If it were up to local middle schoolers, Newark’s Mulberry Commons park would boast drinking fountains with filtered water, concert stages, soccer fields, and its very own walk of fame. It would also be more accessible to people with disabilities. 

Those were some of the ideas offered up at the city’s Schools That Can 4th annual Design Day contest. Students at Newark’s public, private, and charter schools came together Friday, at the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s College of Architecture and Design, to solve a real-life challenge facing the city: how to design Mulberry Common’s expansion. 

Newark Alliance, a nonprofit focused on revitalizing the city, came up with the idea for this year’s design challenge.

Answering the call, some 50 participants — competing as teams of six or seven students — built elaborate replicas of the park, using Lego figurines, felt grass, and plastic trees. Many of their creations featured Newark-specific attractions, like cherry blossoms and a walkway paved with names of renowned Newarkers, showing visitors “what we have to offer,” said Dioni D’Almeida, an eighth grader at Link Community Charter School. 

Local business leaders judged the competition.

PHOTO: Devna Bose/Chalkbeat
One team’s proposed Mulberry Commons park expansion featured a walk of fame with names of famous Newarkers, like Michael B. Jordan and Lauryn Hill.

The overall award went to a team sponsored by Hillman Consulting, which proposed adding elevators and escalators to make the park more accessible to people with disabilities. Meanwhile, D’Almeida’s team, sponsored by Edison Properties, received the award for the best presentation. Their design featured flower gardens, a nature habitat, and playgrounds — all created with the goal of getting “families out in the community.”

The people’s choice award went to a design team sponsored by the nonprofit Future Fownders, whose idea included a filtered water fountain — a response to the city’s current lead crisis. (Last month Newark began handing out bottled water after tests revealed that there is lead in the local supply.) 

“We have a water fountain, but it’s not just any water fountain,” said Marquet Dorsey, a seventh grader at KIPP Bold charter school. “It has filtered water, so we can have healthy water because right now, we don’t have that much healthy water in Newark.” 

Erin Sweeney, executive director of Schools That Can in Newark, is accustomed to hearing such innovative ideas from students at Design Day.

PHOTO: Devna Bose/Chalkbeat
A drinking fountain with filtered water next to a felt soccer field was a part of one of the team’s designs.

“It’s incredible what the kids are thinking that the adults aren’t,” she said. “It’s pretty impressive.”

In years past, students’ Design Day ideas have been considered for real-life projects. According to Sweeney, concepts from last year’s event could be incorporated into the final Washington Park design. And this year’s judges who are involved in the Mulberry Commons expansion project told her the students presented some worthy ideas. 

“This program was created as a way for funders and community members to directly interact with students,” Sweeney said. “And to help students think about challenges in the city, find their voice, and voice their ideas.”

D’Almeida said he hopes something from his team’s creation is chosen, but even if it isn’t, he’s glad his team got to present their design.

“It makes all of us feel great as a whole because we know that we’re a part of the city,” D’Almeida said. “Now we know we have a voice in Newark even though we’re just kids.”