When the 1994 Northridge earthquake ruined a decaying playground structure at Valley Alternative Magnet School, students and parents realized the Los Angeles Unified School District wasn't going to replace it right away.
But in the long run, they say, that may be just as well.
In the absence of ready public funding, students spent 18 months literally nickel-and-diming their way to a shiny new replacement. To complement direct cash donations, they saved coins, recycled cans and sold homemade crafts.
"They lived this for 18 months," said Liz Curran, a Northridge resident who helped raise money along with her third-grade son, Trevor.
Students put the $16,000 structure to its first test this week, romping around its blue-and-white surfaces and taking breathless trips down the corkscrew slide. On Feb. 12, school officials will honor fund-raisers at a ribbon-cutting ceremony and luncheon.
"It's not like they came in the day after the earthquake and the district had put in a new structure," said Principal Terry Morton, whom many children addressed by her first name as they filed back to class after recess.
"This way, they had to work at it," she said. "They had a dream and they spent a lot of time trying to fulfill it."
The 540-student school has a few qualities that made fund-raising easier.
One is its lack of a gymnasium, meaning the play structure takes a role in physical education that could not be overlooked. Also, its position as the only public kindergarten-through-12th-grade magnet in the San Fernando Valley breeds loyalty. Morton said former students who remembered playing on the old structure and recognized its meaning worked as hard as those who will be using it every day.
"We even have some alumni who raised money before graduating," she said.
Karen Sassen of West Hills said she could see the project's true impact in her third-grade son David's expression.
"All the kids' expressions were amazing," she said, recalling the recent installation of the fruit of 18 months' labor.
"David and I would come out and he would watch them putting all the pieces together. And he knew it was something he helped accomplish."