The playground at Cambridge Elementary School would be relocated to make way for parking under the Alamo Heights ISD bond proposal. Credit: Courtesy / Inga Cotton

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.

Inga Cotton

Inga Cotton is a parent activist and blogs at San Antonio Charter Moms about school choice and local educational activities for families. She has two children. Read her blog at www.sachartermoms.com.

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