When Max Hoiland was a student at Jefferson Elementary School, renamed Ella Baker Global Studies and Humanities Magnet School in 2022, his mother was a member of the Parent Teacher Association that worked to install the current playground at the school. Thirty years later, Hoiland is part of a group of staff and parents asking Minneapolis Public Schools to go back to the drawing board to add accessibility features to the new playground so that all of the school's students can participate in recess on the playground. 

Hoiland now works as a special education assistant at the same school he attended. “One of the best parts of being a special education assistant is being at recess with our students,” Hoiland said.

While other staff at recess are primarily focused on keeping students safe, Hoiland says special education assistants, or SEAs, have the added role of engaging their students in play. 

“It’s really one of the special perks of being an SEA,” he said.

Ella Baker currently has three special education classrooms for students with disabilities categorized as developmental and cognitive delay. Students served by this type of classroom often include students with Down Syndrome or with physical disabilities which affect their mobility, including wheelchair users. Informally, these are called DCD classrooms.

When Hoiland began working at Ella Baker six years ago, the school had a special education program for autistic students. The students in the autism program did not have the same mobility restrictions as the students served by the DCD program. The DCD program replaced the autism program as part of the comprehensive district design in 2021 when Ella Baker changed from a neighborhood school to a citywide magnet school.

Ella Baker Global Studies and Humanities Magnet School Principal Holly Kleppe said the district was aware of a number of accessibility challenges, including the playground,  when it decided to move  DCD classrooms to Ella Baker.  As a stopgap the district added an accessible swing with a harness to the playground in 2021, until the playground could be replaced. The school became eligible  for a playground replacement this summer. 

The accessible swing is located about 30 feet away from the playground’s only ramp across a wood mulch surface. While wood mulch technically complies with the law as an accessible surface under the Americans with Disabilities Act, Hoiland says it is impossible for most students in wheelchairs to move themselves to the swing and difficult for staff to maneuver them. Students with balance impairment also have difficulty navigating the uneven mulch surface. 

Nicole LaBelle is the mother of three students at Ella Baker, and her partner’s child also attends the school. LaBelle’s oldest daughter, Fiona, has Rett syndrome. Fiona, who LaBelle describes as “very social” and who “thrives with her peers” cannot speak, has limited use of her hands, and her balance is also impacted. Like other fifth graders, Fiona loves to be on the playground with her friends at recess.

Nicole LaBelle’s daughter Fiona is seated in an inclusive boat swing, playing with her sisters at a playground. Photo by Nicole LaBelle

LaBelle’s children began attending Ella Baker when their former school, Dowling Elementary School, transitioned to a neighborhood school from  a magnet school as part of the comprehensive district design in 2021. The playground at Dowling is fully inclusive, with the main structure accessible by a ramp, and the playground covered in a solid rubber surface.

Fiona has had a positive experience at Ella Baker, LaBelle said, and used to particularly enjoy using a double swing at recess with her friends but the swing is broken. .  Fiona’s other options to utilize the playground equipment with her friends are limited. 

Kleppe said the swing will be replaced this summer and she is also working on a proposal to add a ramp to access to the swing area. 

A new playground is proposed for Ella Baker

In February, Fiona and one of her sisters were among the Ella Baker students selected by the school to provide feedback about a new playground. LaBelle says her daughters were thrilled to be chosen, at first. LaBelle was optimistic the school would get a fully inclusive playground.

Kleppe went to the school’s site council to plan community engagement after hearing in January from the district that the playground would be replaced this summer. Two members of the school’s special education team were part of the engagement process with the playground equipment companies. Despite their input, Kleppe said the three designs they proposed for the school did not include many of the requested accessibility features.

Staff at Ella Baker immediately ruled out one design, and students were given an opportunity to vote between the remaining two designs.

One of two playground design options proposed for Ella Baker Global Studies and Humanities Magnet School.

The district’s process of replacing a playground begins with a request for proposal sent out to companies who manufacture and install playground equipment. Based on the options presented in the proposals, the district asks schools to gather feedback from their community about the proposed playgrounds. 

When the playground designs were presented, LaBelle’s daughters noticed that they were not inclusive for students with physical disabilities. The girls organized a petition and gathered signatures from the students on their bus requesting that accessible features be added to the playground. 

The district requires playgrounds to meet standards set by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). 

ADA guidelines for playgrounds set a minimum number of “ground-level play components” at a playground relative to the total number of “play components” that are elevated and not accessible. For a small playground, the ratio is one piece of ground-level equipment for up to four elevated components. On a larger playground, the ratio is five ground-level components for up to sixteen elevated components.

In the playground plans for Ella Baker that LaBelle has seen, the main play structure is elevated, and can be accessed by steps, a fire pole, a ladder and another type of climbing structure. Fiona would not be able to access the elevated level.

