The Importance of Participatory Planning

Planning, designing, and constructing a new school are formidable tasks. When you consider that the national median cost for construction of an elementary school is $12.9M, a middle school is $20M, and a high school is $40.6M, garnering the necessary support to fund these projects may be an even bigger task. What can districts do to improve their chances of success? Make sure that ALL stakeholders are involved in the planning process — this includes educators, students and parents, public agencies, industry partners, and the community at large.

A participatory planning process is not without challenges, the top two being time and money. Many districts try to shortcut the process, limiting their planning team to top school administrators and their architect. While this may seem to be more efficient, the richness and resources that can be brought to the table by various stakeholders and the community at large — as well as the buy-in and financial support that comes when the community “owns” the school — can be lost.

The need for community buy-in is magnified when you consider the changes in education, expectations, demographics, and the economy. The day and age where a school is used only eight hours a day, or where the only occupants are K-12 students, is over. What once was “just the high school” is now a facility that serves early childhood, adult education, health and social programs, community use, industry partnerships, and more. From an economic standpoint, this makes good sense. Participatory planning is needed so that available community resources can be identified, partnerships can be formed, the duplication of services can be eliminated, quality can be improved, and taxpayer dollars can be saved.

Most often when we discuss demographics, it is in the context of enrollment projections. Growing enrollment may be one of the driving factors for building a new school in the area, but we need to look at the bigger picture and, in this case, consider the demographics of those who form the tax base. Demographic reports show that baby-boomers will soon be retiring in record numbers, that the baby-boom echo is fading, and that the number of taxpayers with school-age children has fallen significantly in most communities. The U.S. Census Bureau tells us that by 2010 families with children in school will only account for one quarter of the households, meaning districts can no longer count solely on parental support in order to run a successful bond campaign. They need the support of the entire community, and to get that support, they need to involve them. This is supported by the 37th Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup Poll on the Public’s Attitudes Toward Public Schools that shows how support for public schools grows in direct proportion to the closeness of respondents to those schools.

It always been said that if you want an honest answer, ask a child. Participation by students will add yet another dimension to the planning process. Students are the primary users of the facilities and can tell us with little bias what works and what doesn’t. Parental involvement in the process usually means financial support, but also brings with it an added bonus. Research shows that parental involvement has a positive influence on students’ academic achievement, attitudes, and behavior, and including parents as an integral part of the planning process increases the likelihood of continued participation in their child’s education, leading to greater student success.

One caution — participatory planning means asking AND listening. The purpose must be to engage the community, not to seek buy-in on decisions already made. The questions must go far beyond asking, “What do you want?” A person’s perspective is formed by his/her own experience in school, and too often their “wants” are influenced by past memories instead of future needs. The starting point should be the development of a shared “vision” for education. Including members of the community in this process can assure a broader role for schools in the community. A diverse planning team can come up with stimulating new ideas, understandings, and future support for the educational activities of a school system.