For Astoria's youngest children, recess is about to get a lot more fun.

The 20-year-old playground at John Jacob Astor Elementary School hosts more than 400 kindergarten through second graders every day, and by the end of the summer, the ailing structure will be replaced.

While the need to build a new playground has been clear for years, a grassroots effort has finally gathered enough momentum - and raised enough money - to make it happen, said Astor Principal Travis Roe.

"This community really knows how to rally around a project and our kids. I don't think it will take a lot of convincing for people to realize this is a good thing for Astoria and our kids," Roe said.

More money is needed, and fundraising continues.

Students have pounded the pavement to raise $15,000 with the help of The Astor School Parent Club and the MOMS Club of Astoria, and now, the pot has grown to $35,000 with funds added from Astoria School District and dozens of other private and business donors. Many area businesses have already pledged to contribute their services when the project is underway, adding up to more than $52,000 in value.

Parent Tammy Herdener, a member of the newly formed Astor Playground Project Committee, said much of the work to get the project going was done by those who'll be benefiting most.

"The kids have been working on this much longer than the adults," Herdener said. The committee made up of MOMS and Parent club members and other community members interested in the project came together in January.

Even though the budget for the two-phase project is $200,000, children, parents, teachers and community members are confident that with more fundraising and grant money, the dream for a covered place for Astoria's youngest children to play year-round outside will soon become a reality.

An obvious needAfter more than two decades of lunches and recesses, the worn playground that sits on the stretch of asphalt below the historic Astor school is ready to come down.

"It has served us well, but it's really showing its age," Roe said. It was built after the movie Kindergarten Cop was filmed at the school, using the proceeds from the filming. 

Several of its parts are no longer up to code, and it doesn't allow access cording to Americans with Disabilities Act specifications because of an encircling barrier, Roe said. About 12 percent of the Astor student body is disabled or has special needs.

"We want all of our kids to be able to use and access the playground," he said. The new design will remove the barrier, and the surface will eventually get a smooth high density foam-type pad in addition to wood chips.

Several parts of the old structure have been dismantled because they would be too costly to fix or replace safely - including the adjacent swing set.

In addition to condition issues, the current playground was built to be used by about 30 to 40 children.

But every day, six or seven recesses unleash more than 100 children upon the playground, and after school it is used by the Parks and Recreation Adventure Club program as well.

The project's first phase will provide a structure that can accommodate 70 to 80 kids, though it may have to grow with modular expansions to reach that size with time.

The second phase of the project will put a permanent cover over the play area the following year, allowing children to play regardless of weather. Last year Astoria had 180 days and 85 inches of rain. 

Children will be able to burn off energy and get fresh air even when the weather is less than agreeable, letting them come back to class refreshed and better able to focus, Herdener said. 

A covered playground will be available for all children to play on when school's not in session, adding another rainy day option for parents looking to get cooped up kids out of the house, Roe said.

Herdener, mom of 6-year-old twins, can't wait to have another "wow" playground in Astoria like Tapiola Park - only this one will be covered during Astoria's frequent downpours.

"I rack my brain, where would be a special place to play?" she said she asks herself frequently.

More than just playWhile organizers see the need for updated, safer equipment, the committee is also using the opportunity to get a playground that will intentionally help children be fit and healthier. 

Venus Fromwiller, a parent and health teacher at Astoria High School, has helped lead the committee through choosing a structure that will help encourage development of motor skills, balance and hand-eye coordination for the five- through eight-year-olds that will use it.

Fromwiller used her fitness background to sift through the available models to find the best fit for the students' activity needs and the unique, historic atmosphere, narrowing it down to three companies.

"It takes a more critical eye," she said, to separate models that were meant to entertain rather than condition and strengthen young bodies. 

She's picked one, and loves that it can be added on to as more money becomes available. One key feature that was important to Roe was that all of its parts keep children visible to recess monitors at all times.

"I really did not want something that students or people could hide in," he said.

The committee also hopes to add some more green space and a place for kids to socialize.

Fundraising continuesAs summer - and the time to begin the demolition - gets closer, the committee is eagerly awaiting responses from several foundations they've applied to for funding. Herdener, also the city attorney for Cannon Beach, wrote many of the grants herself and sent then off to nonprofits like the Oregon Community Foundation, the Meyer Memorial Trust, the Autzen Foundation and others. 

Grassroots fundraising continues, with local events and activities scheduled this spring.

Roe said they've even sent a letter to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, hoping to appeal to his sense of nostalgia. Astor school was featured in his movie, "Kindergarten Kop."


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