Alexis Dawson’s two young children are frequently at the park behind Rawlinson Community School, a space that is finally getting the facelift local parents, students and staff have lobbied for for years.
The roughly 1.4-acre park, near St. Clair Avenue West and Oakwood Avenue, is believed to be the only significant green space in a one-kilometre radius.
Dawson’s daughter Aria, 5 and son Micah, 8, use it as do their fellow students at Rawlinson, a junior kindergarten to Grade 8 school, and community members.
But the park deteriorated badly over the years.
“The soccer field is unusable. It has a drainage issue where it literally becomes a skating rink in winter, and a mud pit in the summer,” says Dawson, a local parent who is part of a community fundraising drive established to help pay for improvements to the park.
She recalls how a few summers ago an organization was looking into using the large field for a fee-based soccer program for young kids in the area, but cancelled those plans due to the field’s poor condition.
Students at Rawlinson haven’t been able to use the field for quite some time.
Aside from the problems with the soccer field, a playground on site for junior-aged children was condemned about a year and a half ago because it could no longer be repaired by the school board. The slides and climbing equipment had to be removed.
Overall, the park, which is on school property, was “in need of some love” as parents and local trustee Stephanie Donaldson say.
So, in an effort that’s becoming all too common in Toronto, Rawlinson parents and others from the local community banded together to help raise a significant amount of money to improve the park.
The Rawlinson Community School Outdoor Area Restoration Project is a $540,000 collaboration between parents, the school, the local community, the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) and the City of Toronto.
The school board is kicking in nearly $340,000 for repairs to the park. The city has promised $155,000. In addition, parents have raised about $41,000 for the two-phased project, much of that money coming through donations and community events. (The parents consider the money from the city to be part of their fundraising efforts).
Phase one, which began in July, saw the junior playground replaced and new asphalt laid down around it.
The soccer field is also being redone. An internal TDSB field renovation crew was assigned to take care of tasks including tree planting, sod work, extensive regrading of the field and the installation of an irrigation system.
The field is also being repositioned — shifted to the right. The former field spread sideways, but people walked across it constantly, grinding a path through the grass that hardened over time.
The new field will mostly run in a north-south direction and there will be a walkway that will cross the northern point of the field.
“There will be one big open field, and a little field to the left of the walkway. We’ve shifted where the main field is, so it’s not in the middle of where people are going to walk,” explains Richard Christie, senior manager of sustainability for the TDSB, and a lead on the park restoration project.
“Once the grass is established next year there will be a very good playing field, so the school should not have the problems they had before,” he adds.
The parents’ fundraising money went toward some of the purchase of the new playground equipment, but most of the work in this phase is being paid for by the school board because the repairs are infrastructure-related — not enhancements.
Phase two work includes the installation of an asphalt track, new basketball nets and a shaded seating garden that could also be used as an outdoor classroom. The goal is for work on this phase to begin in April and wrap up near the end of 2020.
This phase is dependent on $155,000 in Section 45 funds — money secured by the city from a nearby development. These are funds that can be allocated for local community projects such as parks and recreation facilities.
The parents and students were the ones who initially approached the city and advocated for these funds, advocacy that included deputing at the committee of adjustment and lobbying local councillor Ana Bailão, who helped push for the Section 45 funds to go toward the project.
“The availability of community and park space is essential for residents in all of our neighbourhoods. We are securing funds through the planning and development process to enable the TDSB to upgrade this space at Rawlinson Public School where all residents will be able to enjoy it,” Bailão says.
Because the phase two work falls under the category of enhancements, school board funds can’t be used. The Section 45 money and additional funds raised by the parents are slated to pay for this work, which includes detailed design plans for the park.
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Given the cash crunch school boards face, collaborations involving fundraising from parents and community members have become common for schools, says Donaldson, the local trustee representing Ward 9.
“There is a 20-year-struggle for a fully funded education system. The state of good repair in our (TDSB) buildings … in Toronto and across the province is a pretty sorry state of affairs,” Donaldson says.
“The TDSB’s repair backlog is $3.5 billion alone. So, funds for playground improvements are not readily available. It’s an area that can be supplemented by fundraising. It has become practice in the TDSB for parents to band together and work across the community to raise funds to help improve their playgrounds,” Donaldson adds.
Donaldson says the Rawlinson parents’ fundraising effort has been “tremendous” and “highly” organized.
“The campaign they have run is as good as any corporate campaign I’ve seen,” the trustee says.
Alexis Dawson, one of the leaders of ROAR (short for Rawlinson Outdoor Area Restoration project), a group of parents and community members dedicated to raising money for the project, says one of their fundraising events asked members of the public to donate $500 to have a message engraved on a plaque to be mounted inside the school.
There was also a “giving Tuesday” event, a play on the idea of Black Friday or Cyber Monday, but involving giving rather than spending, Dawson says.
ROAR is a subcommittee of Rawlinson’s school advisory council, which includes parents, teachers and administration. The council has helped push for several years to get the board to do the restoration work, has supported the fundraising efforts and provided input on the master plan for the project, Dawson points out.
“We’ve had many, many parents give an all-hands-on-deck approach in terms of the school council supporting (the project) in bigger ways — promoting the fundraising, speaking to relatives to get them to donate, speaking to local businesses. Lots of individuals have played a role in keeping our fundraising relevant and visible,” Dawson says.
But not all schools have the parent resources to do all of this, Dawson notes.
Additional capital funding from the province over the last few years has also enabled the school board to sink more money into improving school parks, says Christie, the project manager for the park restoration.
Traditionally, when it has come to the money that schools have received from the province, the emphasis has been on major building components — such as windows, roofing and boilers, Christie says.
“That meant that unless there was a safety issue, school grounds would have been a low priority,” Christie says, adding that across almost 600 TDSB elementary and secondary schools, many school grounds are not in good condition, like Rawlinson.
But the province continues to commit about $1.3 billion a year toward the backlog for major building component work at Ontario schools, money that began flowing about three years ago, Christie says.
Some of that increased provincial funding can be used to fix school grounds, Christie explains.
“We saw an opportunity with improved provincial funding to finally put money in the (Rawlinson) site,” Christie says.