This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
It was the shortest day of the year: the winter solstice. And, more important for Maurice and McKenzie Barnes, the evening was warm enough to play outside. They were in high spirits as their mom picked them up from after-school care at James R. Lowell Elementary in Olney, where 9-year-old Maurice is in 4th grade and McKenzie is in 1st.
It’s a short trip home — the family lives right across the street from the Philadelphia school — so even though it was dark, the kids’ mom, Shante Barnes, let them stay out for a little while. She even joined in, tossing a football with Maurice in the schoolyard. McKenzie and the littlest sister in the family, Ma’Leiyah, ran around on a delivery ramp alongside the building.
Lowell administrators call the fenced-in area surrounding the building a schoolyard, but it doubles as the parking lot. As the kids played, teachers got into their cars and pulled out for the evening.
The children’s grandmother, Antoinette Reynolds, kept an eye on them from the family’s front porch, her usual lookout point. Reynolds, who describes herself as a “nosy neighbor,” often watches the action in the concrete square, especially before and after school, when young people gather.
“You’ll usually hear me yelling, ‘Hey, don’t do that! Get off of that! Don’t touch that, go back in the schoolyard,’” Reynolds said, and laughed.
Ma’Leiyah is a toddler in the truest sense of the word, and as McKenzie chased her up and down the delivery ramp, a face-plant onto the concrete seemed all but inevitable. Reynolds cringed as Maurice dove for a long throw, taking a spill onto the asphalt.
“All it takes is one fall,” Reynolds said, shaking her head. “And you know, hope for God it won’t be nobody’s head.”
Lowell is among the two-thirds of Philadelphia School District elementary schools that don’t have playgrounds. At these public schools, students run around on cracked pavement, among parked cars, and between dumpsters.
From Thomas G. Morton Elementary School in South Philadelphia to James Dobson Elementary in Manayunk, kids spend their daily outdoor time in these often-barren yards.