On the playground, surviving budget cuts

Playworks was active at Charles Drew Elementary in West Philadelphia last year, but the school wasn't able to keep the program. Here, "Coach Ben" Gibboney directs a game on the playground. (Tom Gralish/staff)

Last school year, I wrote about Playworks, a nonprofit that worked in 11 Philadelphia School District schools to structure activities for students at lunch and recess.

Each school involved with the organization got a Playworks coach, a full-time staff member who organized games, taught children rules, and provided an extra set of eyes and ears during student downtime — when fights and bad behavior often break out.

The program costs $55,000 annually to run; the schools themselves came up with about $23,000, and Playworks funded the rest.

That might seem like a luxury in the toughest budget year in recent memory.  

But program got results — according to a survey taken at the end of the school year, staff in the schools where Playworks operated last year said the program cut bullying, student conflict and disciplinary referrals; helped students find ways to use conflict resolution skills; and allowed teachers to spend more time teaching and less time dealing with problem behavior.

On average, Playworks schools recovered about 10 minutes a day, the survey found — time that had been spent transitioning from recess to learning.  That’s 31 hours extra hours of instructional time over a 180-day school year, Playworks figures.

For the past decade, the district has encouraged schools to have socialized recess. But when resources are stretched, climate and safety positions are often among the first to go.

And the district’s $629 million budget gap meant that dozens and dozens of worthy programs didn’t survive the ax.  The district laid off thousands of workers, including teachers.

How did Playworks fare?

“We survived,” said Marjorie Nightingale, executive director of Playworks Philadelphia.  But none of the 11 district schools that used — and, to read the survey results, loved — Playworks were able to keep it.  Money was just too tight, she said.

Still, five district schools managed to find money for the program — the Home and School Associations of Henry and Bache—Martin Elementaries paid for Playworks; Drexel University picked up the tab for Playworks at McMichael and Powel Schools; and Juniata Park found the money in its budget.

The program is also operating in two charters — Belmont and Russell Byers.
Parents at Henry in Mount Airy and Bache-Martin in Fairmount pushed hard for the program, Nightingale said.

“The parents were so anxious to have the program,” she said.  “Even though their principals told them there was no way they could fund it, they found a way.”

Nightingale still hopes to expand.  In fact, Playworks Philadelphia received a $232,000 grant from the nonprofit PennServe to grow this school year, but had to turn down part of the award because so many schools that wanted the program just couldn't afford it. 

"That's the way it is right now," Nightingale said.