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Charlotte’s McKee Road Elementary park to open in April

A relief map of North Carolina showing the topography of the state has sprung up at McKee Road Elementary School in the form of an educational park.

It took nearly a year of planning then six months of labor since October’s ground breaking, but the parent-teacher initiative is nearly complete. Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx is slated to cut the ribbon on the unusual park the first week of April, according to organizer Janet Taranto.

“I think the greatest thing about this is that the community came together from the private and business end and made this happen,” said Taranto, who had a daughter at McKee Road last year and has a fifth-grader, Matt, at the school now.

She estimated that the park would have cost about $50,000 if not for the donations of material, construction equipment, time and labor from regional businesses.

Instead the park cost the school about $8,500, raised by the school’s PTA. That money was used for cypress mulch, hardware and screws, and clean white sand for the state’s “coastal” sand box.

The mixed-use facility, shaped like a miniature version of the state, measures 195 feet wide by about 75 feet. It is outlined by donated Firestone tires and installed by 30 Firestone managers from North and South Carolina.

The park also features a Cherokee tepee and the state’s mountains in the form of massive boulders, donated and delivered by Vulcan Materials Co., which also donated truckloads of clean dirt. A donated crane and operator moved the giant granite rocks to create North Carolina’s mountains – and a place for elementary students to climb.

Taranto, who lives in the nearby Willowmere subdivision, said, that Vulcan also donated two “enormous” tractor tires to be added to the mountainous terrain, but they were stolen twice from the school’s property.

“Apparently it’s a new fitness trend, rolling them around,” she said.

The park slopes down to capture its own rendition of the Piedmont with trees and bushes donated by Home Depot, which also donated lumber for a cabin and the tepee.

Within the Piedmont area, children will be able to climb 12 massive tree stumps or sit for outdoor classroom presentations about deforestation in the state and the importance of tree canopies.

Visitors will be able to cross a wooden bridge – their version of the N.C. 12 to the Outer Banks – to find a large sandbox in the shape of the state’s coastal line, a 1965 skiff boat that’s been refinished for play activity and an 11-foot replica of the Cape Hatteras lighthouse. It will soon have its own rotating solar light on top. Educational plaques are dotted throughout the park.

“A lot of people just came in and out of this project and it was truly amazing,” said Taranto. She found the boat on Craigslist from a Charlotte family who eventually donated it. Boy Scouts painted and patched it up, while Taranto’s neighbor, a wood worker, fashioned a captain’s wheel.

Another parent constructed the lighthouse in his garage. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police have stepped up patrols at the school to help with security.

Jeremy Lundgren, assistant vice principal, said the park originated with a school environmental team that formed last year and bloomed because of Taranto’s dedication.

“We were looking to incorporate grounds beautification and some needed upkeep around the school with each grade level and some parents,” he said. “Late in the (school) year we started bouncing around the idea of a park trying to incorporate natural resources and reuse of materials. Janet’s brain started whirring like a jet engine and ...we ended up here. Janet definitely ran with it, without her, the park would never have come to fruition.”

He said the new park will become a recess spot for all classes.

“Our PE teacher, Doug Smith, has lessons planned to teach every class activities and safety within the park,” he said. “We are also hoping to have it used for educational purposes. We’re hoping we’ve put enough elements, geography features, natural resources, native trees, that teachers will get creative in its use and find some real world relevance to their learning.”

“Folks have been impressed with the park’s development,” said Lundgren. “It has definitely surpassed their expectations.

“Every person and group who has come to volunteer has been incredibly gracious with their time, effort and overall spirit. This was truly a community/school/business partner effort and something in which we will hold a lot of pride for years to come.”

Conroy: 704-358-5353; Twitter: @ConroyKathleen
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