School Economics

While virtually everyone believes that education improves overall economic performance at a national level, private developers and public officials are finding that the same dynamic can work in communities. Schools, it seems, can help improve or restore economic health.

They can’t do it all alone, of course, but recent research suggests that schools can play a key economic role in a community. A 2004 report entitled“Public Schools and Economic Development: What the Research Shows,” cites a number of examples of community redevelopment projects that keyed on the construction of a new school or the renovation of an existing school.“There is a movement toward building and renovating schools that can be better linked to the surrounding neighborhoods,” says Jonathan D. Weiss, senior counsel with Arlington, VA-based ManTech SRS Technologies, Inc., and the author of the report.

According to Weiss, local officials, school districts, and real estate developers have begun to cooperate by integrating schools into plans for constructing mixed-use projects with residential, office, retail, and public spaces.

Weiss’s report notes a Pomona, CA, development, which placed a primary school and a high school in an old strip mall with the goal of stimulating other neighborhood revitalization efforts. Today, the once deteriorating community has a new transit center; performing arts facility; housing; office; and retail developments; and new infrastructure investments. Crime across the community has generally decreased.

“The private sector interest in this is proof positive that improving schools provides economic returns,” Weiss says. “Savvy developers are beginning to use the idea.”

McCormack Baron Salazar, a St. Louis-based developer and Forest City Enterprises in Cleveland have used schools to help make their projects successful.

City officials and school districts are also interested in what a properly positioned and constructed school can do for communities in the district. The City of Milwaukee and Milwaukee Public Schools, for example, are building out a Neighborhood Schools Initiative formulated in 1999. The first school built under this initiative, the Mary McLeod Bethune Academy, was completed in 2004. It has become a community center and a hub for a new housing initiative.

Not A New Idea

While using schools as community redevelopment catalysts is becoming a norm, the practice has been going on for some time. In 1998, Richard Baron, president of McCormack Baron Salazar, and Urban Strategies, Inc., a St. Louis-based non-profit planner focused on developing cultural, educational, and social service resources for urban communities, put together a consortium of private companies to contribute the funds and equipment to convert the aging Jefferson Elementary School in the deteriorating community of Murphy Park into a state-of-the-art facility.

According to the McCormack Baron Salazar Website, improvements included air-conditioning, Internet infrastructure, computers in every classroom, and an adult computer lab for job training. The school district has also implemented teacher-training programs at the school and brought in a full-time technology coordinator.

Prior to the renovation, about 80 percent of the elementary-age children in the surrounding Murphy Park community attended schools outside of the community, while children in the community were bused to Jefferson.

Today, that percentage has been reversed as parents across Murphy Park have embraced Jefferson.

The school and other cultural and social service resources that the school attracted to the community made it practical for McCormack Baron Salazar to develop and renovate 1,200 housing units in Murphy Park.

Around the same time as McCormack Baron Salazar was working on Jefferson Elementary, the company was also planning to reopen the Adams School, a historic building, which had opened in the 1880s and closed in 1993. Working with neighborhood residents and the St. Louis Public Schools and Urban Strategies, Baron secured funds to re-open the school and to build and adjoining community center. The school has reopened and 85 percent of students come from the surrounding neighborhood.

The community center attached to the school has become a gathering place. It provides recreational programs for youth, adult education, and day care. Sports facilities include a new gymnasium and the Jim Edmonds Ballfield, built by Cardinals Care, the philanthropic arm of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team.

The renovation was part of a master plan for revitalizing a 45-block neighborhood called Forest Park Southeast, which got underway with the approval of the school project.

“Richard Baron, as a developer, focuses on improving schools in distressed low-income areas,” Weiss says. “He realizes that if you improve the schools, you can raise the value of the real estate in surrounding areas and help lift the neighborhoods.”

Forest City Builds Schools At Stapleton

Integrating schools into development and redevelopment plans has not become a widespread practice, but some progressive developers like Richard Baron have adopted it.

Schools have also become important to the success of the Forest City Stapleton redevelopment in Denver. “The developer, Forest City Stapleton, is building schools to attract people from the suburbs back to the city,” Weiss says.

The 4,700-acre Stapleton site, formerly an airport, is a massive mixed-use development that will include thousands of homes, three million sq. ft. of retail, and 1,100 acres of parks and green space. The development is expected to generate 35,000 jobs.

Concerned that the relatively poor reputation of Denver’s public schools would make it difficult to attract residents that would attract retail tenants, Forest City Stapleton embraced Denver’s call for an effective approach to public education in the development.

The first two schools opened in 2003 in an 80,000-sq.-ft. building housing a charter school and an elementary school. The same year saw the opening of the Denver School of Science and Technology at Stapleton. The $11M school received start-up funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

In 2004, a $14M, 100,000-sq.-ft. K-8 school opened. Currently, two more high schools are being planned.

Milwaukee’s Neighborhood Schools Initiative

Cities are also finding ways to ignite community redevelopment by building schools. The city of Milwaukee created a Neighborhood Schools Initiative (NSI) in 1999 to re-establish neighborhood schools within the city and to find ways to increase the numbers of students attending school in their own neighborhoods. The idea aimed to get the district out from under rising transportation costs.

The initiative got underway in the city’s Washington Park neighborhood, whose 37th Street School had fallen into disrepair. In September of 2002, school officials, faculty, students, and design professionals held a daylong meeting to plan the new K-8 school, to be called the Mary McLeod Bethune Academy.

The meeting divided into six teams, with representatives from each group on each team. Working on their own, the teams developed a concept for a school design. Each team then presented its concept to the group for discussion.

The design goals that came out of the meeting included creating a design with breakout areas and flexible layouts to support direct instruction with very small groups, building a community center for students and residents of all ages, preserving green space, and ensuring safety.

It wasn’t innovative goals that led to the eventual success of the school; it was the sense of community ownership created by the planning process. “We used the results of the charrette as the basis for a series of public design exercises, where people came in and watched us work with the building plan until it turned into the school they now have,” says Doug Wickstrom, vice president and principal with Celina, OH-based Fanning Howey Associates, Inc., an architectural firm that worked on the project with the Milwaukee-based Pace Architects, SC. “It was a wonderful process.”

Knowing it would take more than a new school to re-develop Washington Park, city officials proposed that the Board of Education build two new houses for every one house demolished to provide space for the new school. The city’s goal was to raise home ownership in the neighborhood from 25 percent to 50 percent.

The Mary McLeod Bethune Academy and the housing initiative together have transformed Washington Park. Fifty-seven new residential units, mostly single-family homes, have sprung up near the school. Another 34 residences are within a four-block radius of the school. And the old school is now being converted into the community center called for by the neighborhood during the planning meetings.

As encouraging as these success stories seem, the use of schools in economic redevelopment doesn’t seem widespread enough to call a trend. Still some developers and some cities are successfully redeveloping communities by integrating new schools into their overall plans.

Perhaps the economic impact of a school by itself isn’t enough to bring school construction into the redevelopment equation. More widespread use of the technique may have to wait for other trends to catch up. Maybe when more school districts find it necessary to reduce transportation costs by returning to neighborhood schools, maybe when the emerging trend toward smaller, more manageable school catches on, maybe those goals will combine with community redevelopment goals and finally bring schools into the planning mix.