William Butler Yeats’ poem, “A Prayer For My Daughter,” includes the line: “How, but in custom and in ceremony, are innocence and beauty born?”
And it was with this line that Gordon Grant, principal of Hall Fletcher Elementary, began the groundbreaking for the new special-needs inclusive playground being built at the school with the help from the community.
“The only way community change happens is with people coming together,” Grant said in his opening speech, thanking the community, parents and all of the donors involved with the project.
The ceremony commemorated the beginning stages of construction in a $250,000 improvement plan that celebrates the school’s diversity and focuses on inclusion for all of the students. The new playground learning center will feature innovative educational experiences for the children, including a weather station, a kinetic merry-go-round that will draw water from an artesian well onto a sand table, a life-size chess board and many other unique implements. Most of the existing playground equipment will be salvaged and incorporated into the new design.
“This school is going to show, by its exterior example, what’s going on in the interior,” Grant said. “That this is a place where children are loved and valued, where the beauty of the school shows that the community cares about it and the community is a part of it.”
Chris Joyell, executive director and Asheville Design Center, the nonprofit working with the community and school systems on the project’s design, said that about $100,000 in funds and labor donations have been raised so far, and he expects that grading and hardscaping — sidewalks and the rubberized surface that will hold the chess board — will be completed during the summer.
The “education walk” is a 600-foot winding sidewalk with a 5-degree slope that will make it wheelchair accessible. The path leads to all of the elements planned for the area.
“We want to make sure every student in the school has an opportunity to enjoy this outdoor learning center,” Joyell said. “That is really the central piece of this.”
Keeping with the theme of universal access, designers are also working on a two-story, wheelchair-accessible treehouse.
“When you’re in the school, the kids don’t seem to notice the difference between children in wheelchairs,” he said. “That separation only becomes evident when you get out here onto this playground. We heard even from the students themselves that they want all of their friends to be out here.”
There’s still a long way to go, but Joyell is hopeful, saying that it’s amazing how many people have come together to make this happen.
Joyell also said that the project has been broken down into multiple phases so that even if the money dries up at some point, the school will be left off better than where it started.
The fundraising “actually gets easier as we go along,” he said. “Because people see progress and also the stuff waiting for us at the end is the fun stuff.”
The fun stuff includes the outdoor classrooms — two separate vaulted tile domes based on a design by architect Rafael Guastavino, who designed the Basilica of Saint Lawrence downtown — that the students will get to help build once the funding goal is reached.
“They will be creating the tiles, firing them themselves and laying the tiles into the structure themselves,” Joyell said. “The idea is, I would love for them to be able to come back with their children one day and be able to show their tile as part of that dome.”
Joyell is considering a Kickstarter or other crowd-sourcing project to raise the $35,000 they need for the outdoor classrooms.
“Our aim is really simple and profound at Hall Fletcher,” Grant said to the gathered crowd. “We want to create the true, the mythical ideal of the American school as the heart of a community. Where everybody knows that everybody who enters will thrive and grow. It’s that simple.”