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story.lead_photo.caption Students at South Callaway Middle School clamber onto the new playground equipment Tuesday during a ribbon-cutting ceremony. Retired teacher Donna McGrath, right, helped kick off the playground updates by encouraging her fifth-graders to write letters to administrators. Photo by Helen Wilbers / Fulton Sun.

MOKANE, Mo. — South Callaway R-2 has three new sets of playground equipment, and more people than ever before are able to join in on the fun.

School administrators and teachers cut the ribbon Tuesday morning on the sturdy new equipment, much of which was designed with accessibility in mind.

"This is called an inclusion slide," Early Childhood Principal Leigh Dunlap said, pointing out an extra-wide slide. "It has a solid, wide surface (a wheelchair-using child) can roll up to, and there's a ridge they can use to pull themselves to the top and slide down. Everyone can use it — just like with those swings over there."

That's what makes the equipment special, Dunlap said. Rather than being designed specifically for mobility-impaired or fully mobile students, they're designed for all students to enjoy together.

And that's partially thanks to the students themselves, Superintendent Kevin Hillman said.

In 2016, fifth-grade English teacher Donna McGrath encouraged her students to write formal letters with proposals for new playground equipment to school administration. At the time, much of the equipment was decades old, and the ground surrounding the equipment was uneven and steep. Administrators and the school board had already been considering updates.

"They tried to incorporate some recycled materials, like the shredded tires," McGrath recalled of those letters. "After (Hillman) read those 70 letters, he came to my classroom and spent pretty much the whole day there, talking to each class. He emphasized the importance of safety and accessibility."

Hillman said he was impressed by the letters' focus on finding solutions usable by all students — for example, students requested a type of merry-go-round that sits flush with the ground, allowing a wheelchair user to easily get on board.

"It's amazing how they thought about the handicapped kids," he said. "We didn't have any pieces (of equipment) that were accessible for them before."

Those letter-writing students, now in eighth grade, also attended the ribbon-cutting Tuesday.

"I'm so glad they got to come," McGrath said.

School board members and administrators spent three years setting aside funds to afford the $250,000 upgrade.

The three sets of equipment are designed for students of varying ages, from pre-kindergarten up to middle school. Features include half-sized basketball courts, a partially fenced-off paved area for drawing with chalk, soft surfaces in case of falls, climbing equipment and more. The uneven and steep areas surrounding the playgrounds have been leveled and paved, allowing easier access for students who use mobility aids.

Early reviews from students are resoundingly positive.

"I like the slides," pre-kindergarten student Kallie Shiverdecker said.

Judging by the raucous cheers at the ribbon-cuttings, the students are ready to play.

"I can't tell you how excited the kids have been," Hillman said.

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