San Francisco teacher hopes to win playground contest for autistic students 

Finding the money for a preschool-specific playground at her Western Addition elementary school has been difficult for Oona Hanawalt.

So the preschool teacher at John Muir Elementary School has set her sights on a contest that could award her as much as $25,000 to design and install a structure that would allow her autistic students to independently interact with other peers.

“A play structure would decrease adult facilitation and give them a chance to build on skills without adults,” Hanawalt said. “Going down a slide with a friend doesn’t require language.”

John Muir, which has one playground for second- through fifth-graders, does not have a structure exclusively for preschoolers, who typically are 3 or 4 years old. The structures differ in height and difficulty of toys. Many 3-year-olds cannot reach the same height as a 10-year-old.

The autism-specific classroom is the only one in the district, Hanawalt said. She currently has eight students enrolled. The San Francisco Unified School District has a total of 16 special-education preschool classrooms.

This attempt by Hanawalt to help her autistic students change behaviors and gain confidence in social situations, which is difficult for children with the condition, is something the entire school district is focusing on.

The SFUSD is revamping its special-education department to allow more students to enroll in inclusion classrooms, which mix special-education students with general-education students. Many of Hanawalt’s students are likely to move on to inclusion classrooms in grade school. A playground to get past some of her pupils’ fears is one way to prepare them for the change.

“It gives them the opportunity to engage in play that doesn’t require pretend play, which most of my students are really unable to do,” Hanawalt said.

Hanawalt’s attempts to raise money have landed her and her school in the national spotlight, as she qualified to be listed as one of 100 potential projects that would be funded by Pepsi. The contest, known as Pepsi Refresh, could get her the money she needs if the project garners enough votes through an online contest.

The contest window closes July 31.

The school district, which faces a $19.2 million budget deficit, could not pay for the structure itself. SFUSD spokeswoman Heidi Anderson said other options are being explored.

“We have some money that can support these kinds of projects,” Anderson said. “But we are exploring all of the options right now.”

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