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With the help of her mother, Margie, Huntsville Elementary School student Ashton Allen cuts the ribbon on the school’s new all-inclusive playground during a ceremony on Tuesday, November 12, 2019. Pictured in front beside Ashton and her mother are special education teacher Abby Young, principal Lisa Hamilton, fourth grade teacher Melissa Roberts, special education teacher Laura Lawson, first grade teacher Amy Sexton, Scott County Director of Schools Bill Hall, and Huntsville Mayor Dennis Jeffers | Photo: Sawyer Roberts

On September 11, 2018, teachers at Huntsville Elementary School held a fundraiser kick-off ceremony with an ambitious goal in mind: raising more than $275,000 to construct an all-inclusive playground that would allow special needs children to enjoy recess right alongside their peers.

Exactly one year later, on September 11, 2019, students at Huntsville Elementary were playing on the new playground. The mission had been accomplished — and perhaps sooner than anyone might have expected. 

Last week, a number of those same educators turned out on a surprise day off school due to weather to officially dedicate the new playground with an appreciation dinner for those who helped make it possible and a ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Tuesday’s ceremony didn’t exactly feature weather for playing outside. It was snowing and bitterly cold for early November. But everyone was all smiles as Huntsville Elementary student Ashton Allen cut the yellow ribbon to officially mark the opening of the new playground. 

The all-inclusive playground was the branchild of Abby Young, one of the school’s special education teachers. Once the idea was formulated, it became a school-wide effort.

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Young told the Independent Herald in September 2018, as the fundraising effort was beginning, that Huntsville Elementary has three self-contained classrooms for students with special needs. Those classrooms average around 10 students each year. Within them, there are about 20 students who are not able to play on the playground independently, Additionally, there are 10-to-20 students, on average, at the middle school who could utilize the playground.

With the new playground completed, Ashton and other students with special needs will have a place to play. More importantly, they’ll be able to play alongside their peers, without being excluded. That’s what the “all-inclusive” part is about. 

Research has shown that there are social and emotional benefits to interaction between students with disabilities and students without. Recess, when the pencils and learning are set aside for a few minutes so that students can play, is the perfect time for that interaction. But when some students are limited on the playground, that interaction does not occur.

“Right now, our students that are unable to play usually sit by the teachers and watch the other students play,” Young said last year, as the campaign was launched. “They can walk around the playground or play in other means besides use the current playground materials. But many students with disabilities cannot fully participate with their peers once they start playing on the playground structures. This is when a student with a disability is potentially left behind by their peers.”

In addition to the money raised to purchase the equipment for the playground, there were many more donations in terms of “in-kind” effort — excavating, concrete, the demolition of the school’s old playground equipment. The in-kind labor and supplies added tens of thousands of dollars in additional value to the project.

“Most people don’t realize just how much several local people did,” said Melissa Roberts, a fourth grade teacher at the school.

In just nine months, the funds had been raised and construction of the playground had begun.

“The fundraising kickoff was September 11, 2018, and within a year the funds were raised, the old playground was demolished, the ground work was done, and the new playground was installed,” Roberts said.

In some ways, Huntsville’s new playground is the school’s very own version of the Play With No Boundaries playground at Oneida City Park. That playground was constructed after Oneida mother Amy Martin — who has a special needs son, Joseph — lobbied the town to allow such a playground at the park and undertook fundraising efforts to make it possible.

This is the November 2019 installment of Focus On: Education, presented by S.T.A.N.D. on the third week of each month as part of the Independent Herald’s Focus On series. A print version of this article can be found on Page A3 of the November 21, 2019 edition of the Independent Herald.