For some school districts in San Antonio, there was some hesitancy to open up elementary and middle school parks to the public after hours.

Unlocking the gates after school and during the summer – while seemingly simple – could open the school up to vandalism, liability if someone got hurt, and unsustainable maintenance costs.

Ron Clary, associate superintendent of operations for Northeast Independent School District (NEISD), had those concerns – especially about graffiti.

“I totally have changed my thoughts on that,” Clary said. “I’m a convert.”

“I’ve had to talk a few principals down off the ledge,” he said. “But there’s been almost no issues with opening our playgrounds up to the community.”

The School Parks program – facilitated by the nonprofit San Antonio Sports and funded through the City of San Antonio and participating school districts – has enhanced 27 school parks over the last five years that are typically open to the public when school activities cease.

“It’s just a win-win for everybody,” Clary said. NEISD has eight School Parks so far. “The city gets additional parks to use, we got additional equipment and the community got a neighborhood park.”

San Antonio isn’t the first city to have such an initiative, but it’s ahead of the curve of a national trend of municipalities and school districts unlocking their schools’ park gates. Hundreds of schools in New York and Philadelphia have signed on, and pilot programs will soon be deployed at 10 schools over the next three years in Atlanta.

[Map courtesy of San Antonio Sports]

The community health benefits that greater access to greenspace provides has been well-documented. Parks are good for physical health, according to ample research by the University of Washington; good for mental health, according to the National Recreation and Park Association; and good for, well, the environment, according to The Trust for Public Land.

San Antonio is 72nd out of the top 100 cities in the Trust for Public Land’s ParkScore ranking – an improvement from last year. Mayor Ron Nirenberg has signed on to the 10-Minute Walk challenge and committed to supporting strategies toward the goal of ensuring that every resident lives within a half-mile of a park. According to Trust for Public Land (TPL), only 42 percent of San Antonians do now.

San Antonio has also joined the Cities Connecting Children to Nature Initiative, a grant program that provides selected cities with resources toward connecting more urban core youth to greenspace.

Turning school parks into public parks is one of the most cost-effective ways to increase San Antonio’s park access, said George Block, co-founder of San Antonio Sports who serves on its board. The biggest barrier to increasing parkland and achieving the 10-Minute Walk challenge is finding suitable land and purchasing it, Block said.

“There’s already an elementary school within a mile of [most] families in San Antonio,” he said. “It’s the sweet spot of government investing … the school district gets [an enhanced] facility and the City gets a park that it didn’t have before and neither the school district or the City have to hire an additional person.”

As the fiscal agent, the City has to monitor contracts, construction, and payments, and the districts utilize existing staff to maintain the facilities. The principal, school staff parent groups, and the surrounding residents are engaged to tailor each park to the needs of the area. Some get exercise equipment, walking tracks, pavilions, or other amenities, Block said, and parks are prioritized in underserved areas.

But not all of the parks are always open to the public after hours, as the Rivard Report found this week after visiting several across the city.

“We’ll get calls every now and then saying the gates are locked,” Clary said. 

That’s a problem that San Antonio Sports has identified and is taking steps to rectify, Block said.

“It’s a constant thing,” Block said, to remind schools – especially during the summer – to keep the gates open. “It’s just part of a culture change.”

San Antonio Sports is taking steps to rectify the locking of gates when School Parks are open, co-founder George Block says. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Another challenge has been awareness, Clary said, as most families aren’t used to viewing schools as public property.

NEISD has been providing more and more access to its facilities even outside the School Parks program, he said, to create a more solid culture of community at the school.

“We’ve sent out a letter to our community [about the School Parks],” he said. “They pay for their schools through their property taxes” whether they have children in school or not.

Someone who sees a closed school park that’s supposed to be open can call the City’s Parks and Recreation Department, San Antonio Sports, or the school district for help. NEISD, Northside ISD (NISD), San Antonio ISD, Harlandale ISD, South San ISD, and Southwest ISD all have participating schools.

There were some unexpected complications with the type of pathways that were installed in NISD’s parks, said Leroy San Miguel, the district’s assistant superintendent for facilities and operations.

The parks are low-maintenance now, San Miguel said, “but it didn’t start off that way.”

The district learned from its first three participating schools that concrete pathways are much better than crushed granite, which spreads out and degrades more quickly, he said. “We’re going to have to put some extra maintenance on it.”

Its agreement with San Antonio Sports is nearing expiration, he said, and the district is about to start conversations about what to do next: maintain the public parks it has, expand, or both.

NISD, which now has five participating school parks, was also hesitant to start the program, San Miguel said. “We don’t have money laying around.”

But the funding ratio between the district and the City – the City typically pays $50,000 to the district’s $25,000, depending on the park – was too good to pass up, he said.

“It’s a win-win for everybody,” he said, echoing his NEISD counterpart. 

The City provides $220,000 through its annual budget to target four parks, said City Parks and Recreation Dirtector Xavier Urrutia, but the total number of parks funded depends on estimated costs.

There aren’t discussions about increasing funding to the program, Urrutia said, “However, discussions are ongoing about restructuring the program to address the 10-Minute Walk campaign as part of the adoption of the Parks System Plan.”

It was then-Councilman Reed Williams (D8) who brought the idea to San Antonio in early 2012 after witnessing the successful SPARK School Park Program in Houston.

Williams approached San Antonio Sports, which agreed to oversee the SPARK pilot program in San Antonio, Block said. City Council approved the pilot in April 2012, and the first park groundbreaking took place the same year at Sky Harbour Elementary. In 2016, San Antonio Sports dropped the licensing agreement with SPARK to brand the program itself.

Also in 2016, San Antonio Sports received a  $1.375 million naming rights grant from the John L. Santikos Charitable Foundation, a San Antonio Area Foundation fund, to install prominent park gates with signage to signal to the neighborhood that the parks are open.

As the program progressed, staff began to notice that parks with large, open gates in the front got more traffic, said San Antonio Sports’ President and CEO Russ Bookbinder.

“People seeing the same ol’ gates would continue to walk by the same ol’ thing,” Bookbinder said. “These are hard to just walk by.”

The gates, each with a unique art element, advertise the School Parks program at 18 parks.

An open gate beckons at Camelot Park at Camelot Elementary School. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Some school and private facilities are open to the public but don’t participate in the program, said Sandy Jenkins, a City parks project manager, but those don’t count toward the city’s ParkScore with The Trust for Public Land.

“The only time that the TPL counts a park is when we provide that funding,” Jenkins said. “We’re continually trying to find creative ways to increase our ParkScore.”

ParkScores and other rankings have an impact on people and businesses looking to move here or host conferences here, Block said, so it’s critical to have an accurate count of accessible parks – including investments that the County makes.

“In some communities, it’s always been the case [that school parks are public parks], they are de facto parks,” said Ali Hiple, program manager for TPL’s Center for City Park Excellence. “Any city that has some sort of formal arrangement or agreement [with a park facility] – we do count those toward park access [scores]. … Sometimes it’s as simple as a signed document between the school and parks department.”

TPL has partnered with the Urban Land Institute in other cities such as Atlanta to get similar programs off the ground.

“It’s really good that there’s a local organization [San Antonio Sports] taking the lead,” Hiple said. “[School parks are] a trend and it’s becoming more talked about.”

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. She was the San Antonio Report's...