Montezuma-Cortez Middle School students may have a new playground coming this summer.
A group of students, teachers, and city of Cortez staff members have been working on the design since last year, and are applying for a Greater Outdoors Colorado grant to fund the project.
The project has been in the works since last year, and it will meet a need at the school, administrators said.
M-CMS Principal Kate Ott said she has wanted a playground at the middle school ever since she became principal. Right now, the concrete play area at M-CMS features some basketball hoops and tetherball poles, but no play structures – leading to students either injuring themselves or foregoing physical activity, according to teachers and staff members.
The school recently bought pogo sticks and jump ropes to encourage students to be active, which have been helpful, but not as durable as a permanent structure, teachers say.
In a letter supporting the effort, eighth grade teacher Lissa Lycan pointed to the benefits of a play structure to reduce behavior issues and offer an appropriate energy outlet for students.
“The pre-teen age group is not the same as the high school age group,” Lycan wrote. “Our students need equipment and structures to focus and inspire their play so that they will expend energy in useful directions.”
Jill Dunsten, the school nurse, pointed to health benefits from an active lifestyle.
“Children today are at higher risk than ever before for serious chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and their complications,” Dunsten wrote in a letter of support. “Enhancing physical activity through a new playground at CMS would not only benefit the children, but the community as a whole in the long run.”
According to Dunsten, more than 100 recess injuries were reported during the past1½ years, which were attributed to the concrete play area or to a lack of directed activity for students.
And Ott cited various studies showing the academic and cognitive benefits of physical activity for children. One study, published in 2005 and conducted among nearly 900,000 California elementary school students, found that as overall fitness scores improved, so did academic achievement.
She pointed to other research showing that physical activity can foster new brain cells and improve cognition, memory, and mood – which contributes to academic achievement. This is particularly important with supporting underserved students, she said.
“Any obstacle we can take out of the way only benefits the kids academically,” Ott said. “And eventually our community, because they become members of our workforce.”
The playground design process began last year with a few students enrolled in the Gifted and Talented program, and then continued this year, growing to include six students, guided by instructor Brittany Lang. The idea to partner with the city and apply for a GOCO grant came during the fall, after some GOCO representatives visited Cortez, Ott said.
The students involved soon learned about the intensive nature of grant-writing. On Thursday mornings throughout the fall semester, Dean Palmquist, director of the city’s Parks and Recreation department, and Rosa Dimon, recreation supervisor, came to the middle school to guide the students through the process.
“It was a real privilege to work with them,” Palmquist said. “It really was encouraging to see the eagerness of the students in wanting to help with getting the information.”
They proposed a few designs to the student body, who then chose their favorite. The one selected includes a variety of climbing and “swinging” features with cable, along with six bridges, Palmquist said.
Students learned to gather student demographic and enrollment data, look at playground access information, and conduct surveys with both students and the community.
“The students have totally taken the bull by the horns, if you will, and the project is theirs,” Ott said. “They’ve written every word, they created the surveys for students, they selected the design for the project, they’ve gone to City Council, school board, Tribal Council. Reached out to county commissioners. They’ve done all the steps in the process to come to the point where we are today.”
They are seeking about $82,500 from GOCO through a School Yard Initiative grant, Palmquist said. The entire project cost is estimated at $110,000 – the grant requires a 25% match of cash or in-kind donations from the applicant, meaning that the middle school students are actively fundraising.
They have about $15,000 to $19,000 left to go, Ott said. The students have already begun fundraising efforts, hosting a dance and movie night, and they are planning on holding a family bingo night and possibly some sort of physical activity-type of fundraiser, aligning with the project goal.
GOCO requires that only a city, county, or special district – not a school district – be the applicant, which is why the city of Cortez is serving as the fiscal agent, Palmquist said.
The application was due Jan. 7, and GOCO is expected to let them know if they receive the funds by March. If they are awarded the grant, the playground would likely be constructed this summer, Ott said.
It would be open to the community when school is not in session, as per GOCO grant requirements.