Vare-Washington school kicks off plans for phase one of major long-term renovation project

Efforts from the Friends of Vare-Washington, the Community Design Collaborative and Green Building United work to establish a revamped schoolyard in the recently-established South Philly school.

Although the schoolyard of Vare-Washington Elementary may seem bleak, the space is the subject of a 2016 schoolyard greening grant from Community Design Collaborative. While the design grant was completed in early 2017, the Friends of Vare-Washington have recently been breathing new life into the vision with help from Green Building United. (Grace Maiorano/SPR)

Comprised of discolored hopscotch courts and rusted metal fences, the schoolyard at Vare-Washington Elementary School, 1198. S. 5th St., can be easily overlooked.

But, the humdrum concrete slab is more than a visual blight. It struggles to capture the spirit of the approximately 370 kindergarteners to eighth-graders who call the space home.

But, that will soon change, as the South Philadelphia schoolyard is the subject of a design grant that was made possible in 2016 through the Community Design Collaborative, which provides pro bono preliminary design services to nonprofits and community groups around the Philadelphia area.

Three years ago, Vare-Washington won a schoolyard greening grant through Community Design Collaborative, which was worth about $26,885 in design services. While the design grant was completed in early 2017, the Friends of Vare-Washington have recently been breathing new life into the vision.

At the end of the 2017-2018 school year, the group partnered with Green Building United, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization and an aligned chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, to help establish phase one of the multiplex project.

As the recipient of Green Building United’s 2019 Community Impact Project, individual volunteers organized through the nonprofit are helping to support the Friends’ online campaign, which will help benefit a day of service, or the implementation of phase one, which requires a $20,000 goal.

This initial phase will be marked by a day of service scheduled for Saturday, June 22, at 8 a.m.

“For the pilot project, it’s more just about awareness,” said Liz Lutz, the fundraising chairwoman for Friends of Vare-Washington who helped spearhead the pilot program. “Letting people know that the school is open and making it a fun environment for the kids temporarily until we can do the big project.”

This seed project will ideally catch the eye of not only the community but potential corporate sponsorship for the long-term plan, which features improved on-site stormwater management, two new rooftop spaces and outdoor classrooms, to name a few. It currently does not have an end date.

“(The day of service) is about rolling up our sleeves and getting out there into the community where they can contribute to this larger project,” said Leah Wirgau, a LEED  Green Associate at Green Building United. “…It’s not just a finite thing but part of this bigger, broader, larger impact. We want it to be something that benefits people for years to come.”

Over the past several months, the Friends of Vare-Washington have been raising thousands of dollars for the day of service scheduled for mid-June to establish phase one elements, including the planting of trees, weeding, mulching and building gaga courts.

Prior to the day of service, the School District of Philadelphia is scheduled to rip up the current concrete and replace new basketball poles, backboards and nets. Signage featuring the school logo is also planned to be installed around the entrance of the building.

Currently, funds have been raised entirely by the Friends with assistance from Green Building United, according to Sarah Klunk, a board member and schoolyard project leader for the Friends of Vare-Washington.  

Klunk, who helped take over the project in recent months with Friends treasurer Amanda Naumann, says they are about $4,500 away from their $20,000 goal.

“The day of service will just be about greening the space and providing a fun place for the kids,” Klunk said. “Hopefully, it will be a stepping stone to get more funding, grants and community support…The kids deserve a better space than what they have. The main goal, as much as we want to raise more money, is just to give them a better space to learn to grow.”

She estimates that about 50 volunteers are expected to lend helping hands on the day of service.

Image courtesy of Community Design Collaborative

“The idea behind the projects that they’re going to be doing (on the day of service) is sort of an indication that this is something that’s happening,” said Vare-Washington principal Gretchen Stewart. “Wanting the rest of the community to become aware that the greening of the playground is something that we’re interested in doing and working actively on, so wanting other people to get involved.”

Since its merge with Abigail Vare Elementary in 2013, the newly established Dickinson Narrows school, which was formerly George Washington Elementary School, often goes unnoticed by the community, as the building doesn’t currently feature official signage.

