Importance of an Educated Community

In reading descriptions of several new school buildings, I was struck by how often“community participation” in planning was mentioned &mdash and how often the resulting buildings looked like recent versions of those designed 50 years ago.

I guess I should not be surprised. If community participation is encouraged, and the community is not first educated about what schools are doing now and in the future, the community will endorse schools similar to the ones it knows. And those are the ones the community members attended decades ago.

Community and faculty should be involved in planning any new school facilities. But as part of their involvement, they must be educated on what is happening today, what is on the horizon, and what it is possible to do, so that the next generation of schools is designed for the next generation of teaching and learning.

(I include faculty because, often, when architects and planners ask teachers about changes they would like, the response is to seek more storage, better chalkboards, and operable windows. Teachers, too, must be exposed to what is possible before being asked what they would like.)

Most of today’s parents and teachers were in school when technology meant using the overhead projector and classroom television. It was technology that made it possible for the teacher to bring more information and interest to students, but it still left the teacher, for the most part, as the giver of information.

Today’s technology and, specifically, the use of computers, has (or should have) changed the role of the teacher and the ways in which information comes to students in and outside the classroom. Those changes affect the spaces that are needed. If a community participates in the planning of a school without considering the ways in which learning takes place today, then, with the best intentions in the world, it’s going to design an inadequate school.

Preparing the Public

When I have an opportunity to work with a school district, we start with a discussion of the community’s educational goals and aspirations. What is important? What are their priorities? Not all communities are the same, and my concepts of what should be important may not coincide with the view of the community. The community should define itself, its concerns, and its goals, before a consultant begins to help find ways to get there.

By the second meeting, however, it is important to start an educational process. What is happening in elementary and secondary schools today? What does that mean in terms of the design of new schools or new space? Which of the trends identified are relevant or important to your community?

I often start by introducing“Breaking Ranks,” published 10 years ago by the National Association of Secondary School Principals, as a suggested guide to how high schools of the 21st century might operate. It’s not a perfect prescription, but it suggests a whole series of concepts and steps that challenge the way high schools (and by extension, elementary schools) are traditionally operated. That challenge often gets citizens to think, ask questions, and open up to ideas for the future.

For example, if the community is focused on enlarging its existing high school, and it reads, “each high school should try to limit enrollment to self-operating units of no more than 600 students,” how should it proceed? Should it consider establishing a second, smaller high school? And if it did, what would be the implications? Would it be thematic? Might it be a grade-level “house”? How would students interact? Would it be economical? Who would run it? How would the community react? What would having a smaller school accomplish? All these are good questions a community should discuss before making its decision.

In one district, the decision was made to retain a single high school, even though it would be too large. But the high school addition that the community supported was very different from the one it had previously conceived. Instead of simply making the existing high school larger, the design centered on creating opportunities for small schools and groupings of students; spreading departments throughout the building to encourage interdisciplinary teaching; establishing a second cafeteria to reduce the sense of size during the lunch period; and providing large, interdisciplinary office and conference areas for teachers instead of departmental offices. Informed community participation resulted in a school for today’s educational program and set the stage for education in the future.

Community participation is wonderful, when the community has the information needed to create schools for 21st century programs.

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."