Think Outside the Playset
A community joins together to make it happen
For many elementary schoolers, the playground is where it’s at. It’s the highlight of recess, of hanging out with friends, and letting off a whole lot of energy.
At Hancock School, the playground had run its course. Dating back to the late-1950s, when the school was built, the cost to replace it topped $100,000—way too high a price to pay for this tiny elementary school of 44 youngsters from pre-K to sixth grade. And, let’s be honest, schools like Hancock sometimes don’t get the attention, or the breadth of funded programs, or grants, that larger schools may receive.
That’s where the parent-teacher group has stepped in to fill in the gaps—raising money for field trips, theater programs, guitar lessons, and the like. “We have a very special school,” says Alex Kastrinakis, whose ten-year-old daughter, Jaclynn, started there in pre-K. She is now in fifth grade.
Years ago, the community added a castle—a fort with a big set of walls. But it was time for a completely new playground featuring various physical activities. This would mean a much bigger project than anything the parent-teacher group had taken on before. Their first step was to create a nonprofit, fittingly named HOPE (Hancock Organization of Parents and Educators), and set a goal. They priced a new playground at $90,000 for the equipment, and add to that the installation costs. They settled in for years of fundraising.
They also applied for grants. That didn’t happen. And asking for money through the town was an involving process. Three years on, they had raised about $30,000, mostly from two auctions and private donations ranging from $100 to $2,500. The auctions included such creative biddings as dinner prepared by the superintendent, and a student principal for a day. Businesses from throughout the county also donated close to 300 items.
Meanwhile, Kastrinakis stumbled upon a used playground from Oneonta, New York, on a website of municipal auctions. So he and a couple of other parents drove out there and found two sets in pristine condition—one for younger children, K-3, and the other for the older kids. They bid—and won both. And the rest is history: Teams of four went to Oneonta over two Saturdays to dismantle the playground. A core group of five installed it at Hancock School over several weekends. On weekdays, they went at night to pour the concrete; other people stopped by to lend a hand or bring food and coffee.
The fundraising paid for the two play sets ($14,252), their removal and transport ($2,015), and the installation, including all materials ($9,941). The labor, potentially a significant cost, didn’t amount to anything because parents and others did the work, including Denny Condron, who bulldozed the area flat, and Sean Derby, who offered his heavy equipment for just about everything else. Volunteers mixed 24,080 pounds of dry concrete and put in place 6,400 square feet of fabric underground and 300 yards of mulch.
“We really didn’t know how to put it together,” admits Kastrinakis. The group had taken extensive photos before dismantling the play-yards. They laid the pieces on the ground and dry assembled them and installed the whole thing to current safety specifications. And they kept the castle. What’s still left to do is plant grass by the end of November and hay it for the spring.
“I was so impressed to see what kind of impact a group of parents could have,” says Peter Dillon, who became superintendent in 2016 for Shaker Mountain School Union which includes Hancock. (He is also superintendent of Berkshire Hills school district.) “The Hancock School really feels like one big family.”
The playground is on school property, but anyone can use it. And they do. “We built it at the school because it’s a good central point, and people on Jiminy Peak come out and use it, too,” says Kastrinakis. “It’s nice when you drive by on a Saturday and there are cars in the parking lot and children are having a great time.”
The Hancock School means a lot to this little community of 720 or so full-time residents. The town may boast a lot of attractions—Hancock Shaker Village, Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort, and Ioka Valley Farm, to name a few—but it’s geographically challenged at about 15 miles long and three miles wide. Bordered on the east by the Berkshire Hills and the west by New York state and the Taconic Mountains, Hancock can’t be traversed end to end without crossing town or state lines.
What ties it together are gatherings such as the Thanksgiving meal that feeds more than 100 and the Community Christmas, when children perform and each one receives a present from Santa. Both events are at the school.
“A big draw for me in deciding to come here is the parent and community involvement,” says Jay Merselis, who became principal over the summer. “The commitment to the school, the children, and the community shows itself on a regular basis. Parents and community members volunteer and help with fundraising, making and serving breakfast for grandparents, help with the book fair, volunteer as readers in the classroom, organize interesting guest speakers, teach a weekly drumming class.”
Meanwhile, HOPE is already looking for a new project—maybe supporting a foreign language or financial-skills program, increasing its funding of the theater program, or improving the pre-K playground. “We always keep our options and ears open,” says Kastrinakis. “Wherever there is a need, we’d like to find it and fill it.”