Morton School of Excellence Receives an Outdoor Play Space

Using Green Space to Cultivate Community and Bring Positive Change for Students

 The Morton School of Excellence staff cut the ribbon unveiling a brand new playground and athletic field this school year. The improvement of this physical space embodies AUSL’s commitment to serving the whole child.

To us, supporting the whole child means creating a safe, nurturing school environment supplemented by extracurricular programs and social emotional supports. This approach serves to mitigate the impact of living in low-income communities on our students. The new green space at Morton supports the whole child in two main ways: 1) by bringing the academic and mental health benefits of green space to students and 2) by providing a community space where AUSL extracurricular activities, like AUSL Middle School Football, can take place.

Morton’s upgrade was supported by Space to Grow, a nonprofit dedicated to giving Chicago schoolyards located in disinvested neighborhoods a makeover. The initiative has several purposes including connecting students to their community, boosting physical activity and wellness, and improving school engagement.

I got to see it from the beginning and it’s a complete transformation – it’s nice. [The old field] should have been grass, but it never was…and had a lot of gravel. I am so happy for the community and am excited for what it can mean for them.

– Coach Mike Greenwood

Green Space Brings Academic and Health Benefits

Our entire school community has been revitalized and morale is high because of our new green space.  In addition to our new play spaces, students have an opportunity to participate in growing fruits, vegetables and plants in our learning garden and learn in our new outdoor classroom. Our new green area has changed our school for the better. 

-Principal Peggie Burnett-Wise, Morton SOE

The green space at Morton brings the beauty of native plants to Chicago’s East Garfield Park neighborhood while providing an area where students can feel connected with nature as they play and learn. The location lends itself well as an outdoor read-aloud circle, as circular outdoor seats provide space for group gatherings.

When examining the research on the benefits of student green spaces, there is no shortage of evidence supporting the gains. The Plant Project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) is raising awareness around these advantages for young children by bringing greenery into graduate school classrooms of prospective educators to experience for themselves. The benefits include increased focus, cognitive ability, and mental health.

An Enhanced Space for Extracurricular Activities

Morton is located on Chicago’s west side where 86.3% of the student body qualifies for free or reduced lunch. With a surrounding community that produces additional social and emotional stressors, that impact student achievement, football gives students a positive after-school alternative and an opportunity to build their sense of community and achievement.

In Chicago, gun violence is increasing. If kids grow up with a mentor, they will be more likely to go down the right path. My coaches are my mentors. I call Coach Mike my brother.

Morton SOE’s Football Captain and Quarterback, Jamarion Spells

Football and grades go hand-in-hand [at AUSL]. When talking with students, school always comes first, and sports is second.

-Coach Mike Greenwood, Morton SOE

One example of how extracurriculars increase student involvement and achievement is through the “ABCs + 1” policy implemented at Morton SOE and other elementary schools participating in AUSL football. A full week of stellar Attendance, Behavior, and Curriculum (grades) earns each player one day of competition the following Saturday. If students do not achieve all three within a week, Morton’s Coach Mike Greenwood personally meets with teachers to identify the problem and assist with keeping students up-to-date on their assignments.

Meet Jamarion Spells, Morton SOE’s Football Captain and Quarterback

Jamarion Spells, or just “Spells” as he teammates call him, is Morton’s football captain and quarterback. The team’s captain is the perfect example of how extracurriculars can teach students transferable life skills.

Assigned the role after demonstrating his ability to balance taking care of his little siblings with his football workout, Jamarion was given responsibility for motivating, organizing, and calling plays for the team.

He would run his siblings home, come back to practice, finish the workout, and start pushing his teammates to finish– ‘let’s go! Let’s go!’ That’s how he got the role…The team had to listen to him. It took a while, but they did.

Coach Mike Greenwood, Morton SOE

“At first it was hard,” Jamarion reported, “a lot of teams had more experience playing together than us, but we eventually came together.” Under the leadership of Coach Mike Greenwood, though, Jamarion assisted with developing and practicing the plays he selects and leads the team to follow during games.

I told them this is our time. This is not my team. If you have suggestions, feel free to say something. I want them to understand teamwork and decision making. 

Coach Mike Greenwood, Morton SOE

Jamarion is also developing off the field. He works hard in school and plans to attend Collins Academy High School where he will play football and basketball, and run track. His goal is to enroll at Indiana State University.

Morton’s field and playground upgrade is one piece of a larger web of whole child supports. By driving this philosophy throughout our network schools, we hope to send Jamarion and his peers into the colleges and careers of their dreams.