Commitment to Community

Good schools are the foundation of a healthy community. Unfortunately, too many schools are planned by architects and administrators without community input or involvement. Creating a school that truly reflects a shared vision can only be accomplished one way — by a participatory planning process. Open communication and early involvement is a must.

Involving the community in planning a new school or a major renovation may seem like adding cost and time to an already long and complex process, but the benefits of community involvement in planning are many. The most often cited reason for involving the community is“to garner their financial support,” but the value of authentic involvement goes far beyond getting buy-in. The idea is not to make the community feel like they are part of the decision-making process; it is to actually involve them. One desired outcome would be the ability to uncover and address issues upfront, and to defuse politically motivated issues, helping the district avoid many roadblocks in implementation. More important outcomes would include a broadened vision, a sense of ownership in the process and product, and schools that serve as anchors for the community.

According to U.S. Department of Education, in its report Schools as Centers of Community, "The most successful schools of the future will be integrated learning communities that accommodate the needs of all of the community's stakeholders. They will be schools that will be open later, longer and for more people in the community, from senior citizens using the gym and health facilities during off-hours to immigrants taking evening English classes after work." For many communities, new schools provide an avenue to greater economic development. For area businesses, schools provide the skilled workforce they need to survive and grow. For schools, engaging the community is tapping into a valuable asset.

An added benefit of including the community in planning efforts is the creation of school-community-business partnerships that go way beyond having a voice on the planning committee. Some examples are listed below.

Shared Space — Many districts are venturing into public-private partnerships to share space. These range of libraries, to performing arts centers, to athletic facilities and playfields, to health and social services, to classrooms and technology labs. Sharing space makes sense. Schools and communities are no longer duplicating efforts. Because of the availability of increased funding, students have access to more specialized facilities, yet cost to the taxpayers is reduced.

Off-Hours Use — By designing schools with adequate security and community-use in mind, and not limiting activities just to school functions, districts have the ability to earn extra revenue. Off-hours use could include renting the facility to for- and not-for-profit educational organizations, such as trade schools, adult and continuing education programs, daycare and senior programs, community colleges and universities, civic groups, religious or other organizations.

Donation of Land — In many states, the donation of land by developers has benefited many districts as well as the developers. The school districts receive unrestricted capital monies, while the donors garner tax credits from the state. For most homebuyers with children, finding a neighborhood with quality schools is their first requirement. For developers in master planned/integrated communities, their success is directly related to the availability and quality of neighborhood schools. Arizona schools are the perfect example. According to the Arizona School Facilities Board, districts have received donations of land totaling nearly 1,000 acres valued at more than $78 million.

Business/Industry Footing the Bill — During the next 20 years, we will lose about 46 million skilled workers as baby boomers retire. Business and industry understands that a good education is a necessary component in developing the workforce they need. A prime example of a business stepping up to the plate was the partnership formed between Rio Rancho School District (New Mexico) and Intel. When Rio Rancho became a separate school district in 1994, Intel donated $30 million to build the Rio Rancho High School. Intel understood that the quality of the education system had a direct bearing on their success as a company. Their investment in education ensured them the development of an educated workforce, as well as the ability to attract and retain capable employees.

When schools become community centers, and members of the community are engaged and involved, great things can happen.