Community-Based Athletic Facilities

School facilities have always played a significant role in their respective communities. Traditionally, high schools were located as figural centers in neighborhoods or key components of the urban core. However, the typical urban school — especially high schools — was planned like a walled fortress, with imposing entrances to contain students, allowing access to the general public by “invitation” only. Although the primary function has always been focused on learning and education, schools have also been community centers, providing space for assembly or spectator entertainment or celebration, and in times of crisis, they become areas of refuge or temporary shelter.

Schools from the early 1900s were not planned with the automobile in mind, and typically, the combination of pedestrian accessibility, or the proximity to a public trolley or bus line, was a key factor in the placement of the facility. There was not a conscious effort to create facilities that invited the community to share in the components of the building, and there wasn’t space to accommodate public parking to complete the invitation.

In the last 20 or 30 years, schools have moved to the perimeter of their communities. The need to accommodate parking for students and staff, buses and athletic fields have ballooned the acreage needs of the typical high school from less that 20 acres in an urban context to more than 100 acres for a typical high school that serves 1,200 to 1,500 students.

The other factor that has continued to impact educational facilities is funding. Most states have some type of public question — such as referendum or vote on tax impact — to be able to construct, expand or renovate a school. As such, it becomes increasingly more important to change the paradigm of the “walled fortress” of education, and create a more engaging facility image to capture the support of the public. Offering more opportunities for members of the community to be able to “use” the facilities that they are paying for is one way to build more support outside of the parent group of the current student body. On average, 80 percent of the members of a community do not have children in school. That means that the majority of taxpayers are supporting facilities that serve 20 percent or less of the community.

One of the most successful models to engage and serve the larger community is to develop opportunities to “share” the athletic facilities as community activity areas. Some of the facilities that are typically shared opportunities are athletic facilities that may include a swimming pool, weight room and/or gymnasium.
However, the decision to “open-up” a school’s athletic facilities for community use raises three very important planning considerations.
  1. Zoning and placement of the shared facilities in order to maintain secure and controlled access by the public for the safety of the students.
  2. Programming of the spaces to assure that the use of a space is clearly defined in terms of time of day and extent of use in order to maintain the separation of the public from student instructional activities.
  3. Operational costs that could expand the potential monitoring, maintenance and utility costs of the facilities that are shared with the community.

Zoning and Placement
It’s always easier to look at the planning of a new facility to be able to set up clear lines of control to separate the various components of a building. But in the adapting of existing facilities needs, one needs to examine layouts to accomplish the clear separation of the public from the students. The access by the public has to be clearly defined and distinctly different from the access by the students. The public access needs to be controlled, and the connection of the shared facilities needs to be controlled so that there are defined limits and boundaries between the public spaces and the daily student spaces.

Ideally, if the community access points could include separate, controlled entry and segregated locker rooms, the placement and zoning would be ideal. Examples of this type of zoning can be seen in the overall layout of Plainfield (Ind.) High School, or the new Natatorium facility for the School Town of Munster (Ind.). Both feature separate entry conditions and the potential for segregated locker rooms. Additionally, public restrooms with limited access make use more controllable and maintenance more feasible.

Clear observation areas by the school administration and staff are also key to a successful community-based facility-sharing program. Glazing in primary activity areas that connect to adjacent spaces allow for ongoing supervision and observation of activities.

Programming and Scheduling
Another key factor in a successful integration of the community into school athletics is the scheduling of the spaces to accommodate various programs. Most pools are used by a wide variety of swimming groups — from age-group swimming that encompasses elementary through high school swimmers, to masters swimming programs that go beyond high school to age 80-plus, to community swim programs for recreational swimming and swim lessons. The example of a pool schedule is an excellent model to highlight the most effective and efficient use of a school pool. Catering to a wider range of use options through the design of the pool can even expand the potential usages across a broarder population base.
Other examples include the use of the gym or field house for walking or jogging. This is easily scheduled before or after the normal school day, and in many communities has become an excellent senior citizen engagement activity.

Understanding when a particular facility is available and the conditions for use are very important. The initial category addressed zoning of facilities to allow for use outside of the normal school day without impacting the academic facilities in the building. The programming and scheduling of a facility are equally important to achieving a balanced expectation of accessibility.

In conjunction with the zoning of the facility, it is typical to have some form of access identification for the public to be able to use the facilities. This also allows the school to have a better sense of the extent of public usage in the development of program schedules.

Operational Costs
Along with expanded use, comes expanded cost of operation. For a pool, that includes more lifeguards, more chemicals, more heat, more lights and more liability. For a gymnasium, the utility costs and the cost of monitoring and cleaning are expanded with expanded usage. For weight rooms or cardio vascular activity rooms, the cost of wear and tear on the equipment has to be factored into the overall equation.

There will certainly be additional personnel costs to be able to program, schedule and monitor the expanded activity levels. The ideal expanded use times are the weekends or early morning. Both are outside of the typical teacher contract, and will require additional custodial time and materials.

The access identity cards are an excellent way to create both a database of users, as well as a user fee tied to a specific individual. Membership cards — similar to a YMCA card — that identify the individual as a community member and allow for tracking of use, are a way to begin to establish a cost for access.
Many school corporations have developed relationships with local YMCAs to offset the operational costs of monitoring and programming the facilities. For a nominal fee, or in conjunction with an outside organization like the YMCA, many schools have combined the activity spaces with childcare for before and after school.

The other mechanism to offset added operational costs are facility rental fees. Many school corporations allow for various groups to “rent” portions of the building for various activities. Some of the activities are obvious such as club swim meets, or club basketball, volleyball or tennis activities, but others may be less athletic, such as the use of a gym for a church service.

Whatever the ancillary use, the same principals of planning, zoning, scheduling and identifying costs of usage to be able to maintain the primary goal of any educational facility apply. That is to always be able to deliver the educational needs first, and then to expand the potential utilization of the facilities to invite the community to participate and celebrate in their investments.