At ground level, the plans show a panel with a puzzle, a “talk tube” and a separate spinning component that shows a student’s wheelchair next to it. The image does not show any swings. Fiona would not be able to use the spinning component because of her specific disabilities, even though it is wheelchair accessible.

Kleppe says the school's magnet theme, global studies and humanities, encourages students to take action to make change. She was proud of the students for developing the petition about a more inclusive playground.

Public Comments Lead to Action by the School Board

Hoiland and LaBelle asked the district to build more playgrounds that are inclusive during public comments at the school board meeting on April 16. Joyner Emerick, one of the three at-large directors on the board, asked to have three contracts to replace playgrounds removed from the consent agenda in response to their comments.  

A majority of the board agreed to remove the playground projects from the consent agenda to gather additional information about the district’s policies regarding playgrounds. Those contracts were for playgrounds at Kenwood, Bryn Mawr and Pratt elementary schools. The contract for the Ella Baker project was not on the consent agenda.

The playground contracts came back before the board in a special business meeting on April 23, and ultimately the board decided not to approve the contracts after a robust discussion. The board’s decision has also delayed the playground project at Ella Baker, according to Kleppe.

Minneapolis Public Schools current regulation on playgrounds was summarized in a memo shared with the public and school board in advance of a special business meeting on April 23. 

District playground policies meet legal and safety guidelines but are not necessarily inclusive for all students with disabilities.

“I think that there is a conversation that needs to emerge and happen, which is the difference between ADA compliant, which makes sure that we are legally compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and inclusive,” Emerick said. “[The ADA] is the bare minimum legal requirement… We don't stop at the bare minimum for our students, especially our students who experience marginalization.” 

The second proposed playground design for Ella Baker Ella Baker Global Studies and Humanities Magnet School.

For LaBelle, the second proposed playground design at Ella Baker includes several aspects she thought limited accessibility. Mulch, lack of swings and the separation of the wheelchair accessible merry-go-round from the main play structure were all drawbacks, La Belle explained in an email to Minneapolis Schools Voices. She said that a larger platform or boat style swing would allow children of different abilities to play together. She  suggested the features at ground level be grouped together, and the proposed merry-go-round be swapped for a different style that would be accessible to even more students.

It’s this attention to accessibility that Emerick wants to see more of in the district’s planning for not just playgrounds. 

“I will say it over and over and over and over again until it becomes normed in this district. If we are considering how to meet the needs of disabled students, we absolutely must consult with disabled consultants, disabled community members,” Emerick said. 

LaBelle would prefer the playground to have a solid rubber surface like the playground at Dowling. Executive Director of Facilities Planning Curt Hartog explained that the solid rubber surface would cost more than the proposed equipment for a playground. He also said the surface is not as durable in the freeze and thaw of Minnesota winters, and has maintenance and replacement costs that are substantially higher than wood mulch. 

The district is currently exploring an alternative surface, which Hartog described as a rubber mat, that would go over wood chips. Because the pilot is in its first months, Hartog is not sure that it will be a suitable alternative, although it would provide a better surface for wheelchair users compared to the current mulch standard.

Hartog also told the board that playground costs are rising, with a playground project typically costing $300,000. Hartog said that delaying a project by a year means that students may have access to 15% less equipment the following year. A fully accessible playground recently installed at a Hopkins elementary school reportedly required the school to raise $860,000.

The district currently uses its long-term facilities maintenance capital funds to pay for playground replacement. Those funds are restricted to replacing existing equipment, but cannot be used to pay for expansions or upgrades of facilities. 

Hartog suggested to the board that schools utilize private fundraising to supplement the district’s available funds to add features to playgrounds. There is precedence for this at other schools. Last year the Parent Teacher Association at Field Elementary School raised over $65,000 to pay for additional equipment and its installation to augment district funds last year. Less than 10% of students qualify for free or reduced price lunch at Field.  

At Ella Baker, 97% of students qualify for free or reduced price meals and the school does not have a PTA.

“It should not be the responsibility of any individual site to be able to fundraise for the extra cost of inclusivity on their playground,” Emerick said at the April 23 board meeting.

Kleppe expressed that same sentiment about schools being asked to engage in private fundraising to meet student needs. She noted that the district’s Equity and Diversity Impact Assessment in 2022 was about the inequities of private fundraising in schools. And that previously the district had halted the practice of allowing PTAs to pay staff salaries.

What would an inclusive playground mean for students?

“Being able to see the same joy on their face as every other kid” was how Hoiland imagined it would be if the new playground was made more inclusive for all students. “To be included in [recess] by having an accessible playground would just be amazing.”

LaBelle said that an inclusive playground design would mean Fiona would be able to play with her friends independently and she would not have to feel her limitations at recess.

“I think the biggest thing we would get from [an inclusive playground] is it would go unnoticed. We wouldn't have to think or plan on how we were going to include people because everybody would just be able to be included,” LaBelle said.