School Park Playgrounds Program

(Houston, TX)- SPARK, School Park Program, has helped develop 180 public school grounds into neighborhood parks.

Category: Partnership Building
Using a unique partnership model with the City of Houston and local school districts, SPARK, School Park Program in Houston, Texas, has helped to develop 180 public school grounds into neighborhood parks since its inception in 1983. Approximately one-third of those playgrounds have been “re-sparked” to update and improve facilities. A key component of the program is community involvement from beginning to end.
Originally operating out of a city council member’s office, and now out of the Mayor’s office, SPARK, a non-profit organization, was established in 1983 as a vehicle to increase park space in the community. A unique three-party contract was created with school districts, the City of Houston, and SPARK to develop public school grounds into neighborhood parks and maintain them.
Selection of sites
The first step in being selected as a SPARK site is for the principal of a school to send a letter outlining his or her request and how the community will help plan and fund the park. Each school is expected to raise $5,000 in matching funds. These letters must be received by December. In February SPARK conducts site visits and by April final selections are made. In a typical year SPARK receives approximately 20 requests and is able to choose about 10 to 15 sites.
Site selection is based on a variety of facts including need, location, and ability and willingness of the community to help plan and fund the park. SPARK tries to serve all geographic regions of the city as well as the areas of different county commissioners, city council members and school board members. About 50 percent of the funding comes from Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds and must be used in areas where 51 percent or more of the population is low- or moderate-income.
Development process
Once a school is chosen, the principal forms a SPARK committee of his or her choosing including PTA or PTO members, neighborhood leaders, teachers and other staff members. The committee works with an architect-either a volunteer identified by the committee or one provided by SPARK-to determine the type of park the community wants. The committee looks at other SPARK parks for ideas, but each site comes up with its own plan so that each SPARK park incorporates the needs, interests and creative efforts of its unique neighborhood.
After the design is completed, the school district puts construction plans out for bid and construction begins. The timeline is usually 12 to 18 months from selection to dedication. The school district oversees the construction and maintains the park after completion.
Park components
As mentioned earlier, each site is unique, but typical components include modular play equipment, jogging trails, picnic tables, trashcans and outdoor classrooms. Many of the parks include a public art component such as murals and mosaics by local artists or students at the school.
Costs and funding
A typical playground costs between $75,000 and $100,000. If the area qualifies for federal money, about $50,000 to $60,000 is covered by CDBG funds. The school and the school district each contribute $5,000, and SPARK finds a corporate sponsor for each school that funds an additional $5,000. Two of the four county commissioners also commit $5,000 to parks in their jurisdictions.
Each school develops a plan for raising its $5,000 contribution. SPARK shares the ideas of existing sites with new programs. Some of the fundraising projects include penny drives, bake sales, school carnivals, candy sales, “buy a brick” drives and rummage sales. These events are designed not only to raise money but also to involve the community in the project and increase a sense of ownership.
In 2005-2006 SPARK will develop nine new neighborhood parks and “re-spark” four existing sites. Since 1983, SPARK has turned 180 school playgrounds into neighborhood parks. Approximately one-third of these parks have been “re-sparked.”
1. It is difficult to develop an inter-local agreement among different organizations and agencies due to differing priorities and turf issues. It takes a strong political figure(s) to pull all the parties together. Houston was fortunate to have a person who had been on the school board and was also an elected official who had the vision and clout to bring groups together.
2. Board composition is critical. It is important to have members who are politically connected and who represent the diversity of the communities your organization serves.
3. The community and the school board must have a mindset that favors opening school property to the community. Some school districts do not favor the concept of opening school grounds to “outsiders.”
4. Build a sense of ownership in the community for the park from the start of the project throughout the entire process. SPARK attributes much of the success of its program to the fact that the community is involved in all aspects of the development of the park, from fundraising through design and construction. The public art component offers a special opportunity for students to design a piece of the park.
Contact Information:
Kathleen Ownby, Executive Director
SPARK (Houston)
P.O. Box 1562
Houston, Texas 77251
Phone: (713) 247-2909
Fax: (713) 437-6167
(c) 2005 Alliance for Community Trees