Do Your Schools Serve Their Communities?

I was sitting with architect Dick Passantino during the recent convention of the Council of Educational Facility Planners International (CEFPI) in Washington, D.C., listening to a presentation on the role of schools as community buildings. Dick has been active in education for more than 40 years, and our relationship and memories go back that far, so I was not surprised when he leaned over and whispered, “The same ideas keep rolling around again and again; I wrote a piece on community schools for EFL….”

Those of you under 50 may not be familiar with EFL (Educational Facility Laboratories), but it was a Ford Foundation offshoot, started in the late 1950s, that opened up and rethought school buildings. EFL was instrumental in changing the way schools are used, and one of its key concepts was that schools ought to serve more than children; they ought to be a community asset.

So here we were, almost 40 years later, hearing architect Steve Bingler describing the values of community schools once again. The concept, need and value have not changed. Unfortunately, the concept has been talked about more than it has been executed, and the ideas and plans Bingler was presenting were new to many of his listeners.

Creating community schools involves more than letting adults use the gym at night. It involves starting the planning of new or remodeled buildings with the question, “what is this school’s place in this community?” What are the services the community needs that can be satisfied in the school? What existing community assets can be used by the school? The planning committee needs to consider the synergies that can be developed when school and community work together.

In an earlier session, architect Phil Poinelli had described how Swampscott, Mass., developed a form of community school. The town needed a new high school and a new senior center. School and town officials worked together to plan a building that included a senior center with its own parking, bus drop-off and entrance, and giving seniors access to high school facilities including exercise rooms, computers and much more. Since the proposed school was to serve both students and seniors, the entire town supported the new project, making it easy to fund.

 The arrangement has also had side benefits. Seniors and teen-age students have learned to respect one another and their activities. And, when school operating funds were low and the district cut the high school librarian’s time and closed the library for two days a week, the seniors volunteered to staff the library for those two days, keeping it open for their own use and that of the students.

A few years ago, I had an opportunity to help plan a community elementary school in a low-income section of a New England town better known for its wealth. We started by meeting with municipal department heads to explain the concept of a community school and to invite their participation. How could a new or remodeled elementary school in this location help them in their work with the community? Three ideas were put on the table and written into the educational specifications.
  • The recreation department asked that rooms be designated and set aside specifically for its use, so that its after-school programs did not have to be in classrooms that were used during school hours.
  • The health department suggested that the school health suite have an exterior door and be large enough that it could be used as a drop-in clinic when school was not in session.
  • The police were interested in space for a substation to give it a presence in the community and to shorten response time. The police also cited two “soft” benefits. They would be in the building around the clock, providing building security and the officers would get to know the students, increasing communication and making it easier to work in the community.
Loads of other possibilities could be cited. Why not have early childhood spaces within a school? How about spaces for adult learning? For a college out-reach program? Could the school cafeteria also serve community residents?

Designing community schools takes some time and effort, but the rewards can be great. The key is to reach out to municipal and other officials in the area and to work with them to consider not just the needs of the children, but of the community, too. Then, together, work to create a school complex that serves many needs and becomes the center of all community activity.

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."