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Prescott Elementary
Prescott Elementary PTO Vice President Karen Wills helps students including third-graders Naomi McKibbin (left) and Abby Quasebarth kick off their walkathon fundraiser during an assembly on Thursday afternoon, April 21, 2011. (ROBERT BECKER / Lincoln Journal Star)

The playground behind Prescott Elementary School in south Lincoln is getting a makeover, from gravel-laden mess to landscaped Prescott Park.

The transformation began more than two years ago, after Lincoln Public Schools spent $6.2 million to renovate the 89-year-old school building but left the mature playground largely untouched.

Before Ruth Ann Wylie officially began her new duties as principal in 2009, she began meeting with the Prescott parent group and school/neighborhood advisory committee to talk about the playground.

"We started working together to say, 'What can we do about this?'" Wylie said.

They began having a summer festival behind the school for families and neighbors, showing movies on the big white outside wall of the gymnasium. The Near South Neighborhood Association started holding its ice cream social there. And neighbors, students, staff and families began to think about what they'd like to see on their playground.

"So our dream started being that this would be Prescott Park ... a place the neighborhood, the nursing home in the area could all use," Wylie said.

Those dreams -- supplemented by numerous meetings -- crystallized into a decision to build a walking path around the outside perimeter of the playground.

The idea dovetailed with the school's philosophy about wellness and staff's goals to help students live healthy, active lives.

"The walking path is an extension of that," she said. "We want kids to have ways to exercise."

And the walking path idea led to a set of plans -- and a much broader vision.

Dimensions consulting firm donated its time and helped the school draw up plans. School officials applied for grants and displayed maps, showing parents and neighbors the plans.

The plans include not only the path but an outdoor classroom with a stage and a berm, a bridge and rain garden, and a place for kids to play soccer and baseball. Playground equipment, which the PTO bought a couple of years ago, will remain closest to the school.

A community garden will be on the south side of the building, and a new entrance to the park will be paid for with a $99,000 federal grant and will feature a lighted bicycle court.

The federal money was awarded through the Nebraska Department of Roads' Safe Routes to School Program, which promotes physical activity.

Total cost of the project is $252,250, Wylie said. The Near South Neighborhood Association donated as much as $10,000.

Last year, the school hosted its first walk-a-thon and raised $15,000. That paid for the walking path, which is now finished.

Other schools, such as Campbell and Maxey elementaries, have built walking paths, said facilities Director Scott Wieskamp. And schools like McPhee have revamped their playgrounds to include gardens and outdoor classroom areas.

But Prescott's vision is one of the more ambitious.

The second annual walk-a-thon to raise money for the next phase of the project is set for May 11. LPS Superintendent Steve Joel will cut a ceremonial ribbon and take a lap around the walking path with the kindergartners. Community leaders will be walking coaches for the different grades, and students will eat sack lunches outside.

Kids will walk all day -- each grade taking turns -- in hopes of raising more money for the project. 

"We're just trying to get kids reconnected to nature," said parent Tammie Vacek. "It's promoting creativity, it's promoting healthy living. It really helps promote an exciting new way to learn."

Reach Margaret Reist at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com

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