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Opening the Schoolhouse Door

by Jill Walker

June 3,2004

Pragmatic is a word not often used to describe government agencies. So it is with great pleasure that I relay a refreshing example of two Charlotte-Mecklenburg agencies that shine in this regard, albeit with the perseverance and pressure of a couple of citizen activists. The two agencies are Parks and Recreation and Charlotte- Mecklenburg Schools.

Dilworth Elementary School, a performing arts magnet school, was in dire need of renovation and up fitting. The school based equity program, which accompanied the student assignment plan, required many changes to bring this school up to the base line standard, including providing space for an additional 100 students. So, one way or the other, renovation was on the docket.

And then something wonderful happened. The ideas of two citizens thinking broadly, creatively, and on the same plane, converged: those of Tom Sykes, of the Parks and Recreation Advisory Council, and Kristen Henderson, an involved Dilworth parent.

Sykes, looking for a way to provide Dilworth and the growing South End district with much needed playing fields and athletic facilities, yet constrained by a restrictive budget, envisioned Parks and Rec piggy-backing on the CMS expansion in such a way that both departments achieved their goals.

Henderson, first inspired by the Euclid Center, an abandoned historic building that sits adjacent to Dilworth School, conceived of incorporating that building into the school’s arts expansion project with the caveat that its art, dance, theater and music paces be accessible to the community after school. Henderson expanded this idea to address how Dilworth School might become a hub for the community. In one fell swoop, why not improve the school, connect it with the community and provide the neighborhood with a “town enter” to meet, gather, practice music, and learn a craft?

While these two individuals plowed through a three-year planning and implementation process, they really didn’t encounter what you would expect when two bureaucracies share a project. Both CMS and Parks and Rec rose to the occasion in a way we can all celebrate.

“This was not a selfish project,” said Sykes. “Our kids probably won’t even be around o really use it. We just really believed in it.” According to Sykes, at a cost of $800,000, the community will acquire amenities that would otherwise cost $6 to 7 million! Six more CMS schools are slated to share fields and gym space with Parks and Rec, saving an estimated $40 to 45 million. And, with success in the rearview mirror, there are 14 more schools to follow.

What these citizens, agencies and countless others did was demonstrate the best of democratic society – that everyone has the freedom and the ability to affect positive change.

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