WISSAHICKON >> In the span of four hours, the Cook-Wissahickon School got two new murals, freshly planted trees, mountains of mulch, wacked weeds, secured playground matting, basketball backboards, a Dumpster enclosure and fresh paint for its gym, cafeteria, auditorium and second-floor hallway, among other improvements.
The service day attended by more than 100 volunteers Saturday, Oct. 15, came on the heels of a $500,000 capital improvements project funded by the Philadelphia School District that fixed crumbling concrete and other structural issues in the building over the summer.
“This makes us whole again,” said Principal Michael Lowe.
The event was part of the Action for Heathy Kids program, which physical education teacher Andrea Hagan got involved with last year, and brought together partners from the CSX railroad company, AmeriCorps’ City Year program and the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.
Lowe said he is grateful for the help.
“These projects wouldn’t be doable otherwise because of budget constraints,” he said.
He uses his school budget for materials and supplies directly related to student learning and the school saw a 5 percent jump in math test scores last year. However, he also sees the building environment that students learn in as important. Prospective parents care about it, too.
“The only way we can compete with charters and other schools is to seek outside assistance,” he said. “I have to run the school like a CEO keeping an eye on the most important thing, student achievement, but finding ways for other things, too.”
Sarah Weill-Jones, a seventh-grader who was working on a mural in the cafeteria, agreed that aesthetics matter.
“It creates an environment that gives students more chance to succeed,” she said.
Murals and hallways painted anew in school colors — gray and maroon — may make things prettier, but Hagan said she just wants students to have good facilities for their physical activity.
The playground was a case in point. The playground matting was so broken that “I didn’t even want my kids to play there,” she said. “We had to fix that.”
Improvements on the basketball court mean that when a kid makes a shot that is nothing but net, there will actually be a net there. Painting the gym walls will be “great preparation for the new rock climbing wall that is going to be installed there,” said Hagan.
Parents, students, teachers and neighbors came out to work on the school, but others came from as far away as the Midwest. Cameron Doxey, who recently graduated from Indiana University with a degree in history, was painting alongside Weill-Jones on behalf of AmeriCorps.
“It is a great opportunity for me to learn while giving back,” he said.
CSX was the chief sponsor of the project through its Beyond the Rails charity program.
“CSX has four pillars of giving: health and wellness, environment, safety and community,” said Molly Mitzner, community affairs specialist. “That’s all of those here.”
The work at Cook-Wissahickon, however, is not done.
“A new tree needs 15 gallons of water a week, if it rains,” said Mindy Maslin, of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, who hopes people from the school will sign up for the PHS tree tending class.
“We need help with maintenance always,” said Julie McGurk, head of the school’s green committee.
Parent involvement is key, according to Lowe.
“The difference between a good school and a great school is what you see today. When a community rallies, that is how a school becomes great,” he said.
After the morning’s work, the volunteers retired for lunch provided by CSX in the cafeteria still glistening in wet paint.
“When the kids come back on Monday this is what they are going to see,” said Hagan.