WASHINGTON HEIGHTS — An Uptown school unveiled its brand new playground Thursday evening to dozens of cheering kids and parents, one of the first projects to win big via the participatory budgeting process a couple of years ago.
The Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS), which currently has approximately 800 students K-12 on 511 W. 182nd St., near Amsterdam Avenue, was awarded $500,000 to transform the formerly concrete yard to a play area with a safe ground surface, a play structure and basketball hoops.
“I wish you could’ve seen it before… if you take a look at that cement over there, that’s how it was everywhere,” said Virginia Annibale, parent and family teacher association president at the school, while pointing to a small concrete space located between the school door and where the new rubber-like surface ends. “This is just an enormous transformation.”
Annibale, who was the main driver of the project, said she originally heard of the participatory budget project through an online parenting group in 2014.
“I didn’t know anything about it, but I really embraced the idea of it being my expedition for the year. I could try and see what I could get… see if this works and at least I’ll learn about the process,” she said.
And that’s how the school won, Annibale said, adding that in addition to the playground, it was able to redesign the back of the building with four picnic tables to serve as an outdoor classroom, a small stage and a gardening area that she hopes kids will be able to landscape with the New York Restoration Project.
Annibale said the school tried to apply again for $400,000 from the participatory budget earlier this year again to upgrade the gym bleachers and fitness center at the school. Although the project didn’t win this time, Annibale said, they’re going to try to fund the project through fundraising and programs with the school.
Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez said although unfortunately not all projects will get funded, at least they’re being identified by delegates and have the possibly of coming to fruition through other means.
“This is about people’s money. This is about reinvesting the tax-payer dollars in projects that communities they are deciding,” Rodriguez said, adding that other playgrounds and parks in Northern Manhattan are being modified — including the Anne Loftus Playground and Dyckman Farmhouse — to “continue investing in green areas that are so important to children.”