Pilot program will give Saturday playground access to 20 LBUSD elementary schools

After a contentious, months-long battle with district officials over schools being fenced off after-hours, parents announced Wednesday they have reached a deal to keep 20 campuses open as part of a pilot program.

The group Save Our Fremont Playground was organized in September after the Long Beach Unified School District announced it was fencing off the Belmont Heights elementary school—the last school to be closed due to safety concerns, district officials said.

The impact that had on kids was noticeable immediately, parents said. Kids who normally used the school’s playground afterschool were forced into the streets to play or hovered at local doughnut and coffee shops to pass the time.

“It’s completely desolate,” said Jyoti Nanda, a parent organizer with Save Our Fremont Playground.

Students and parents protested outside of the school in early October as they tried to draw attention to their cause. District officials said at the time the closures were necessitated by safety concerns given the rise in school violence across the country in recent years.

The group met with elected officials, school board members and even candidates in the upcoming March election in an effort to strike a deal.

Now, starting in late February, 20 LBUSD campuses will be opened for six hours on Saturdays as part of the pilot-program that will last through the end of the school year. The list of schools that will be participating has not been released in full, but Fremont will be part of that list, district spokesperson Chris Eftychiou said.

The other participating campuses will come in part from the district’s 27 elementary schools that receive federal funding for having high percentages of students who come from high poverty households. The funding for the pilot program will come partly from those federal funds, and will include other sources of funding for schools like Fremont that don’t qualify.

Access to the playground will be supervised with some organized activities, but will include open access to things like ball sheds so that children can play freely outside of the organized events. Access for sites like Fremont could begin as soon as Feb. 29, but other campuses could start later.

How to continue the program and how to fund it in the future will be evaluated after the pilot ends in June.

“We’ll evaluate the program, do a cost analysis and see where we go from there,” Eftychiou said.

Previous conversations during board of education meetings had placed the cost of opening campus playgrounds on weekends at around $1.8 million with the funding coming from the district and individual schools. A cost-sharing partnership between the district and the city was also discussed.

The cost is expected to be less for the pilot program since the $1.8 million figure was based on opening up a larger percentage of campus playgrounds.

Nanda said that her group was elated at the news—especially that other schools would be included.

“In many ways this is grander then what we were asking for,” Nanda said. “The one thing we are hoping for is that it can be extended to Sundays as well.”

Nanda said that while this is a pilot-program and things could change, she hopes that this can be the start of a larger conversation about how playgrounds in the city are viewed.

“Our end goal is that it [open playgrounds] become a part of the culture,” Nanda said. “We think all the kids deserve this.”

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Jason Ruiz covers City Hall and politics for the Long Beach Post.
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