What We DoHealthy Living & Active CommunitiesSunflower Trails Profile: McCarter Elementary, Topeka
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Sunflower Trails Profile: McCarter Elementary, Topeka

Behind every trail, there is a story. A story about the vision, the planning and the people who made it happen. A story about the challenges, lessons learned and the way communities come together around a trail. This is the first in a series of stories about how Sunflower Trails are helping make Kansas a healthier place to live. 

To tell your community trail's story, please contact Director of Communications Phil Cauthon at pcauthon@sunflowerfoundation.org or call (785) 232-3000 ext. 101.

To learn more about the Sunflower Trails grant program, please contact Program Officer Elizabeth Stewart at estewart@sunflowerfoundation.org or call (785) 232-3000 ext. 112.

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When Kathy Cooney became principal of McCarter Elementary School — a K-5 school tucked away in a southwest Topeka neighborhood — one of the first projects she learned about was a staff-driven effort to construct a track on the school’s property.

From left to right: Kathy Cooney, Kara Adams, and Jenny Lee.“We’re always trying to promote fitness and health,” said Cooney (at left in the photo). “It’s part of our culture here.”

The 440 students who attend McCarter regularly participate in educational programs to learn about healthy snacks, exercise, and the ways nutrition and fitness fit together to build healthy bodies.

But early mornings at McCarter mean that some students need to be dropped off by their families before the doors open for the day. In previous years, there weren’t many options to occupy those students.

“There would be kids standing out in front of the building in the mornings,” said Jenny Lee, the school’s literacy coach. “It was a crazy thing. They could get crazy standing there.”

Teachers formed a “walk and talk,” where they would walk in a large circle around the school’s blacktop behind the building. The staff members and students benefited both from getting to know each other and from getting some exercise.

The solution was positive but the blacktop was not ideal. So school staff began researching grant opportunities to build a more suitable area for the early-morning walks, as well as a place that students, staff, and neighbors could use for exercise and relaxation.

A small grant from the Topeka Public Schools Foundation jump-started the fundraising effort.

“We thought we were almost there,” Cooney said. “And then we got the quote from the asphalt company. We weren’t even close.”

With a one-year deadline to spend the initial money looming, school staff — including Cooney and Lee — redoubled their efforts to find ways to make the track possible.

While brainstorming possible solutions, a school secretary mentioned that she had heard of the Sunflower Foundation.

“We stumbled upon the foundation,” Cooney said, “And it was a Godsend. It then became very serious business.”

A ‘godsend’

Although finding grant funding for the track was already a priority for the school, the core team that was assembled for the project found that there were many necessary items they didn’t yet have lined up.
 
The Sunflower Trails grant program made it possible to start thinking about how to bring together the needed details in order to have a successful project.
 

“I never learned in school how to do something like this,” Cooney said. “It wasn’t covered in my college classes. I’m not a grounds and maintenance person. There were a lot of things I learned along the way.”

After encountering “a few setbacks,” she said, the team missed the grant deadline.

Sunflower Foundation staff worked with the school to help complete the application and provided technical assistance that resulted in a complete and successful grant.

“The whole time during the application process, they said, ‘we want this to happen for you. We’re here to help you’,” Cooney said. “There’s a lot of red tape for a process like this, in a district this size, and getting everything coordinated was not an easy feat.”

Other community partners pitched in as well. Bettis Asphalt & Construction Inc., a local contractor, donated a portion of the asphalt and grading work towards the project. The school’s Parent/Teacher Organization agreed to help support some landscaping and other enhancements. Neighbors and district staff attended a 5K walk and run event scheduled as a fundraiser.

An elderly man who lives in the neighborhood walked with the aid of a cane to the school to drop off a $10 check. A family whose children attended the school and now have young grandchildren — “future McCarter students” — mailed a check for $75. A neighbor across the street, who also happens to be a district employee, donated $100.

“Sixty-eight percent of our families qualify as economically disadvantaged,” Cooney said, referring to federal guidelines for low-income families. “Most of our kids and parents can’t afford to donate much. We were very appreciative of any amount which was given toward the completion of this project.”
 

A Trail for the Community

Neighbors, staff, and students alike now use the quarter-mile trail looping around the school’s soccer field at all hours of the day.

Nine-year-old Jacelyn Rupp, a second-grade student at McCarter, walks at least a half-mile on the trail each morning. She says it’s now more comfortable to walk with her friends.

“It’s not as hard as the dirt was,” Jacelyn said. “It’s a real track!”

Kara Adams, a second-grade teacher at McCarter, said there’s already a noticeable difference in the behavior of the children who use the trail in the morning.

“It helps them with waiting and standing in line. The kids are more awake when they come in the classroom,” she said.

Adams started a running club for staff members before and after school. Next year, she said, she anticipates the staff members will open it up to students as well.

Lee, the reading coach, said the club has been a positive addition for staff members, and it's been an additional opportunity to model healthy behaviors to the students.

“It’s been fun,” she said. “It’s a fun way to build relationships with people. The kids are excited to see us in our running clothes after school.”
 

‘This is a Great Place’

The trail is also making it possible for the school to talk about the good work it’s doing.

“We want people to see that this is a great place,” Lee said.

“Sometimes inner-city schools get a bad rap, when the news says things aren’t very positive,” she said. “This way you can see that there’s something positive going on at McCarter, and that it’s a great place for your kids to go to school, and somewhere the teachers want to be. Even just the perception of us being a positive place for the neighborhood is a good thing.”

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Behind every trail, there is a story. A story about the vision, the planning and the people who made it happen. A story about the challenges, lessons learned and the way communities come together around a trail. This series of profiles help show how Sunflower Trails are helping make Kansas a healthier place to live. 

To tell your community trail's story, please contact Director of Communications Phil Cauthon at pcauthon@sunflowerfoundation.org or call (785) 232-3000 ext. 101.

To learn more about the Sunflower Trails grant program, please contact Program Officer Elizabeth Stewart at estewart@sunflowerfoundation.org or call (785) 232-3000 ext. 112.