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Kids covered, at a cost
Elementary schools pay for their shaded play areas ... if the PTA can afford it.
By DONG-PHUONG NGUYEN, Times Staff Writer
Published November 11, 2007
TAMPA -- At Turner Elementary school in New Tampa during blazing hot days, physical education takes place in cramped classrooms. Any physical activity beneath the sun's rays might result in a trip to the nurse for heat exhaustion.
Across town at Bryant Elementary near Westchase, it's a much different scene: Students laugh and run outdoors beneath a covered play court while large fans whirl overheard, adding to the cross breeze.
In Hillsborough County, whether your child's PE time takes place in the sun or under the shade of a covered court depends on how much money your school has. Only those that raise enough cash through their parent teacher associations get shelter. Consequently, only a fifth of the county's elementary schools have them.
But in Pasco and Pinellas counties, covered play areas for elementary schoolers are a requirement -- and the districts pick up the tabs.
"I don't think it's fair," said Kathryn Sutton, PTA president at Turner, which wants to raise $125,000 to shade its kids. "Our children are exposed to dangerous sun rays and overheating on a regular basis. I'm just really surprised."
Drenched in sweat
Sutton said her two boys -- a fifth-grader and a second-grader -- are drenched in sweat during PE, but refuse to give up their outdoor time.
"If they have to stay inside because of the heat, the boys are disappointed," she said.
Cathy Valdes, chief facilities officer for the Hillsborough school district, said the district just can't afford to cover all of its elementary school campuses.
"It's a dollar-and-cents thing," she said. "We've had to do so much building, we have to stay within the allowable budget that the state sets."
In 1995, Hillsborough residents voted down a school tax that would have paid for covered courts, Valdes said. Instead, the district now matches up to $50,000 for a pavilion for each school and has helped 26 of the 27 schools that have them. Tampa Palms Elementary was the first school to raise money for its shelter in 1994, before the matching funds program was implemented.
Yet Pasco and Pinellas have somehow found a way to make it work. All of Pasco County's 44 elementary schools have covered play areas, said Sandy Locke of the district's planning department. They were included with all new construction after 1987.
"Once the constructed schools started getting them, other schools were saying 'We would like to have those, too,'" she said.
Two years later, the district began adding them to the rest of the schools.
The situation is similar in Pinellas, where in 2001, the School Board voted to use new construction money to shade its kids, said Pinellas schools spokeswoman Andrea Zahn.
Of 82 elementary schools, only two do not have covered courts. One does not have the room for one, and another is still under construction, Zahn said.
While most of Pinellas' covered courts are the same, Hillsborough's vary widely, depending on the school. Covered areas range from the simple -- Sessums in Riverview has a $17,000 pavilion -- to the elaborate -- Roosevelt in South Tampa has a $191,000 structure with a barrel tile roof.
"It's just a very nice project," said Turner principal Donna Ares, who was principal at Hunter's Green Elementary when it covered its court several years ago. "With all of the sun safety and health information we've received, a structure like that provides a really nice assembly area and another venue for us."
'Sun protection' study
Ares likes the children to be outside as much as possible, but cancer risks and heat exhaustion are big concerns.
A team of researchers from the University of South Florida Medical School, Moffitt Cancer Center and More Health Inc. agree.
By the time children graduate high school, they will have absorbed roughly 80 percent of their lifetime sun exposure, said Seft Hunter, who is leading the group in a three-year study of sun exposure and skin cancer.
Students at Turner are part of the program called Sun Protection for Florida's Children. As fourth-graders, they were given wide-brimmed hats for school and home and encouraged to wear them outdoors. They are also taught about sun protection, UV rays and light waves.
Now fifth-graders, the students can define UV rays, are more aware of the sun's effects and some still wear their hats, said Hunter, the project director.
"Our risk here in Florida is greater than elsewhere," he said. "Having a covered court is optimal."
And what if your school cannot afford one? There are other options, Valdes said.
McDonald Elementary in Seffner is installing five giant umbrellas that will create a screen effect over the play area, at a cost of $28,000.
Other schools serving lower-income communities have set different priorities.
Several years ago, the Bryant Elementary PTA, which has a $173,000 covered play court, adopted Cleveland Elementary, considered a high-poverty school, in hopes of paying for a covered court there. But PTA leadership changed, parents moved on, and the plan fell through.
"The year they adopted us, they helped us with books, with uniforms," said Cleveland principal Phyllis Rodriguez.
While a covered court would be nice, she said, the school has far more pressing needs.
"It's a lot of money building one of those courts," Rodriguez said. "I try to focus on the parent involvement piece rather than the money piece. Whether it's fair or not fair, other schools in the area have very active PTAs. They have the money. We don't."
The differences are glaring, with Cleveland's PTA raising about $1,400 a year, compared with Turner's goal of more than $85,000.
"I can't even sell school spirit shirts," Rodriguez said. "To be honest with you, there's so many other challenges that it's not even something I worry about. You gotta pick your battles. Maybe one of these days, who knows. Maybe somebody will wish upon a star and see what happens."