Why Chicago and Illinois Should Support Green Schoolyards

  • November 11, 2019
Gunsaulus Scholastic Academy Principal Fernando Kim

Every year, we host the Change for Good Luncheon, Healthy Schools Campaign’s (HSC) annual event to bring focus to our work to make schools healthier places for all children and highlight new initiatives. This year we focused on lifting up the voices and experiences of parents and community leaders and invited public officials to hear and respond to their recommendations. This year, an audience of nearly 200 parents, community members and leaders from our civic, business, health and education communities heard a panel of grassroots leaders speak about their work in school health services, physical education, green schoolyards, school food and accountability. We invited public officials to listen and respond to those priorities. This series of blogs lays out those priorities and responses and highlights our policy recommendations to the recently elected Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

In 2016, Gunsaulus Scholastic Academy cut the ribbon on their new Space to Grow schoolyard. The new schoolyard allows students and community members to stay active before, during and after school hours. “This is all essential to ensuring a holistically healthy environment for kids to learn and play and for families and community neighbors to be active and connect with one another,” said Principal Fernando Kim at the Change for Good Luncheon.

Kim said the new schoolyard has sparked an excitement in the students. He credited the new schoolyard with helping the school achieve a 98 percent attendance rate—6th best in Chicago Public Schools—and a 0 percent suspension rate.

In 2013, Healthy Schools Campaign and Openlands, our region’s conservation organization and our amazing partner, launched Space to Grow, a program that brings together capital funding from the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, the City of Chicago Department of Water Management and Chicago Public Schools to build dynamic green schoolyards at Chicago public schools.

Latino students playing soccer on the Space to Grow schoolyard at Gunsaulus in ChicagoSpace to Grow transforms Chicago schoolyards into safe places that provide students, their families, and the community with shared green space for outdoor learning and active play while using green stormwater infrastructure to address flooding issues in the city. It is a win for children, neighborhoods and our city which is seeing more frequent and heavy rainstorms as a result of climate change.

A recent evaluation completed by Loyola University and the University of California showed an increase physical activity in the schoolyard after transformations. Parents, staff and neighbors all indicated that these spaces are helping to underscore a positive relationship with their neighborhood schools and also between kids, as the schoolyards promote more positive interactions and less bullying.

Chicago’s first ever Chief Equity Officer Candace Moore said this type of innovative partnership that has multiple benefits for communities and children can help promote equity in the city. “This is work that our infrastructure services already need to do, and we’re pairing it with other needs,” she said at the luncheon.

We are very proud that this fall, we completed our 20th schoolyard. We already have a commitment from partners to build 14 more, and we’re just getting started. We want to see green schoolyards across Chicago in every low-income community that is vulnerable to flooding and the effects of climate change.

We urge our city, school district and regional leaders to continue working with us to ensure that more children and families can learn and play in a Space to Grow schoolyard. As we are completing the first phase of Space to Grow, we are also asking our partners to fully commit to supporting a comprehensive plan to expand Space to Grow and build a citywide model for green schoolyards and outdoor public spaces that focuses on equity and investment in Chicago’s low-income communities of color.