In an effort to bridge the gap between the school district’s youngest learners and integrate the physical activity of disabled students with that of their peers, the Stephenville ISD is working on plans to improve playground equipment at the campuses of Central and Chamberlin elementary schools.

Tracy Newby, director of special education, said there are more than 50 disabled students with varying disabilities at each of the two elementary campuses.

The district’s plans are to first improve the playground at Central Elementary, then integrate equipment at Chamberlin during the next school year.

“We hope to get the playground equipment up at Central over the summer and ready for the children at the beginning of the fall semester,” Lacy Gilley, occupational therapist who contracts with SISD, said.

While the district instructs students with varying learning and developmental disabilities,  Newby said the new equipment will welcome children who rely on wheelchairs, scooters and crutches for mobility to access the playground.

“Those children can currently play on the playground, but they can not utilize the equipment due to safety issues,” Newby said.

The disabled equipment will be a first for SISD and is made possible in part by the federal government’s ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) funding geared at special education. To comply with funding requirements, Newby said the equipment must tie into individual educational plans for the affected student body.

“The funds can only be used to pay for equipment or learning material that exercises things such as fine and gross motor skills or cause and effect,” Newby said.

Gilley, whose job focuses on honing fine motor skills, said the motivation behind the push for the equipment is both professional and personal.

She said the need for the integrated equipment became apparent when she was working with a wheelchair bound student.

“He was so excited about going to the playground,” Gilley said. “But he couldn’t play on anything, there was nothing for him. The other children left him behind. At the time, he was in a manual wheelchair, which was impossible to push across the playground.”

For Gilley, the thought of a child being left behind was heart wrenching. Not only has Gilley spent a decade as a therapist, she gave birth to Seth, who was diagnosed with Spinal Muscular Atrophy, three years ago.

Faced with the reality that the activity of students she works with on a weekly basis and her own son could be sidelined by the current equipment, she pushed the idea to the forefront.

“I have always been passionate about my work,” Gilley said. “But that passion is even greater since I now have a disabled child of my own. I didn’t want for that one student to be left out, and the thought of the former students who were in the same position and of course I don’t want that to be Seth either.”

Equipment on the wish list for Central Elementary that can be purchased with federal funds include a play structure, bongo panel, talk tube system, chime/sound cylinder/rain wheel panels, an elevated sand box and Kinder Fall turf with rubber infill.

Thanks to the federal funding, the special education department will spend $35,539 on the additions per campus, but there are still certain aspects of the integration that will not be covered. For example, the funding will cover the artificial turf but not the turf’s installation. It will cover the equipment but won’t cover an accessible path for mobility impaired students.

Items not covered by ARRA funding and on the drawing board for Central are a 14’x14’ shade structure, equipment installation, excavation of a 1,411 sq. ft area to accommodate concrete and turf, a 548 sq. ft concrete path, disposal of the excavated materials and shipping and handling.

According to an estimate provided by playground equipment company Grounds For Play, the uncovered materials for Central alone total $27,059. 

The groundwork for the project is the center of a current fundraising effort headed by local physical therapist and Lion’s Club member Wayne Cooper. Cooper also contracts with SISD as a physical therapist. 

According to Newby, the entire project is hinging on the fundraising effort and she has full confidence in Cooper’s efforts.

“We have the money in the budget for the playground equipment,” Newby said. “We will set the money aside until the ground work and foundation can be laid. I have no doubt the goals will be reached sooner rather than later since Wayne is working so diligently to help gain community support for the project.”

Gilley said she and Cooper are working to organize a fundraising effort in the spring and the duo hopes the community will chip in to make the dream a reality.