Prioritizing health and safety helps focus resources and design skills on rural schoolyards.
By Timothy A. Schuler
Until recently, when the children of Oregon’s Chiloquin Elementary School went to recess, their play equipment consisted of a buckling blacktop, a single slide, a handful of swings, and some old tires. It was so dismal, recalls Art Ochoa, a retired principal who grew up in Chiloquin, that whenever students went on field trips to places like Klamath Falls, “the first thing the kids asked was, ‘Do we get to stop at a park? Can we go play?’”
Now, through a collaboration between the Trust for Public Land (TPL), the Willamette Partnership, the Klamath Tribes, and ABLE, the schoolyard at Chiloquin Elementary has been reimagined as a nature-filled community park and play space and has spurred the creation of two new TPL initiatives: the Oregon Rural Community Schoolyards Program and, in partnership with the U.S. Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Education, the Tribal Community Schoolyards Pilot Program. The programs build on TPL’s mission to increase community access to nature and public open space and represent a much-needed investment in rural and tribal communities.
Chiloquin lies at the confluence of the Sprague and Williamson Rivers, roughly 30 miles south of Crater Lake in Southern Oregon. The schoolyard project emerged from conversations between several tribal council members and Kristin Kovalik, the Oregon state program director for TPL, and from listening sessions facilitated by the Willamette Partnership. “There were several reports that had already been written about the health and safety of Chiloquin, and the health and safety of this particular school,” Kovalik says. “We weren’t trying to convince people that this was an unhealthy or an unsafe place. The community already decided that for themselves.” Equally important was a resolution from the school board in support of the schoolyard being open to the community after school hours.
Funded through grants and private donations and completed in late 2022, the new schoolyard was designed, in collaboration with students, by ABLE, a Seattle-based landscape architecture firm founded in 2019 by Ashley Ludwig, ASLA. The design consolidates the play areas for different age groups, who were previously isolated on opposite sides of the school, and creates space for public amenities such as community garden beds and picnic areas around the periphery. A contemporary pole barn keeps both sun and snow off a new basketball court, and a community walking path winds through plantings of dmolo (Klamath plum), doycq’as (chokecherry), and jaGlo (sagebrush). Interpretive signage in both Klamath and English teaches kids and townspeople about the role of specific plants in Klamath culture.
The prominence of the Klamath language—which in addition to being read can be heard through operable speaker boxes—wouldn’t have been possible, Ludwig says, without Ochoa, the retired principal and a Klamath tribal member, who was hired early on through an internal TPL grant as the project’s community coordinator. Ochoa was instrumental in facilitating conversations between the design team and tribal elders, Ludwig says. “Hearing stories about the importance of these species really pushed us to think about how the planting can be this cultural piece that connects and educates kids,” she says.
The Chiloquin schoolyard project is now serving as the model for 12 other community schoolyards—three in rural Oregon (all designed by ABLE) and nine more in tribal communities across the country. Ochoa says it’s welcome news for communities that have seen decades of disinvestment. “Rural areas are often neglected,” he says. “Tribal, nontribal, urban, rural, it doesn’t matter—a safe and healthy environment should be an option for any kid.”