LINCOLN PARK — A parent-led initiative to revamp dilapidated outdoor areas surrounding Louisa May Alcott Elementary reached a milestone Tuesday as a wooden amphitheater was unveiled.
Parents behind the effort said they hope the amphitheater and eventual artificial turf field make the highly-rated but underutilized school a more attractive choice in the neighborhood.
"I've heard from people that as prospective parents come by the school, some of them do judge a book by its cover and they keep driving," said Robin Fine, an Alcott parent who has been leading the fundraising effort. "They are like, 'Look at this place. It's a dump. Why would I send my kids here?'"
The $120,000 amphitheater was the first of the three-phase parent-led Alcott Field of Dreams project, which aims to eventually turn a beat-up field into artificial turf and sporting facilities that would be used by both the school and surrounding neighborhood.
While the group behind the project has already received a $300,000 commitment from Ald. Michele Smith (43rd) for the second phase and raised $100,000 on its own, it is a long way from the estimated $1.2 million needed.
"Alcott Elementary School is a fabulous school and its outdoor facilities needed to reflect the excellence of the school," Smith said.
Alcott's enrollment for the 2013-2014 year was listed at 511 students, while the school's ideal enrollment is 720 students, according to CPS data and standards.
While Alcott is a neighborhood school, families from outside the school's boundaries can apply for a random lottery for available spaces.
Smith said she committed the $300,000 from discretionary "menu money" and has been in support of the project because of the larger ramifications it will have on the neighborhood.
"Where else in Lincoln Park can you find new, accessible open space?" Smith asked. "We are very blessed to have this space with this great school."
The new amphitheater space, which was unveiled Tuesday morning, will not only beautify the school's playground area, but will serve as an outdoor classroom space.
The space had previously been covered with gravel, dirt, soot and rubble, as it had been an unfinished CPS project that was abandoned more than 10 years ago.
"I'm really excited for the community and the kids to have this space back and have it be safe and clean and usable," Fine said.
The school, located at 2625 N. Orchard St., is considered "excellent" by CPS ratings and is one of the top scoring schools system-wide.
"It's a great day, but it's just the beginning stages of the project," said Alcott principal Elias Estrada. "We hope to get the rest of it done."
Both Smith and Fine argued that the state of the outdoor facilities do not match up to those test scores.
The current playing fields — which the organizers of the project hope to convert into a turf athletic field, a running track and basketball courts — have drainage issues, are torn up and are riddled with exposed metal manholes.
A baseball diamond in the northeast corner of the field barely resembles a dirt infield and is occasionally used by groups in the neighborhood but never for actual organized play.
Coming up with the funds for the next phase of the project is going to be a challenge, according to organizers behind the project, as they are looking for neighborhood and corporate support.
A number of neighborhood businesses — including Bubbles Academy, Kuma's Corner, The Peasantry, Rebell Conditioning and Diversey River Bowl's Pizzeria — have either held fundraisers or donated to the Field of Dreams Effort.
CPS initially agreed to cover 50 percent of the costs, but has since backed out, according to the organizers.
Fine said she has a meeting coming up with representatives of the Chicago Park District, and is looking into avenues such as grants and city initiatives to close the funding gap.
"We are working on next steps. It's going to come down to money," Fine said.