Will Alamo Heights ISD Pave Paradise to Put Up a Parking Lot?

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Courtesy / Inga Cotton

The playground at Cambridge Elementary School would be relocated to make way for parking under the Alamo Heights ISD bond proposal.

On Sunday afternoon, after a spring storm had blown through San Antonio, my kids and I went to play at our neighborhood playground at Cambridge Elementary in Alamo Heights ISD. The playground is open to the public during non-school hours.

While my kids played on the rusty swings, I checked a social media app on my phone and found an active discussion in the neighborhood trading group about the district’s plans for the Cambridge playground in the 2017 Alamo Heights ISD bond. Among other things, the plan involves turning Cambridge playground into a parking lot and building a smaller playground closer to the main school buildings.

The bond election on May 6 is less than one month away, but many of us in the Cottage District are just now realizing what the plan would mean for our neighborhood playground. But this story is about more than just paving a playground to make a parking lot. It gives a sense of what is going on in the culture of Alamo Heights ISD and how families in our community are raising their children.

On Tuesday, April 4, I attended a community meeting about the 2017 bond, held in the black box theater at Alamo Heights High School. Board Chair Bonnie Giddens and Superintendent Kevin Brown spent more than one hour presenting slides about what the 2017 Alamo Heights ISD bond package – valued at $135 million – would do for the district, as well as a master plan for the years beyond 2024. Other leaders also were there, including board members Lynn S. Thompson and Margaret Judson, administrators Mike Hagar and Frank Alfaro, and Cambridge principal Jana Needham.

The district leaders and a few architects then took questions from the audience.

How did these leaders, as well as teachers, students, and community members, go through a two-year planning process and come up with a project that paves a playground for a parking lot?

At Cambridge, safety is a major concern. The current playground is across the street from the main campus. Classes cross the street to go to recess and return to class, and children go back to the main campus to use the bathroom during recess. Brown reported that the school has had some scares: a registered sex offender walked up to the playground with a puppy to attract students to talk to him; a mentally ill man approached the playground, and police were called to take him to get help.

Another concern is parking. Residents of neighboring streets objected to plans to create perpendicular parking. The condition of the playground itself is a concern.

“We have a hard time keeping grass there,” Brown said.

The playground area, as well as a playing field close to the main buildings, tends to get weedy and muddy. The 2017 bond plan calls for installing artificial turf on the playing field, which would also lower maintenance costs – a smart move under the current Robin Hood school finance system, which treats tax money differently depending on whether it is raised for debt service or for maintenance and operations.

If voters approve the 2017 bond, what does that mean for Cambridge students and neighborhood children? Students would have an artificial turf field and a reduced playground close to the main buildings. The field and the playground would continue be open to the neighborhood after school hours. It’s not clear what the parking lot would look like – an earlier drawing showed a conventional parking lot, whereas a revised rendering presented on April 4 showed some green space and a parking lot that also is striped for basketball, foursquare, bike rodeo, etc.

Brown and his team reassured anxious parents at the meeting that, should the bond pass, there would be more communication with the neighborhood about how the parking lot would actually be designed and built.

What are the underlying assumptions of the 2017 bond plan, and what does it tell us about Alamo Heights ISD? Brown emphasized that “every classroom would be touched” by the bond plan. What he called the “engaged classroom program” would start from the ground up with quieter flooring, then add bean bags and wobble chairs, rearrangeable desks with dry-erase surfaces that flip up for presentations, and 1:1 technology, namely an electronic device for every student. Giddens noted that when you visit a classroom in the district, you don’t see “kids sitting in rows doing worksheets.”

Other changes – in either the bond or the master plan, depending on the campus – include converting quiet libraries into busy maker spaces. Brown and Giddens touted the large number of elective classes at the high school, as well as after-school sports, fine arts, rocketry, and more.

