If the children at Centre Ridge Elementary seem happier than usual on their school playground, they've got good reason. It's brand new, and they got to play on it, last week, for the first time.
"We're so proud of it," said Principal Joyce Dantzler. "We started the fund-raising last October."
The old playground equipment was fine when the school opened in 1990 with 500 students. But the school population doubled and the equipment became inadequate. Then last September, the school system declared it unsafe.
P.E. teacher Sean Lanigan researched who was building the most school playgrounds in Fairfax County and discovered Little Tykes of Alexandria. Next, he met with its head of construction, Larry D'Amico. "He was outstanding," said Lanigan. "He helped me walk through where the playground should be and the design."
The school system gave Centre Ridge $70,000 for equipment and land-grading, and the school raised about $23,000 more toward the equipment. It all came together, said Dantzler, "thanks to our staff, parents, PTA, community, Centreville United Methodist Church [which donated $1,500] and local merchants, who also donated."
Kindergarten teacher Katie Abruzzino was also instrumental. Her husband Frank died suddenly of cancer last spring, and she had all the memorial funds dedicated to the playground. "It's very touching that she did that," said Dantzler. "There'll be a special plaque [there] in his honor." Added Lanigan: "He wanted his wife to look out her classroom window and think of him when she saw the playground."
Centre Ridge still has to raise another $15,000 to buy more equipment so the playground will be the right capacity for the school's 1,050 students, but the children are already enjoying what's there. However, it took lots of work to get to that point.
"We had to tear up the asphalt, grade the hill and level out the land so the playground could fit into it," said Lanigan. Meanwhile, he and P.E. teacher Susan McCarthy sent out flyers asking the local community (whose children use the playground after school) for donations.
"We had an overwhelming response," said Lanigan. He also hung a donation chart and a colorful diagram of the future playground in the school, so the children could visualize their goal. "The kids were so excited about it — they were bringing in their piggy banks with dimes, nickels and pennies."
Local businesses contributed nearly $3,000; K.G. Communications and NOVEC each gave $500, and Canon donated $1,000. Merchants such as Red Rocks Cafe, Glory Days Grill and BJ's contributed merchandise for prizes at fund-raising basketball games. Centre Ridge's staff played the staffs of Centreville and Virginia Run elementaries and raised $5,000 total. And both Pizza Hut and McDonald's held fund-raisers.
"It was wonderful," said Lanigan. "This community really pulled together — even people who didn't have kids donated money. I was amazed at how much we raised."
It took a week to install the red, green, yellow and blue playground equipment. Said Lanigan: "The kids stopped to watch, jaws dropping in awe. "I can't thank Larry enough for everything he did."
The kindergarten and first-grade area has slides, climbing equipment and platforms, with a bouncy bridge, platforms and round stepping stones leading to the second-sixth-grade area. It contains slides, various climbing ladders, sliding poles and platforms.
"We have a whole section of upper-body strength equipment," said Lanigan. "It has rings, bars that make a 7-foot circle and come back to a platform, and an arc climbing-ladder with movable bars so children walk, hand-to-hand, from one bar to the next."
Sept. 19 was the first day the children could use the new equipment. "Even the sixth-graders were excited," said Lanigan. "They were finally able to see [and play on] the finished product."