While some of its neighboring public schools have reached overcapacity, Vare-Washington is actually under capacity, as the building can hold close to 600 students, according to the School District of Philadelphia.

But, the school, as described by Stewart, is a “hidden gem,” offering a spectrum of courses, including languages, art and physical education, and averaging about two classrooms per grade.

“I think one of the big things is – when you step inside Vare-Washington, the first thing you experience is really vibrant programming, rich instruction, thoughtful teachers and engaging curriculum,” Stewart said. “What we’re really excited about is having this idea of being well-resourced and well-programmed inside – to be able to have that outside, as well.”

In reflecting the essence of Vare-Washington, this major renovation plans to mirror the school’s many layers of diversity.  

According to data from the district, the school’s population is 36 percent Hispanic/Latino, 20 percent Asian, 17 percent African-American, 14 percent white and 13 percent multi-race/other. About 32 percent of students are considered English Language Learners, with the majority Spanish-speaking, according to the district data.

Stewart says the school also encompasses four classes for autism support, as 18.4 percent of students have some form of disability, including autism, specific learning disabilities and speech or language impairment, also according to district data.

Along with education and environmental elements, a cornerstone component of the master plan is public art, including a mural that hopes to harness the complexity of the school’s demographics.

“We are a vibrant, diverse community. We represent students on a wide range of levels in terms of race, in terms of ability,” Stewart said. “…And we want (the mural) to be representative of all of the students who are inside…there’s just so much richness and diversity here on so many levels that we would love to see that reflected in whatever ultimately gets decided on and put up.”

Under former principal Zachary Duberstein in 2016, Vare-Washington applied to receive a grant from the Community Design Collaborative for the conceptual design of a schoolyard greening project.

Sponsored by the United Communities Southeast Philadelphia, the school was selected, receiving close to $27,000 in pro bono services, including blueprints of the revamped space designed by a volunteer team comprised of landscape architects, a graphic designer, structural and civil engineers and a cost estimator.

“You couldn’t tell from the outside all of the great stuff that was happening on the inside of the school,” said Heidi Segall Levy, director of design services at Community Design Collaborative.  “…They were looking for their own brand and identity.”

For six months in 2016, the Community Design Collaborative’s volunteer team worked directly with the school and its community task force to determine and design elements that would most benefit the surrounding area, as the Collaborative’s mission encompasses contributing to the overall revitalization of neighborhoods.

After 315 volunteers hours, the Community Design Collaborative issued the final report in January 2017.

“The idea is that we really get the community engaged,” Levy said. “Because the schoolyard, once it’s improved, it’s an amenity not just to the school but for the community to use after hours and on weekends.”

Following the day of service in mid-June, the Friends of Vare-Washington estimate that phase two, which includes the installation of benches, tables and soft surface under- playground equipment, is tentatively scheduled over the next couple of years.

For phase two, Klunk says the Friends will seek a goal of $50,000 in grants to support the playground as well as smaller grants for the tables and benches. Phase two will tentatively include the mural work as well.   

While other phases hope to follow, like installation of an on-site stormwater management and two new rooftop spaces, for now, the Friends of Vare-Washington are grateful for the thousands of dollars raised toward the upcoming day of service.

“It’s been really exciting to work with the Friends of Vare-Washington – really in the sense that we want this to be something that everybody has given their input on,” Lutz said. “So, all the decisions that are being made around the projects that get done and what ultimately the finished project looks like – it’s just so important to me that all of the students that are here now and the families that are here now and the staff that’s here has a voice in that.”

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List of donors: Aon, Aragona & Associates, Dentists on Washington, Pippy Sips, Woodrow’s Sandwich Shop, Mitchell Renovations, Herman’s Coffee, Stantec Consulting Services Inc., Liz Lutz, Realtor- Philly, Living Team -KW Philly, Christ Church South Philly, Pennsport Pharmacy, Center City Pediatrics and P.A.G.S. pointing LLC. 

Twitter: @gracemaiorano