Schools Should Be Part of Their Community

What would you call a building with a gymnasium, weight room, stage, music rooms, an art room, a cafeteria and kitchen, offices and conference rooms, a health suite, a library with computers, and a group of rooms all about 900 sq. ft.?

It depends, of course, on what you do for a living.

Most readers of this magazine would recognize it as a school. But it could be a senior center, a college, an adult learning center, a YMCA, a corporate headquarters, or lots of other things.

The mix of facilities and the overall size would be different, of course — a corporate headquarters would have more offices and small conference rooms and might not have a gymnasium, while a school would emphasize the classrooms, and a Y might feature an auditorium or a gym — but there is a good chance that rooms of all or most of the types mentioned would be in each. And that’s my point.

When schools are planned,“community use” is a common phrase. But it almost always means designing so that members of the community can use selected facilities for evening activities. Generally speaking, gymnasiums, auditoriums and, occasionally, libraries or classrooms are planned with outside access. That’s a good first step, but it’s a long way from really building schools that serve the community.

Ask yourself some questions.

If a mother or father brings a child to school, should that parent have to go to another location to put a younger child in day care? A day care center could be in an elementary school building, whether it is operated by the school district, the municipality, or a private or non-profit organization.

If that parent also needs job training or an opportunity to earn a GED or college credits, couldn’t that be available right there at the school? After all, these are all educational needs. Aren’t schools places where education takes place? It could be as simple as providing a room — or a section of the library — where adults can use computers to take courses. Many colleges have outreach centers. Why not locate one in a school building?

Now, if a grandparent brings that child to school, would it be useful to have a senior center right there offering a place to socialize, engage in physical and mental activities, perhaps see a presentation by a teacher or students, eat a meal prepared in the school kitchen and, if the senior is interested, volunteer to help out by reading, being a foster grandparent, or otherwise doing something useful? Would seniors be interested in using the art room, reading books from the library, playing, and listening to music?

Go a step further. If pre-school children, school children, and senior citizens are in and around a school building which has a health suite, could health screening, flu shots, and similar be offered right there? Perhaps a municipal health department, a local hospital, or group of doctors would set up a program using the school facilities to provide preventive medical services.

I’m just scratching the surface. There are many other community services that could make sense in and around school buildings. In my community alone, I can think of five or six community-oriented organizations (ranging from food banks to a non-profit counseling organization) that have individual headquarters squirreled away in little storefronts. Some, at least, would be better off in and around schools where they could be visible and where people from whom they draw support could interact with them.

Schools should be part of their community. If your district is considering building a new school or adding to an existing one, you are probably going to ask the community to pay for it. One concern is going to be cost. Many school boards start out with a mind-set that they must keep their projects as small as possible and leave out desirable features in order to keep costs down. After all, large portions of the voting public have no children in school and routinely vote against new taxes.

Consider how the dynamics might change if, instead of asking for money to build a school, you brought together people from a variety of professions, talked about the space you need, the space they need, and how it could be brought together in single project financed by a variety of agencies and serving a majority of community members, young and old.

The school could still be central to the project, but the result would be a building — or group of buildings — serving the entire community.

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."