School as the Heart of the Community

"For too long, schools have been designed on isolated sites, accessible primarily by vehicular transportation, and cut off from the community at large,” says Steven Bingler, nationally recognized as perhaps the leading authority on schools as the center of the community. He was instrumental in the formulation of the U.S. Department of Education’s Design Principles and its publication “Schools as Centers of Community.”

The trend now, Bingler explains, is to involve all of the stakeholders in the design process, both to use all available resources and to create new ones that serve not only the students, but also the broader needs of the community. The new designs aim for multiple uses of facilities, so they are in use not just seven hours a day on weekdays, but 12 to 14 hours, as well on weekends.

“Gone are the days when the public library and the school library are built across the street from each other, each using the same taxpayers’ dollars,” Bingler says. “Research has shown that including the community, especially the parents, is good for student achievement. It’s a win-win situation for everybody.”

One of the main components in this trend of the school to become the center of the community, Bingler adds, is the movement from the very large to much smaller neighborhood schools. An exception to this part of the rule, but nevertheless an embodiment of the concept of the school as the center of the community, is the Niagara Falls High School, Niagara Falls, N.Y. To find out why, it’s helpful to a step back and take a quick look at the community out of which Niagara High has evolved.

A Community in Decline

Most people know of Niagara Falls as the famous tourist attraction and would assume that the city is a major tourist destination. What most people don't realize, however, is that the main scenic viewing of the falls comes from the Canadian side. The city has been a tourist destination to some degree, but its main source of economic strength came from chemical companies such as Union Carbide, DuPont and others. When those companies pulled out in the mid-’60s and early ’70s, the entire area went into a depression in terms of the labor market and job opportunities. That situation has continued to the present.

One of the most striking indications of this decline is that in the past 23 years, the student population dropped from 79,000 to 8,900. The population has not only declined by about 50 percent, but now more than 50 percent are older, depending primarily upon welfare or some other kind of government support.

Before the new building, there were two high schools in town: the old Niagara High, about 100 years old, and La Salle High, built in the ’60s. The latter was built right on the main avenue, which became a point of importance, for the building had a better chance to be sold to a developer. The older school was in such a state of disrepair that renovation was not a viable option.

“Instead, they decided to take the two high schools and turn them into one, for efficiency, to deal with the population decline, and give the community a centerpiece it had not had in a long time,” says the new school’s architect, George Luaces, principal, The Hillier Group, Princeton, N.J. “In terms of significant construction, this is the biggest thing in the area in the past 20 years. It was built so the community could have something to relate to.”

Community Building

Finances were obviously a key factor in combining the two older schools into one new one. Money, of course, is a critical factor in any new school construction. The usual sad scenario is that prosperous communities get good schools, and impoverished communities get poor ones. The fact that this school was able to reverse this equation was in large part due, says Luaces, to the dynamic leadership of school board president Don King and superintendent Carmen Granto.

These men led the way for some very sophisticated financing. Through careful planning, Niagara High became one of the first privately financed public projects in New York. It was financed through companies such as the Honeywell Corporation. “They were able to get around what is called in the state the ‘witch law,’” Luaces says, by which he means the many obstacles thrown up to innovative new construction over the years. They were able to bypass the bidding process and get around various issues with unions. And they were able to build the school without raising taxes.

Although the project was in the works for about six to seven years, the actual design and construction took place very quickly. The first architect involved went out of business. Honeywell recommended The Hillier Group. “When we were brought on board, we were challenged with a different schedule already set in place, and had just six months to produce the design,” says Luaces. Ground breaking was August 1, 1998. The 400,282-sq.-ft. building, set on 75 acres of open, park-like property, was ready for opening September of this past year.

The school opened with the expectation of having 2,000 students on opening day, but 2,500 showed up, which meant that many from the outlying areas and private schools decided to attend. “The real test of a successful building,” Luaces says, “is that it magnetizes people and brings them in.”

More than just a collection of classrooms, this is a building designed for community use. “The administrators wanted not only a structure that can deliver modern education with a signature design to make it distinctive, but also one to capture the essence of Niagara Falls, the energy released from that incredible rush of water,” Luaces says. “We tried to capture this in the architecture, and also to make that a reflection of the dynamism of the educators and community who worked together to overcome all kinds of difficulties.”

Academics and More

The center and focal point of the building is the 10,000-sq.-ft. library and media center, in a very wide atrium space that acts as a hub around which circle the four academic towers. The library is also designed to act as the central resource for the community, so it’s their library and media center, and computer center as well. The intent is to turn the high school into a place for lifelong learning.

The four academic towers have been built with flexibility in mind. They each have four floors, and can be organized in any one of a number of ways, by grades, academic themes or traditional departmentalized spaces. “The educators wanted to be able to change things around, and to adapt to changing educational principles and needs, without ever having to resort to renovation,” Luaces says.

The towers at Niagara High are designed into four academic areas, business/finance, performing arts, math/science/technology and wellness. Though it's a big school, the administration is decentralized. Each tower has its own administrative, teaching and counseling staff. Central administration is tucked away into another part of the building.

The classrooms are also designed for flexibility. Every two classrooms are separated by a mini-lab, which can be used for a variety of purposes, such as special attention given to either gifted or challenged students. The building is fully computerized, and every student has a laptop with access to the Internet. Every night after school the student takes his or her laptop home to do homework.

“Each academic house has its distinctive colors,” says King, who has been on the school board for 23 years. “They are each different Mondrian-like designs, which add to the brightness and personality of the school. I have an art gallery, so I find it very exciting. The kids enjoy coming to school, and if they enjoy that, they will eventually be successful.”

King adds, “We’re very aware of all the data that point to the return to neighborhood schools. It’s easy to talk about how much better being small is, but the duplication is expensive. On the other hand, we’re very sensitive to the fact that students can get lost in large schools. Our challenge is to create smallness out of a large building, to make it as personal as possible.”

Community Amenities

The school has an 1,800-seat theater, where the Buffalo Philharmonic played on opening day. The theater is fully equipped to produce a Broadway play. In addition, there is a small black box theater, designed to be used for smaller productions and as a TV studio.

The dining area is broken up into four cafeterias furnished by two service areas and a central kitchen. These facilities are also open to the public.

The fully equipped regulation gym has a capacity for 1,800 spectators, and has all of the requirements for a basketball tournament, plus other indoor sports. There is a running track on the second floor, and a full-size, six-lane competition swimming pool. These areas are also open to the community.

These large public areas are also designed so the rest of the building can be conveniently locked up, with the lighting and other energy used only for the area needed. The community is using the school virtually every night of the week.

And, oh -- one thing more -- at Niagara Falls High, there are no school bells.

Thomas G. Dolan is a freelance writer from Washington state who has written numerous stories on education and the construction field, among other topic.