For New Heights School, paving the way for education comes naturally. In 1993, the Stillwater-based school opened the first K–12 charter school in Minnesota—and was the third overall charter school in the state. Now, New Heights is raising funds to create an inclusive playground for the community.
“We developed into a program that is really safe for Stillwater’s impoverish population,” principal Thomas Kearney says. “Fifty percent of our students are on free and reduced lunch; 44 percent is special needs. It’s really a safe space.” Enrollment varies between 120 and 140 students, and teacher Christie Hogan says it’s because of the variety of students with needs that the initial plan began.
A high percentage of students are diagnosed with ADHD or are on the autism spectrum, Hogan says. “Our playground, while it’s a nice playground, isn’t serving them as well as it should be. We thought about the community, and this one doesn’t have an all-inclusive playground.” Though the plan started with just inclusive swings, it turned into more when Hogan connected with Dana Millington, president of the Madison Claire Foundation, the organization behind the inclusive Madison’s Place playground in Woodbury.
Hogan says, “... My [manufacturer] contact mentioned someone who is passionate about inclusive playgrounds. She introduced us to [Millington] who saw the need for a community playground [and] what we wanted to do for our students … She’s been very supportive and has moved us forward.”
When Kearney and Hogan pitched the idea to the City of Stillwater in February 2020, it was received warmly and the city was excited. However, when things shut down the following month, so did the plan. More than two years later, Kearney is excited that the core group behind the pitch has grown from five members to 12, and that the community is just as enthusiastic as it previously was.
“Last May, we needed to get our pitch out there again. We got onto a virtual city council meeting, and they were excited about it again,” Kearney says. “What we’re now seeing is that we have leadership in the Valley, and the Stillwater Chamber of Commerce is lending their talents to this mission.”
The inclusive playground will incorporate rubber flooring for wheelchair and walker accessibility, ramps to all play decks, accessible swings and ground level play components, sensory-rich play equipment and more. “It’s not just for children but for adults who may not be able to get on the playground with their able-bodied children,” Hogan says. “We’re thinking about our community members like adults or grandparents who want to play side-by-side but may have limited mobility.”
The project is still in the support phase but hopes to have significant movement in the next six–12 months.
Friends of Stillwater Parks, the Stillwater Rotary and the Manitou Fund have donated to the project, but Hogan says there’s still more funding to raise.
A New Way to Play
The New Heights School inclusive playground will contain more components than ever. Here are just a few:
- A roller slide that provides a tactile and auditory experience.
- An assisted swing that gives every child a secure seating option.
- Sensory play toys, including a ball maze, chimes panel, color splash panel, musical drums, a xylophone and more.
- A merry-go-round designed so children in wheeled mobility devices can enjoy it.