the central city area bounded by Silver Spring on the north, 35th Street on the west, Oklahoma on the south, and I-43 on the east.

    Just as telling are the number and wide variety of schools that currently operate in the City that could not meet the random requirements of the ordinance. Indeed, many of the schools developed by MPS itself over the past 10 years would not comply. Among these: the MPS elementary school space developed at the former Charter Wire facility on Hampton Avenue; the MPS elementary school space co-located with the new Rockhill Baptist Church on Burleigh; and the brand-new, stand-alone MPS school opened in 2006 immediately adjacent to the Seher branch of the Boys & Girls Clubs on Rogers Street. Many other first-class school spaces in the City that likely would not comply. Two examples: the Central City Cyberschool at Westlawn (developed by the City of Milwaukee’s own Housing Authority); the Academy of Learning and Leadership buildings that share a site with the LaVarnway Branch of the Boys and Girls Clubs at 15th and Center (and that were developed with the blessing of the City and financing help from its Redevelopment Authority. While I’m sure that Ms. Miner would be delighted by this, the fact remains that a school like the Cyberschool does precisely what high-quality charters are designed to do: provides valuable PUBLIC SCHOOL choice to hundreds of students who, in this case, reside in the Westlawn neighborhood. And it does so without regard for the fact that the mandated plays space is not available “on the premises of the school”--whatever that means.

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