Drexel design students make Magical Spaces happen at West Phila. school

Roxanne Josey, 10, a fifth grader at Blankenburg Elementary School, carefully paints a portionof the mural under the watchful eye of Charles Graham, parent and community ombudsman.
Roxanne Josey, 10, a fifth grader at Blankenburg Elementary School, carefully paints a portionof the mural under the watchful eye of Charles Graham, parent and community ombudsman.
Posted: November 17, 2010

In the words of fifth grader Janae Winston, the schoolyard at the Rudolph Blankenburg School in West Philadelphia "looked nasty" two years ago.

The asphalt had cracks and sink holes, the slanted basketball sets had rusty rims and no nets, and the playground - more than 80,000 square feet - had nothing in it.

"I just didn't like it," Janae said.

On Tuesday, the school celebrated a newly renovated playground, thanks to a project by Drexel University interior design professor Debra Ruben and her students at the school's Westphal College of Media Arts and Design.

The Magical Spaces Playground, at 4600 W. Girard Ave., was just an idea in the spring of 2008, when Ruben was looking to design a community project.

Her friend Carol Chew, of the West Philadelphia Alliance for Children, volunteers at Blankenburg and was looking for a way to improve the schoolyard for students.

"It was just a crime," Chew said, mentioning that weeds and shards of glass littered the space. "The playground shouldn't be like that."

The women decided to join forces, with Ruben enlisting the help of undergraduate and graduate students in her sustainable-design classes.

"It is our responsibility as design professionals to use our skills and knowledge in order to improve our communities," said former graduate research assistant Catherine Russo.

With the help of private and public institutions donating more than $350,000 toward the project, Ruben and her students began designing what she called an "ideal playground for the community."

To accomplish this, they visited Blankenburg to hear what students and teachers wanted in a playground.

High on the list were shade and seating. Students also wanted to make the most of their schoolyard by creating several spaces to play, socialize, and learn.

While Ruben and her students conducted research on Blankenburg and its community, the children raised money through class contests and wrote letters to city and state representatives to ask for money for the playground.

"It looks better than it did before," said fifth grader Tihir Griffin. "It makes people actually want to play on it."

The basketball sets have been fixed, a 100-yard dash track has been painted on the blacktop, and a play structure - built with local and sustainable paint, plastics, metals, and safety matting - stands in the middle of the newly repaved schoolyard.

A giant compass rose and map of the United States are drawn on the ground to help educate students in geography and navigation.

There is a ground design of the African symbol Sankofa - a bird turning to retrieve an egg from its back - that can be followed as a maze.

Chosen by students to represent the community's African heritage, the Sankofa symbolizes the passing of the "jewel of knowledge" from the past to the present, Ruben said.

The Sankofa maze faces a mural that wraps around the sides of the school's walls.

The mural, which includes designs from about 40 student drawings, features spaceships, birds, butterflies, and other flying objects to represent the idea of knowledge taking flight.

The Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and designer David McShane created the mural's outline, and the school's 400 students have helped to paint it over the last couple of weeks. The mural is expected to be completed by next month.

Two raised gardens - as part of a project initiative to create green space - consist of trees and 700 indigenous plants to provide shade. Outdoor tables will allow students to practice chess, a popular activity.

Ruben and Chew are now working to build a fitness trail and have a long-range goal of creating an outdoor classroom.

Like the play structure, sustainable materials would be used for the classroom, including recycled parts of surfboards as seats and tires serving as walls, according to former graduate student Amanda Pincin.

"We are all still in disbelief that the new playground has actually happened and that it is even more than we hoped for," said Christina Spink, principal for the last 11 years.

"This has been a great experience for our students, parents, and our whole Blankenburg family to see that positive change can happen with hard work, persistence, and a little faith."

Contact staff writer Stephen Jiwanmall at 215-854-5626 or sjiwanmall@phillynews.com.

Inquirer staff writer Luke Harold contributed to this article.

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