After receiving a $500,000 grant from The Trust for Public Land, AMY Northwest turns to the community to engage around a new schoolyard design.
AMY Northwest, a public, academic middle school at 6000 Ridge Avenue, may go unnoticed to many travelers along Roxborough's Ridge Avenue. Located in a standard Public school building built in 1895 that was previously home to the William Levering Elementary School, only a sign at the south-west corner of the building identifies the school building’s current tenant.
That anonymity will soon change in the next two years after the school’s large, paved schoolyard is transformed into a green play space complete with running tracks, basketball court, gardens and an outdoor classroom worth more than half a million dollars. It will provide an extraordinary facility not only for the school’s 300 students but for the entire Roxborough community.
All of it is thanks to the work of three AMY Northwest Teachers and their students, who have led efforts to secure grant funding and planning for the project.
The project began humbly enough when math teacher Rebecca Haldeman-Newschaffer and science teacher Theresa King-Lewis began looking for ways to fund an outdoor classroom. They had worked together to bring kids to the Wissahickon Creek for water quality studies and saw how important the outdoor experience was for their children.
“What was amazing is that some of the kids who you think are unengaged, they become totally different when they're outside where they can play or explore,”
“What was amazing is that some of the kids who you think are unengaged, they become totally different when they're outside where they can play or explore,” said King-Lewis.
So the pair began to talk to Kay Sykora, the former Executive Director of the Manayunk Development Corporation, who put them in touch with the Community Design Collaborative, a group of architects and designers who provide pro bono design services to community organizations. The CDC, teachers and a group of 35 students worked together, and eight weeks later the CDC produced a plan that would cost almost $750,000 to complete.
“We’re teachers and are used to writing grants for $1,000 or so,” said Haldeman-Newschaffer. “But this was a lot of $1,000 grants.”
Not to be deterred, the teachers launched a community focused 5K fundraiser and earned more than $1,200 in the event’s first run, an encouraging amount for a public school. And, because the CDC design was put together in a way that its components could be completed in parts, Haldeman-Newschaffer and King-Lewis decided to tackle an outdoor classroom.
With Sykora’s help, the teachers eventually secured a $20,000 grant from the Hamels Foundation, an education-focused foundation started by the former Phillies pitcher Cole Hamels. The Neubauer Family Foundation matched that grant with another $12,000 and the school had enough money for the outdoor classroom. Work on that classroom is scheduled to begin this summer and is expected to be finished before school opens again in August this year.
It was a satisfying accomplishment, but much better news was soon to come in the form of a grant from the Trust for Public Lands, which would decide to take on a $500,000 transformation of the schoolyard, providing all of the funding, planning and the hiring of contractors.
Suddenly, the intimidating prospect of raising funds for the design became a thing of the past. It was a landfall.
“We were all on summer vacation when we heard the news,” said Haldeman-Newschaffer. “I was on a bike and had to stop so I could dance.”
Next, the teachers were invited to see other work the trust had completed.
“They do green spaces all over the country,” said teacher Mary Jones who joined Haldeman-Newschaffer and King-Lewis in the project as a sponsor. “They had never done a middle school.”
Jones said a group from AMY including students were invited to see another campus the Trust had completed: William Cramp elementary in North Philadelphia.
“It's beautiful,’ Jones said of the Cramp campus. “We let our children use it. They had so much fun. They loved the Ninja Wall. They loved the swing. It was so much different than kids just being in a paved lot.”
As this past school year wound down, the Trust for Public Land is working with AMY teachers and students as well as the nearby neighbors to survey opinion and settle on design elements. Popular designs include a circular running track, turf athletic field, a rain garden and a play structure.
Once the survey is done, the Trust will produce a final design and bring it back to both the school and larger Roxborough community for final public input. The entire project is expected to be completed in September of 2020.
In the meantime, Jones, King-Lewis and Haldeman-Newschaffer will continue to work with students on planning for the maintenance of the classroom and soon to be completed play spaces, including running the annual 5k. The most recent running helped the school raise $1,800. The group put together a 501(c) 3 organization, Friends of AMY NW, to keep the funds raised for the school’s improvement projects.
And, there are plans to look at the rest of the school, including the front of the building along Ridge. “While we are teachers and most of us don’t live in Roxborough, we have a passion for this,” said Haldeman-Newschaffer. “We want to do more. We have more work to do.”