Playgrounds may be mandatory at new elementary schools
A move to require outdoor play spaces at new elementary schools draws worry from supporters of voucher schools.
By Erin Richards of the Journal Sentinel
New elementary schools in the city of Milwaukee would be required to have outdoor play areas for children, under a measure approved by a Common Council committee this week that has concerned voucher-school proponents.
Only day care centers are now required by state law to include outdoor play spaces for children. That was a problem for Ald. Michael Murphy, who sponsored the proposed ordinance that passed Tuesday’s Zoning, Neighborhoods & Development committee in a 5-0 vote.
“At a minimum, we should recognize that kids should be able to run around and play outside,” he said in an interview, adding that the issue was brought to his attention by concerned residents.
The measure would apply to all new public or private elementary schools in the city, but it would primarily affect the operators of new public charter schools or private voucher schools who seek to build fresh or retrofit old structures for elementary school facilities.
For example, Rocketship Education, a national operator of charter schools from California that’s expanding to Milwaukee, recently sought a zoning change for a potential school site near S. 31st St. and W. Cleveland Ave. from light industrial to multifamily, said Ald. Jim Bohl, chair of the zoning committee.
If the play space proposal is approved by the Common Council, Rocketship’s grade school would have to follow the new design standard – if an outdoor play space wasn’t already in its plans.
The measure would apply to Milwaukee Public Schools as well, but the district isn’t building new schools at the moment, and most of its elementary schools have traditionally had outdoor play spaces.
Specifically, the proposal would require any elementary school that begins operating after the ordinance is passed to have at least 75 square feet of outdoor play space for each child using the space. It would require the space to be on the premises of the school, and to include a cushioned surface under any climbing equipment. The space also would have to have a permanent enclosure, according to the proposal.
School Choice Wisconsin, the state’s most influential voucher school advocacy group, is concerned about those requirements.
President Jim Bender said meeting those mandates could be difficult in an urban setting. He also noted that some of the city’s highest-performing schools, such as St. Marcus Lutheran School – a voucher school- would not have been able to open or expand had the ordinance been in place.
“In a time when students in Milwaukee perform significantly below their peers academically, the committee chose to require new schools to direct dollars to playgrounds, not classrooms,” Bender said in a statement.
Or consider HOPE Christian School: Fortis, a K-8 school at 3601 N. Port Washington Ave. that opened in the 2009-’10 school year without a play space. For recess, students ran around staff members’ cars in the small parking lot.
Leaders of the HOPE network of voucher schools said at the time that resources in the early stages were better spent on resources more closely tied to student success, such as textbooks and teachers.
Today, all three of the HOPE network’s grade schools have outdoor play spaces, said spokeswoman Wendy Greenfield.