Gunsaulus Elementary School on Chicago’s southwest side is on a mission to be certified a healthy school by Chicago Public Schools (CPS), says Assistant Principal Maricela Torres. The Space to Grow program is helping the school on this mission.
Co-managed by Healthy Schools Campaign and Openlands, Space to Grow brings together capital funding and expertise from CPS, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago and the Chicago Department of Water Management to transform schoolyards by adding athletic fields, playground equipment, edible gardens, natural elements and green stormwater infrastructure that helps reduce neighborhood flooding. Space to Grow schoolyards are located in primarily low-income areas of the city where flooding risks are very high. Space to Grow involves the community in every step, from planning the schoolyard features to planting to garden upkeep. Another important aspect of the program is ongoing support for health and wellness initiatives at the school.
Every year, CPS releases a survey that collects information about schools’ health and wellness initiatives. Data from that survey is used to determine if a school should receive the Healthy CPS Indicator on its public progress report. The measure focuses on four areas: chronic disease, health-related instruction (physical education and sexual health education), wellness (called LearnWELL) and health services.
Last year, Gunsaulus only achieved the health services badge, but the school has a solid plan in place to achieve the other three this year. Healthy Schools Campaign staff met with Gunsaulus early in the school year to go over last year’s data and develop an action plan.
At the center of a lot of the school’s plans are its transformed schoolyard. Before becoming part of Space to Grow in 2016, the schoolyard was not much more than mounds of dirt and broken glass, Torres says. “It was not a very good space to use.”
Now, the schoolyard is an engaging and dynamic place for kids to learn and play. The new schoolyard includes a multipurpose turf field, jogging/walking track, native gardens and trees, rain gardens with native plants that collect roof runoff, vegetable gardens, outdoor classroom and seating. The school recently received a grant that allowed them to purchase a greenhouse to extend gardening efforts. “The kids are learning about how to grow edible foods and what it means to stay healthy,” Torres says.
Gunsaulus participates in the fresh fruit and vegetable program through the district, and Torres hopes growing their own food can help broaden their food horizons even more. “That’s something that’s really helped their understanding,” she says. “It’s instilled a sense of curiosity. They’re discovering that things they thought they didn’t like taste really good.”
The schoolyard has been a great resource for teachers, Torres says. “Some teachers go outside and use it as a space to read independently,” she says. “Or they tie it into science units. We have a butterfly garden. Our first graders are studying the life cycle of a butterfly, and they can go outside and look at them.”
Across Chicago, Space to Grow schoolyards are healthy, engaging places for students to be physically active before, during and after school. And support from Healthy Schools Campaign and other Space to Grow partners is helping these schools meet their health and wellness goals.
Throughout the year, Space to Grow partners host professional development sessions on how and why to teach outdoors, green infrastructure workshops where participants learn how to use the new features as teaching tools and sessions on the Healthy CPS Indicator. These events, and the school specific technical assistance, helps schools implement their action plans. “This support is important for the school because there is so much going on in the school building,” says Kenneth Varner, HSC’s Community Engagement Coordinator. “It’s helpful to have an outside force reminding teachers and the administration that this is the path that they should be on.”
We’re so excited to see the great things Gunsaulus is working on with the help of their Space to Grow schoolyard!