NEWSWORKS

A playground grows in Southwest Philly

June  5, 2012

By Helen Ubiñas

Comegys School Principal Lisa Wilmer poses in front of what days later turned into the school’s new playground, thanks to the Eagles Youth Partnership. (Helen Ubiñas/for Newsworks)

Comegys School Principal Lisa Wilmer poses in front of what days later turned into the school’s new playground, thanks to the Eagles Youth Partnership. (Helen Ubiñas/for Newsworks)

“This is the beginning. I have so much more planned for them. If this is what we can do, then I can only imagine what we’re about to do next.” Comegys Elementary School Principal Lisa Wilmer

Philadelphia Eagle Brett Brackett joined team members at the Comegys playground build. He and sixth-grader Reginald Hicks exchanged autographs. (Helen Ubiñas/for Newsworks)

Philadelphia Eagle Brett Brackett joined team members at the Comegys playground build. He and sixth-grader Reginald Hicks exchanged autographs. (Helen Ubiñas/for Newsworks)

Lisa Wilmer isn’t one to sugarcoat things.

The principal of Comegys Elementary put the state of her school bluntly: “It’s a tough school in a tough neighborhood.”

Less than half of the students perform at or above their grade levels in math. The scores in reading are even worse. All the students get free or reduced breakfast and lunch.

Basics that other schools might take for granted come hard for the school in southwest Philly. New books in the library? They barely have a library. But Wilmer says they’re working on that.

A playground for the kids to blow off excess energy? For years, all they had was a concrete yard that kept the school nurse more than a little busy.

Not anymore.

Like I said, Wilmer’s not one to just let things be. Years ago, the school applied for an Eagles Youth Partnership grant for a new playground. But there are lots of deserving schools in need in Philly. Comegys lost out.

Last year, a freshly appointed Principal Wilmer decided it was time to try again. This time, she got it.

And on a sunny day last week, the Eagles organization descended on the school for their 16th annual playground build.

Up on a ladder, wide receiver DeSean Jackson helped paint a mural while posing for pictures and signing autographs. Below, lineman Todd Herremans poured concrete for the new playscape. On the field turf, Michael Vick tossed a football with kids who were clearly already dreaming.

“We’re really trying to change the exterior environment, but it’s more than that,” said Sarah Martinez-Helfman, the executive director of the Eagles Youth Partnership. “It’s really changing an environment inside a child, their belief in what’s possible.”

In short, build a playground, and dreams will come.

Even before the big build day, Principal Wilmer noticed a change.

Beyond the excitement with each sketch of murals that took up nearly every wall outside the school or the delivery of mosaic benches and chess tables, Wilmer sensed a growing sense of ownership, and pride, among her students.

She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when she overheard a group telling each other that it might be a good idea to take off their shoes before stepping onto the artificial turf. Or when one night as she was leaving school, she spotted some students sitting on the newly delivered benches. When she asked them what they were doing, they said simply: “Just sitting.”

Her students, she recalled, just sitting on their new benches for their new playground. She nearly burst out crying right there, she said.

She noticed a change among parents too. The parents of kids who went to the school told her not to worry; they’d be keeping a close eye on the playground after hours.

And those who bypassed Comegys every morning to drive their children to other schools suddenly got very curious about what was going on at the neighborhood school they’d long given up on.

“I’m going to win them back,” Wilmer said of those parents. “Watch.”

Wilmer came to the school 12 years ago to teach fifth and sixth grade. She was a good teacher, one who could have had her pick of schools.

But even then she said she felt Comegys was where she should be. Four years ago, she became assistant principal and two years ago, she got the top job.

“I’m not going anywhere until I move the school where it needs to be,” she said. “to greatness.”

And the way she sees it, a playground that should be a staple at every Philadelphia public school, but sadly isn’t, is part of it.

“My kids love football, but it’s about more. It’s about learning that anything is possible if you don’t allow yourself to be distracted.”

The day of the build, the students looked like they might bust with joy. When I asked a group of kids what they wanted to play with first, they all spoke at once.

“Chess tables!”

“Turf!”

“Monkey bars!”

“Everything!” they yelled together.

It took a while to find Principal Wilmer in the crowd, but when I did, she was beaming.

“This is the beginning,” she said. “I have so much more planned for them. If this is what we can do, then I can only imagine what we’re about to do next.”