My experience as an Alamo Heights ISD parent is limited. My son, F.T., attended Howard Early Childhood Center for less than two years. The school could not meet his needs, and he begged me not to make him go, so I withdrew him to homeschool. You can read more about F.T.’s story in this article. My recollections of F.T.’s kindergarten classroom at Howard are consistent with the “engaged classroom” that Brown described: students working at centers, boisterous noise, a visually crowded SMART board at the front of the classroom. However, for some students, including F.T., an “engaged classroom” is overstimulating and creates anxiety that interferes with learning.

I wonder about the path not taken, if my kids had continued in Alamo Heights ISD schools. Would my daughter blow the whistle if she saw her classmates cheating? Would my son get bullied to death for being different? Would a schedule full of elective courses and extracurricular activities help them find their passions, or would it distract them from gaining fundamental knowledge? If libraries got turned into noisy tinkering shops, where would my little bookworms find a quiet place to read?

The 2017 bond plan calls for putting Cambridge Elementary students behind a security fence, surrounded by cameras, with artificial turf, a small playground, and lots of electronic devices. Is that what we want to do? My children and I like to go downtown, and as we walk the sidewalks they learn about crossing busy streets safely. Someday, they will be crossing those streets without me, and even taking public transportation.

We go to our great city parks, like Hemisfair and Brackenridge Park, where they can watch the seasons unfold and mingle with all kinds of people. My kids do get screen time at home, but only when they are worn out from playing and exploring. I am raising my children to be competent adults who are not afraid of the world outside the fences.

The families in my neighborhood are questioning whether it makes sense to pave Cambridge playground for a parking lot. However, there is more at stake here than just one threadbare patch of grass and mulch.

The 2017 bond plan is an expression of the culture of the Alamo Heights community. If we don’t like what we see, then we need to ask why.

9 thoughts on “Will Alamo Heights ISD Pave Paradise to Put Up a Parking Lot?

  1. Bravo for you and other parents investing time and not relying on the fence alone to protect your children in the absence of life skills.
    Considering that parking spaces do not have to have impervious surface, what are multiuser options?

  2. I appreciate Ms. Cotton’s views but feel her commentary tries to add too many ancillary issues to what in my opinion, as an AHISD parent who has two kids enrolled in AHISD schools, is a great bond proposal and allows additional investment into many new techniques in classroom education. As I am sorry to hear her children did not find AHISD schools a good fit – I can vouch for them being some of the best in Texas and have always been pleased with the way the district works hard to listen to parents and accommodating kids’ needs.

    The rhetorical “paving of paradise” project is in direct response to parents’ concerns about safety at Cambridge and is a thoughtful solution to a real problem, which ensures both the school’s and community’s needs are being maintained. The plan will improve traffic safety around the school for parents and community members alike and the turf is a sensible economic approach that will give our kids a safe school playground for decades. Kids in Alamo Heights can and should go to our other parks and nature areas to commune with nature, but the school district is not and should not be the organization responsible for urban planning and the community mechanism to fund more natural areas.

    The planned bond in no way inhibits Ms. Cotton from continuing to raise her children in the way she wants, helps protect our kids, and allows the kids attending our public schools in AHISD to continue receiving world class education in world class facilities.

    I would urge all interested parties to learn more about the bond and encourage the property owners of AHISD to help us continue to be one of the best places to educate children in our State by supporting the bond on Election Day.

    • Thank you Alan Kramer. Very thoughtful response. I am an AHISD parent with two children who have attended from Howard on and who now are at the JS and the HS. I thought the article was a little personal and unfocused, bringing in issues like cheating and bullying to the bond issue at hand also her own child’s unpleasant experience at Howard. On the other hand, teachers with a whole classroom of students, some of whom will need to go to the bathroom, have to worry about a sex offender or mentally unstable adult approaching their students at the current playground. The ratio is one teacher to over 20 students, which is a different scenario than taking your own children to the playground or park to learn how to cross busy streets, etc. Also, my children are each in an engaged classroom which is being piloted this year at the campuses. Neither one is overly noisy or completely technology driven. There is a balance that I think better reflects multiple styles of learning. There is a flexibility to create different environments depending on what that day’s learning entails; for example, group work or individual reading time. I would have loved it if the author had actually observed some of these classrooms before writing this article.

