Community Education

Harbor Heights students want more accessible playground

Posted on November 30th, 2022 By:

Olivia and Maddie DeRespini have taken over the family’s dining table, which is covered in skeins of yarn, scissors and other crafting materials.

The sisters are busy making as many pom poms as possible for hair ties and such. They figure they’ll need “hundreds.”

The girls’ goal is to sell the pom poms and raise money to make the playground at their school, Harbor Heights Elementary, more fun for their friends in wheelchairs. The big toy area of the playground has a bark surface that is not easily accessible to wheelchairs and walkers.

“I just watch them struggle a lot,” said Olivia, who’s in fifth grade. “It’s almost hard to watch, because it’s kind of sad to watch us play and then they can’t play. I just know there’s a way we can change this.”

Olivia DeRespini, left, her friend Aurora Floersch and Olivia’s sister Maddie DeRespini, students at Harbor Heights Elementary School in Gig Harbor, show off pom poms they’ve made to raise funds for playground upgrades at the school that will make recess more fun for their friends in wheelchairs. Christina T Henry

Trail could be more accessible

In a separate but related issue, members of the Volunteer Parent Organization are disappointed with results of an “upgrade” to the school’s crushed gravel trail around the playfield.

The new gravel, paid for by a VPO donation of more than $12,000, is of a larger grade and loose in spots. This makes it inaccessible to wheelchairs and difficult even for able-bodied children to navigate, said Kate Cunha, VPO secretary.

“We’ve had a number of slide-outs (as children are running),” Cunha said.

The district is aware of the problem, said Peninsula School District spokeswoman Aimee Gordon. The district amended the trail surface and facilities staff continue to monitor conditions.

Sisters write letter to district

Last spring, Olivia sent an email to Peninsula School District (co-signed by Maddie, who’s now in fourth grade) calling out the playground access problem.

“One of my sister’s best friends and her sister are in wheelchairs (yes, two sisters in wheelchairs) and can only be with us on the blacktop,” Olivia explained to district officials. “They can’t play anywhere else on our playground. We have two (all-access) swings they can play on, but a lot of time there is water under them, and then they can’t get to the swings. It’s hard for their chairs to even get to the swings because it’s all bark.”

The girls would like to see the district install a foam rubber surface to replace bark in the play area.

The girls’ mom Heidi DeRespini, who is the VPO president, has met with district officials along with Cunha. Ideas include an accessible big toy. But the cost is prohibitive, at least for now.

It’s going to take way more than a few hundred pom poms for the sisters’ dream to come true.

Aurora Floersch, a fifth-grade student at Harbor Heights Elementary School in Gig Harbor, works on making poms poms that Olivia DeRespini, in the background, and her sister Maddie DeRespini plan to sell. The sisters want to raise funds to make recess more fun for their friends in wheelchairs Christina T Henry

Exploring fundraising options

DeRespini and Cunha stressed that although they are VPO officers, they have in no way committed the VPO to raise funds for accessible playground improvements.

DeRespini would like to fan the embers of hope in her daughters’ goal. She plans to explore community fundraising options, such as speaking to service clubs.

Gordon did not say whether the district is in a position to fund the still-hypothetical access upgrades.

“Harbor Heights will continue to work with the VPO and the district to provide a playground that all students enjoy using,” she said.

The sisters are undaunted. For their birthdays last spring, they asked that family members donate toward the accessible playground. This year, they’re recruiting school friends to help make and sell pom poms.

“I hope that people don’t recognize us for the pom poms,” Olivia said. “I hope that they recognize us for what we’re trying to help with. … We’re making money for the playground, and we just want to help our friends because it’s important to us.”

What happened with the trail?

The VPO last year raised a considerable sum through its spring fundraiser. School staff, when asked, identified re-surfacing the trail around the playfield as a good use for the money. The previous surface was compact dirt and gravel with considerable erosion, according to Cunha.

Harbor Heights Elementary School VPO secretary Kate Cunha shows how gravel on the recently resurfaced trail around the school’s playfield is of a large grade and loose, making it less accessible for students who use a wheelchair or assistive walker. Christina T Henry

The district accepted the VPO’s donation of roughly $12,500 for the project. Resurfacing was completed shortly before school started this fall.

Problems with the upgrade quickly became apparent.

ADA standards for floors and ground surfaces require surfaces that are “stable,” “firm” and “slip resistant,” according to an article by Washington Quarries Inc., cited by the district in response to Gig Harbor Now.

The resurfaced trail was none of the above, according to Cunha. Navigating the thick, large-grade gravel was nearly impossible for students in wheelchairs, even with the help of paraeducators.

Contractor not at fault

The district asked the contractor to use a “5/8 minus” grade of crushed rock. That is standard for paths and driveways, according to Gordon.

Although the school has always used the trail as track, that’s not its intended use, Gordon said. “While we use the term track, it is definitely not an actual track. Instead, it is a perimeter space and trail our students follow during their recess breaks.”

After community members raised concerns, however, the district’s grounds crew added a smaller grade (1/4 minus) on top and compacted the surface. That was earlier this fall.

“For now, we are keeping an eye on the perimeter trail and expect the surface material to settle,” Gordon said. “We will continue to evaluate the surface and make adjustments as needed.”

An accessible goal

In early November, after the district’s efforts to amend the trail surface, Cunha walked around the roughly one-quarter-mile oval trail. She swiped the toe of her boot through areas of loose gravel. To be fair, some areas showed compacted, finer grade gravel, but it was hit and miss.

“Overall track use for our students who use wheelchairs has basically halted completely,” Cunha said. She checked with paraeducators who assist them. “Frankly, our able-bodied kids are struggling on it as well, because the gravel shifts around considerably.”

Kate Cunha, secretary of the Volunteer Parent Organization at Harbor Heights Elementary School, walks the perimeter of the trail around the school’s playfield. The gravel on the recently resurfaced trail is of a large grade and loose. Students who use a wheelchair or or assistive walker struggle to navigate the trail, according to Cunha and other parents. Christina T Henry

The VPO thinks the trail needs more work, but the matter is out of their hands. Since they signed off on the donation, the school district and its approved contractors have managed the project.

“When a donation is made to the district, we work with supporters to understand their expectations for the donation and work closely with them to fulfill those expectations,” Gordon said. “PSD strives to work with the stakeholders to get the end product that they worked hard to fundraise for.”

The VPO will hold them to that statement, Cunha said, given parents donated in good faith, believing the district would know how to properly replace the trail surface.

“We just didn’t expect an upgrade to essentially take the track out of commission for so many students,” she said. “We want our parents to know the VPO is looking out for their money, and we want the students to have the access they need to have.”