Empty school playgrounds send discouraging message; Neglect: Playgrounds' safety and maintenance are so inadequate in the city that some schools offer no outside breaks during the day, making the areas appear abandoned.


DRIVING AROUND THE city, you notice that many school playgrounds are empty during the day.

Empty of children, that is. They're full enough of broken glass, swing sets without seats, basketball backboards without hoops and ancient slides coated with rust.

At Barclay Elementary-Middle, children at recess encounter exposed nails and bolts, rusted equipment and splintered wood.

"They can use the playground, but they can't use the equipment," says Principal David Clapp. "At the beginning of the week there's always broken glass, the leavings from the weekend parties. It's so discouraging."

Nearby, at Margaret Brent Elementary, a survey last fall found an exposed electrical transformer -- this a few blocks from North Avenue school headquarters. And a pedestrian walkway at Tench Tilghman Elementary in East Baltimore takes kids over Patterson Park Avenue to a playground where discarded needles are commonplace.

Some schools have no playgrounds. And half of the city's playgrounds have surfaces of concrete or asphalt, considered unsafe by modern standards.

"A playground of concrete is not a good place to fall down," says Carol Gilbert, executive director of the Neighborhood Design Center, a nonprofit organization of design professionals that is working to beautify the city.

So bleak is the situation that some schools offer no outside breaks for the kids during the school day. That's why so many playgrounds appear abandoned, even on splendid days like yesterday: "Sweet childish days," the poet Wordsworth called them, "that were as long as 20 days are now."

The urban schools -- and not a few suburban schools, too -- have to lock their doors to keep intruders out. A byproduct of that is keeping children in. "When you have to operate in an environment in which the school doors are locked, you're sending a powerful message to the children," says William P. Miller, executive director of Greater Homewood Community Corp.

The state of the playgrounds on which we expect children to play sends them other messages: We don't care much about the value of your play. We certainly don't care that you attend school in aesthetically pleasing surroundings.

What has happened to the playgrounds has happened also to the libraries and gyms and auditoriums and restrooms -- all of those things neglected over many years to keep the three R's in operation.

However, numerous signs of hope exist. On the same day Clapp was decrying the broken glass in his playground, his pupils were completing a colorful mural on one wall of the Barclay cafeteria. This is one of a series of murals -- inside and outside -- planned by Greater Homewood to beautify playgrounds and neighborhoods.

Greater Homewood is joining forces with the city, the Neighborhood Design Center, the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy and the city's Safe and Sound Campaign to focus attention and money on playground rehabilitation.

To do it right would cost millions of dollars. Half of the playground surfaces -- paved over years ago in a frenzy of activity that ignored everything known about the safety of children at play -- would have to be replaced by wood chips, sand or synthetic material. That's before the replacement of rusted, unsafe equipment.

"It's expensive, but if it's done right, you can create a safe playground," says Susan DeFrancesco of the Hopkins center. "A lot of them in the city and county just haven't been maintained or updated."

Adds Hathaway C. Ferebee, executive director of the Safe and Sound Campaign: "Then once you get the playgrounds wonderful, you have to keep them wonderful. You do that by making them places where whole families want to go and spend time -- and take care of because they have a sense of ownership."

AME bishop sees education as next civil rights frontier

Leaders of nearly 400 African Methodist Episcopal churches met in Baltimore during the weekend, and one of the questions put to them was this:

What if the church on the corner paid as much attention to the education of neighborhood kids as it does to Sunday services and potluck suppers?

"The new civil rights frontier is public education," said Bishop Vinton R. Anderson, who heads the AME district that includes North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia.

Vinton and other church officials acknowledged that most churches stand as empty as those playgrounds on weekdays.

"There's an entrenched mentality that has to be overcome," Vinton said. "We have to become involved and stay involved, and I'm not just talking about praying."

Pub Date: 3/03/99

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