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How West Philly's Lea School got a brand new yard for everyone

Greening Lea Planting Day

The concrete expanse of the old yard

The Lea play area before

Volunteers planting at Lea Elementary

Remaking a local school space -- and erstwhile one-acre asphalt lot -- took the efforts of a citywide coalition reaching back five years. Late last year, West Philadelphia's Henry C. Lea School (which boasts about 550 students in kindergarten through eighth grade) completed the final phase of a years-long improvement project for its schoolyard at 4700 Locust Street.
"It was a major accomplishment to see another schoolyard in Philadelphia go from being an asphalt lot to something different, something that actually provides kids a really stimulating place," explains lead project designer Sara Pevaroff Schuh, principal at SALT Design Studio.
The initiative got its start through the West Philly Coalition for Neighborhood Schools, which launched in 2010. Before achieving its nonprofit status, the group applied (under the umbrella of the nearby Enterprise Center) for a design grant for the schoolyard from the Community Design Collaborative.
In 2011, the Coalition officially became a nonprofit organization and the Collaborative grant was awarded: Lea’s yard became part of a design project (alongside Germantown’s John B. Kelly School) culminating in a 2012 charrette that yielded a new master plan.
By fall of 2012, the Coalition had the Collaborative’s official report in hand. According to Julie Scott, co-chair of the Coalition’s Greening Lea project, "We did a little pilot project using the master plan as a guideline." The group took on a manageable slice of the bigger vision and informed the community (many of whom had already participated in the charrette process) of the coming change. The Coalition chose to depave and plant a section of the yard bordering Spruce Street.
They approached the School District with their plan, hoping to get the depaving and planting done over the course of a few weekends with help from volunteers. The District came through, handling the depaving and the installation of a new hose, while local volunteers took care of the new plantings.
That enabled the next big steps: a pair of grants in 2013. First came a PECO Green Region grant and then a Philadelphia Water Department Stormwater Management Incentive Programs (SMIP) grant. (The University of Pennsylvania also contributed $75,000 towards the yard's completion.) 
The SMIP dollars were longer in coming, but the PECO dollars -- $10,000 that was matched through community fundraising spearheaded by the Coalition -- let the group begin planning their latest landscaping and water management schematics. They put out an RFP in spring of 2013 and SALT came on the scene in early 2014.
"It had been a while since that plan had gone through the community process by the time we came on board, so we went through another round of community engagement," recalls Schuh. A new school principal also meant some adjustment of the vision.
But things began to move quickly thanks to an unexpected element in the design. The Alexander Wilson School at 46 and Woodland was among those closed by the District -- and just after community members had invested in a brand-new play structure. In the midst of planning, the District decided to relocate the Wilson structure to Lea, a sudden challenge for the designers.
Next week, we’ll take a look at Lea’s new landscape, which benefits students, parents and community members.
Writer: Alaina Mabaso
Sources: Julie Scott, West Philly Coalition for Neighborhood Schools; Sara Pevaroff Schuh, SALT Design Studio

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