  3. “We go to our great city parks, like Hemisfair and Brackenridge Park, where they can watch the seasons unfold and mingle with all kinds of people. My kids do get screen time at home, but only when they are worn out from playing and exploring. I am raising my children to be competent adults who are not afraid of the world outside the fences.”

    Good for you Inga. Children need to know what’s going on in this world outside of their “backyard”. Kids need common sense and “street sense” to make it through this world. Unfortunately a lot of parents are afraid to expose their children to the realities of life.

  4. I do not understand where you are getting that libraries will be turned into loud “noise tinkering” spots. The plans are to move the library at Woodridge to a new location and use its old location for multi-use labs. These labs will not be IN the library. New library books will also be bought with bond funds. I agree that we cannot keep our kids behind fences their entire lives, nor do I want to. However, the school district has the unenviable task of keeping children safe during the school day, and the playground improvements at Cambridge would help with this. The bond is about so much more than fences and technology. Have you ever been in the gyms at the junior school? They are so old and in need of numerous repairs – not to mention its auditorium. And you mention a “schedule full of electives and extracurricular activities….” – well a high schooler cannot graduate with all electives – their are core curriculum requirements that must be met each school year of English, Science, Math, Social Studies – at most a student only has room for one or two electives. Moreover, those electives are in fine arts (orchestra, choir, band) or STEM courses like rocketry or even the school newspaper. You are right, the bond is about so much more than a parking lot, but it is also about much more than technology, fences and cameras.

  5. I really tried not to comment on this…as I feel as though I have tried to provide feedback on various Facebook posts. But I feel as though you are trying to make your decision to homeschool your children appear superior to those of us who chose to send our kids to AHISD. Each parent makes the decision that works best for their family and that doesn’t make one better than the other.
    This bond that is on the table has a lot more to it than moving a playground.
    I also feel as though you took a low blow insinuating that if your children were to be unfortunate enough to attend AHISD, as both of my kids do, they might have to be the “whistle blowers” on cheating or be bullied to “death.” Both of those were uncalled for and in my opinion inappropriate.
    I feel extremely lucky that my kids are in AHISD, as they have had the opportunity to meet great friends, have lots of beneficial social experiences, have exceptional and loving teachers, have been challenged and learned a ton, and have a district administration that is willing to put in hours/days/ weeks, and in this case 2 years, to see how they can continue to make things better.
    All of the details are laid out very clearly in the bond presentation, including the playground plan. They have revised the original playground picture to make their plans clear, which they did show at the meeting last week. The next informative, non PTO, bond meeting is set for April 11 at noon at Cambridge. I encourage anyone with questions to come for clarity.

  6. A simple solution and creative solution to school safety, convenience and neighborhood usability would involve actively “managing” the traffic around Cambrudge. It is already “regulate” directed and constrained during the school day. In order to maximize the use of limited space….park efficiently on the north end, redesign the street “pavement” as an intergral part of a urban type playground as it spans across the street. Ogden could be closed on a limited basis with rolling gates to protect students go to and from the building. The businesses on the east end of the street can be accessed from Broadway m-f, 7:00 to 4:00. Combined with denser diagonal parking on the streets it could be a win win. I’ll leave the pedagogical questions and comments to more qualified voices.

  7. All 4 of my grandchildren have attended Cambridge and I am thrilled the district is finally fixing the safety issue of the playground location. I’m not thrilled with artificial turf and hope trees are planted to provide shade on the new playground.
    One of these children is Autistic and has attended Howard, Cambridge, Jr School and now the HS. The district personnel, teachers, counsellors, administration and students have all been wonderful and supportive. Jr and High school he has had peer tutors and has flourished within his abilities.

  8. So you implicitly accuse other parents of over-protecting their children from the real world….yet, at your first experience with adversity at kindergarten, you pull your child out of the school system.

    Glass houses, Mrs. Cotton.

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