Rose Park Elementary PTA member Tiffany Marshall describes a new inclusive playground the group hopes to build at the school.

Not every kid at Rose Park Elementary can use the playground. The equipment, surrounded by a lipped concrete perimeter and tiny pebbles that shift like sand, is off limits to students with certain physical disabilities.

When a resurgent Parent-Teacher Association at the Billings school was looking for a project to support, the group focused on the playground.

The PTA launched a campaign last school year to raise about $300,000 to build a new inclusive playground that would accommodate all the school’s students in the same space. It’s an ambitious ask, but it’s the right way to do it, organizers said.

“We want to do more than just a couple of pieces, like this is where the special needs children can play, and this is where everyone else plays,” said Tiffany Marshall, the PTA president.

Marshall inherited PTA leadership from a group of staff members who kept the group going amid a few down years for participation. With that came about $15,000 from fundraisers accumulated over a few years that hadn’t been spent, but needed to based on PTA policy.

She sat down with principal Greg Senitte, who suggested playground improvements for students with disabilities.

Rose Park has a classroom for students with what the district terms “low-incidence disabilities.” Those students are more likely to use a wheelchair, have limited mobility or have a medical issue that means the current playground equipment is off limits, and all the students have some kind of vision impairment.

“Initially we sort of said we could put in just a wheelchair swing or a piece of equipment or two that could check a box,” said Carina Deguire, a PTA member helping to lead the fundraiser.

But as the group did more research, they read up on benefits of inclusive play — creating spaces that aren’t just accessible to students with disabilities, but are designed to engage all students.

“That’s I think the biggest ‘aha’ for us all,” Senitte said.

Marshall and Deguire had some early conversations with potential donors, asking about the feasibility of a multihundred thousand-dollar ask. They told her to go for it.

So far the group has raised about $117,000.

Donations have ranged from grants of up to $25,000 to a student art fundraiser to pledges for free work from concrete companies.

The group is shooting to begin construction next year. It’s an ambitious timeline.

“We’ve had a couple people say, 'Oh my gosh, that’s a lot of money for playground equipment,'” Deguire said.

About half the money will go toward a concrete base to anchor equipment and underlay a rubberized surface. While wood chips technically comply with federal disability law, they’re still not ideal, Marshall and Deguire said. The rubberized surface will be more even while still soft enough to offer some forgiveness if students fall.

The overall cost has actually dropped more than $100,000 from initial projections. Old equipment will be removed by the school district, and school district personnel will do as much of the new install as they can. 

Teaching empathy

Casey Black makes sure her students know their peers at Rose Park, and vice versa. Each year, the independent living teacher has kindergartners come in to her special education classroom. As students get older, they act as reading buddies and peer mentors.

“It teaches them how to relate,” Black said. “I want the kids to start learning that empathy and that we’re all in this together.”

As things stand on the playground now, students in wheelchairs are confined to the blacktop, unless an aide or student lifts them into a swing. Some of Black’s students can play on more equipment.

“(Older students) are constantly asking me when we’re out there, ‘Hey, can I push the wheelchair?’” Black said.

But for Marshall and Deguire, playground access was a blind spot.

“We were embarrassed that we didn’t even know, that it wasn’t on our radar,” Marshall said.

Getting inclusive

There appears to be a budding trend in Billings.

In the Heights, Hawthorne Park opened as the city’s first inclusive playground earlier in July. The Landon’s Legacy Foundation and Billings Kiwanis are raising money for an inclusive park and ball field at the Poly Vista Park on the West End.

“The conversation’s been started in the community,” Deguire said. “I think as a city, there’s a real movement toward acknowledging a deficit in this area.”

But playground equipment isn't a standard line item for school budgets.

“There is no money for any of the playgrounds. It is all the PTA,” Black said.

She praised Marshall's and Deguire's focus on the project.

“We sit down in meetings and ask, 'Is this benefiting every kid in the school?'” Black said. “When they’re out on the playground, they’re just the kids out at recess. There’s nothing different at all with kids out there at recess.”

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