Education Lab

Fresno Unified to open school for summer play

For years -- exactly how long, no one can seem to remember -- Fresno Unified School District has locked its school grounds when classes are not in session.

It was a security measure mostly meant to keep out potential vandals. But it also locked out neighborhood children with few other places to play, forcing them to jump the fence to play basketball, swing on the monkey bars or kick a soccer ball.

Now, parents and community groups have convinced Fresno Unified to unlock the gate at one school -- Burroughs Elementary in southeast Fresno -- to provide kids a safe place to play in a neighborhood that lacks the parks and green space available in more affluent parts of the city.

It starts June 1 and is part of a pilot project by the district. If all goes well, more schools could open up for neighborhood access.

Burroughs will be available for nonsupervised community use after 6 p.m. during the traditional school year, after 1 p.m. during the summer and after 9 a.m. on weekends. The grounds will remain open until dusk.

It's a major victory for parents Gabriela Martinez and Susana Cruz, who said they've clambered over the fence with their children to reach the play area at Burroughs, located at Tulare and Sierra Vista avenues.

The two women belong to the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program, which first approached district officials in February about unlocking the gates.

Martinez said it's frustrating that families are locked out when Clovis Unified allows neighborhood residents unfettered access to its schools. "It's like discrimination. I think we should have the same rights," she said.

Fresno Unified officials said the schools are locked primarily to protect the campuses from vandalism and the district from liability risks.

By contrast, Clovis Unified has always left its schools open around the clock. "If they aren't available, then we believe that creates a disconnect between the school and community," said district spokeswoman Kelly Avants. She said the schools also belong to the community because taxpayers helped build them by passing bond measures.

Clovis Unified schools seem better protected against vandalism and graffiti, because there are more people around to keep an eye on them, Avants said.

Across the region, policies vary: Madera Unified secures its campuses, while Visalia Unified leaves its schools open.

Reyna Villalobos, program director for the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program, said school play areas are critical in southeast Fresno because there are few places where children can exercise and feel safe. "The school is that safe haven for children," she said.

The district agrees the families deserve access to the school and officials didn't need much convincing once they were approached in February.

"It's the right thing to do," said Susan Bedi, spokeswoman for Fresno Unified and a member of the committee that helped establish an agreement with residents to keep open Burroughs after school.

The agreement prohibits certain activities such as fireworks and alcohol consumption and requires residents to take care of the school and report any illegal activity.

The district, concerned about potential liability, will post signs warning families that they use the unsupervised grounds at their own risk.

Access will be limited to one main gate, and the district will provide a portable bathroom at Burroughs; the school bathroom will remain locked after hours.

Bedi said the district will evaluate the program after one year. "This pilot will show us, does this help reduce, for example, graffiti?"

Cruz said she expects vandalism and graffiti to decrease once Burroughs opens to after-school usage, because there will be more eyes on the school.