Local Government Commission Recommends “Neighborhood-Based” Schools

By: Ann Kauth, Local Government Commission

In the next few years, America’s school system will have to grow at an unprecedented rate to meet a significant increase in school age population. Enrollment from 2000 to 2006 is expected to increase by one million students, according to U.S. Department of Education estimates. To meet this tremendous enrollment growth, communities across the country will need to both build new schools and renovate or rebuild old, outdated facilities.

There are additional challenges. In many school districts, small maintenance budgets and subsequent deferred maintenance strategies have accelerated the decline of older school facilities and the need for updated and/or new facilities has become critical.

As a result of these various factors, thousands of schools across the country need to be built and renovated. Borne out of necessity, this building boom can provide the opportunity for a “Golden Age of School Design”, according to a 2000 U.S. Department of Education report.

The full potential of this opportunity depends on what kind of schools we build. We can build energy-efficient schools with state-of-the-art technology. We can build schools with materials that require much less maintenance, making them more cost-effective in the long run. We can choose to build schools with interior features that increase brain activity and respiration and reduce muscle tension and blood pressure; healthy features that make our schools better places for students to learn and educators to teach.

As communities look for innovative ways to create these technologically advanced, cost-effective and healthy schools, we also have a golden opportunity to build neighborhood-based schools–schools, which, research shows, provide a better education for our children, nurture their emotional and physical health, and improve the general health of our communities at the same time.

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The Need for “Neighborhood-Based” Schools

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Over the past 30 years, most new schools have been built in suburban school districts. They are large, one-story facilities on large plots of land located on the fringe of urban development. School districts have been lured by these “mega-schools”, believing that they are more cost effective. However, there is renewed interest in returning to smaller, neighborhood-based schools. There are many reasons for this:

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Small Schools Are Better

There is mounting evidence that smaller schools provide a better quality education than large ones. “A higher percentage of students, across all socioeconomic levels, are successful when they are part of smaller, more intimate learning communities,” says a recent U.S. Department of Education study. “Security improves and violence decreases, as does student alcohol and drug abuse. Small school size encourages teachers to innovate and students to participate, resulting inĊ higher grades and test scores, improved attendance rates, and lowered dropout rates.” Educators differ on the subject of the optimal size of these small schools but most agree that they should house between 300 and 900 students.

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Push for Schools to Serve Multiple Purposes

All over the US, educators and community leaders are advocating for community schools–schools that not only educate children, but meet other community needs as well. Neighborhood-based schools are best positioned to serve multiple purposes because they are located in a community.

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Maximize Public Resources

There is also a push for schools to be more cost effective by utilizing other public/private resources. For example, schools can partner with park districts to use a city park to fulfill their playground requirements or use a YMCA gymnasium instead of having to build one as part of a school campus. Neighborhood-based schools are the best suited to use community resources to their advantage because they are located in a community.

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Concerns about the Health of Youth

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 1 in 5 children and 1 in 3 teens are overweight or at risk for being overweight–a 50-100% increase in just 10 years. Many attribute this increase in overweight children to the lack of physical activity that the built environment offers children today. Public health officials and other walking and bicycling advocates are now pressuring local government and other officials to change the way we design and build our communities to promote more physical activity. One such change they advocate is the expansion of neighborhood-based schools and “safe routes to school.”

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“Smart Growth”

There is a growing “smart growth” movement in the country. Smart growth advocates are pressuring decision-makers to curb “sprawl” and create less auto-dependent, more walkable communities. Neighborhood-based schools are considered an essential part of these livable communities.

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Urban Revitalization

More and more community leaders are recognizing the power of schools to attract and keep residents in a neighborhood. Leaders in many urban communities across the country are building or renovating schools as part of broad strategies for revitalizing blighted areas.

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Nowhere to Grow

Many school districts have no other choice than to build schools in established areas because there is simply no new land in their districts to develop. These school districts are finding atypical places to put schools: in old strip malls, on top of parking garages, in small strangely shaped parcels of land, and even in airports.

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Barriers To Building In Established Areas

While many circumstances exist that are causing districts to build and/or modernize schools in established areas, there are many barriers to doing this.

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Building Standards, Codes & Regulations

School building codes and regulations can work against the building and renovating of schools in established neighborhoods. Funding, parking requirements, acreage-to-student ratios and other regulations often make building schools on smaller plots in already established neighborhoods difficult. Many older schools also get slated for demolition rather than renovation because of the difficulty in complying with school and building code regulations.

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Difficulty in Acquiring Land

Many districts, particularly more urban districts, have trouble finding land that has not been contaminated in some way. In addition, schools are finding it increasingly difficult to condemn commercial and residential sites to acquire land. Private property rights, and the upholding of these rights in courts, make it difficult for a governmental entity to force land from private owners.

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Districts Have Lost the Skill to Build Schools

Some school districts have not built schools in such a long time that they’ve simply lost the staff expertise needed to manage a new school building project, or even a large project to modernize school facilities.

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“Greenfield” Schools Are More Familiar

In some school districts, it isn’t that they haven’t built schools in many years, the problem is that they’ve only built “greenfield” schools, making it challenging for them to “change their ways” and build new schools in already established areas.

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Conclusion: Neighborhood-Based Schools Well-Positioned For The Future

Nationwide, school districts and community leaders are beginning to understand the power that schools have in the life of local communities and are using neighborhood-based schools strategically to revitalize and keep communities healthy. Patrick Leier, Superintendent of the Pomona Unified School District, sees schools as anchors of mixed-use developments that can spur revitalization efforts in surrounding areas. In Chattanooga, local government officials and community leaders are using schools to attract new residents and bring new life to deteriorated downtown neighborhoods. And, in Manitowoc, parents, homeowners, and school district staff worked to keep a school in a neighborhood, to protect homeowners’ investments and to insure that children can walk to school from kindergarten through high school.

Though in many ways communities are dependent on schools for stability and vitality, funding trends are going to make schools more dependent on communities. States will continue to assist schools with funding, but schools are going to have to reach out to their local communities for support to supplement, extend and maximize government funding. For example, in California, school site selection standards ask districts to select new sites that “promote joint use of parks, libraries, museums and other public services.” Others are calling on school districts to make better use of their facilities–renting out classrooms after hours, letting the community have access to school gyms, libraries, and kitchens. Some policy-makers even want such joint-uses to be required for school districts to receive public bond money. Neighborhood-based schools are in the best position to adapt to these circumstances.

Small, neighborhood-based schools can also provide a better learning environment for children. Studies show that small schools foster a greater sense of belonging among children and teachers. Students’ attendance rates, grades and test scores are higher in smaller schools and violence and drug and alcohol abuse rates are lower in small school settings. In fact, the relationship between small-sized schools and positive educational outcomes has been “confirmed with a clarity and at a level of confidence rare in the annals of education research,” according to a 1999 Hofstra University review of school size literature. In addition, children can walk and bike to neighborhood-based schools, giving them more opportunity to get desperately needed physical activity. And neighborhood-based schools give parents more opportunity to participate in the education of their children and the life of a school in general.

Small, neighborhood-based schools are best positioned to respond to the calls for schools to be more accountable, to be more integrated into communities, and to be more resource-efficient. Given the enormous need for new school facilities in the coming decade, we have a golden opportunity to build small, neighborhood-based, schools that can enter into a more symbiotic relationship with their communities, schools that can better educate our children, and schools that are better for the health of our children and communities overall.