HISD SPARK Parks Offer Options for Students and Community

A boy plays at the SPARK Park at Emerson Elementary school on Wednesday afternoon.

When the district’s $805 million bond program was approved by voters in 2007 to begin more than 180 construction and renovation projects across the district, Berry Elementary Principal Deborah Silber immediately began planning for her new school.

While she and her Project Advisory Team considered classroom sizes and how to include 21st century technology in the school’s design, they also wanted to make sure they had enough space to include a new SPARK Park for the students and community that would replace the school’s original playground.

“We planned our new bond campus with SPARK Park in mind,” Silber said.

SPARK Park is a nonprofit organization dedicated to developing public school grounds into neighborhood parks — a collaborative effort involving the City of Houston, Harris County, HISD, parent-teacher groups, and the community. When Berry’s new park opens later this year, it will be at one of more than 150 schools across the district to benefit from the program, which dates back to 1983.

Many of those schools, like Berry, have participated in the district’s bond programs, underscoring the idea that many principals don’t consider their new schools complete until they have a SPARK Park.

The parks are funded mostly using federal grants, though particpating schools also raise money and the district makes a $5,000 contribution toward construction. HISD also bids the construction work as required by law. and is currently seeking bids for SPARK Parks at Almeda Elementary, Moreno Elementary, and McReynolds Middle Schools.

At its April 11 meeting, the Board of Education will consider awarding SPARK Park contracts for construction at both Berry Elementary and Tijerina Elementary schools.

Also in the design phase is a SPARK Park at HISD’s Woodson Academy, which could be bid early this summer. Other schools currently being considered for SPARK Parks for the 2014-15 school year include Helms Elementary, Lyons Elmentary, Houston Academy, Revere Middle School, and Eastwood Academy. Construction could begin on those projects by the summer of 2014.

“Schools benefit from our program by having added value to their campus,” says SPARK School Park Program Executive Director Kathleen Ownby, who works with the schools, parents, and neighborhoods to help them create a vision for the parks. “The community also benefits in having a safe place for families to gather afterschool and weekends.”

Silber said her goal is to ensure that the new SPARK Park at Berry Elementary reflects the neighborhood’s Hispanic heritage through artwork.

“We’re working really hard for the community to understand this is their park, and we’re giving something to the kids that otherwise they wouldn’t get,” Silber said. “We took the interest in the needs of the community and incorporated it into the park.”

The new park will feature a running track, health stations, soccer fields, and basketball courts. Silber said teachers will be able to use the park as a part of their curriculum so students can learn while they play.

SPARKS Parks aren’t limited to elementary or middle school campuses. High Schools like Kashmere and Westbury have worked with the organization to provide parks that feature health stations, tracks, and picnic areas.

Emerson Elementary School Principal Alex Rodriguez has a park, located on the corner of Tanglewilde and Skyline in southwest Houston, that combines features for both younger and older students with basketball courts, a balance beam, and pull-up stations.

Rodriguez said the community takes pride in the park and his teachers like using it as a place for students to learn and play.

“Giving the students an opportunity to play and interact constructively refreshes them to continue learning in classrooms,” Rodriguez said.

Under the 2012 bond program, schools that want to add or replace a SPARK Park will have the opportunity if they want, according to HISD Facilities Planner LaJuan Harris.

“Even though the process takes 18 to 24 months to complete, it is well worth the wait to see the children playing in their new environments,” she said.