A Rising Tide Lifts All Ships

In times of trial, even our most fervently held beliefs can be tested. For many, the connection between quality education and economic development is one of these core tenets.

The logic is simple. Good schools create an educated workforce. An educated workforce attracts more business. More business leads to more opportunities for economic advancement.

However, the current economic crisis has caused many to question this thinking. Today, the high price of school construction and maintenance is often seen as a cost, and not as an investment.

But there is a large body of research, along with a wealth of anecdotal evidence, that shows that investing in education is not a luxury. Instead, it suggests that creating high performing schools is the first step toward economic recovery.

This article examines some of the findings related to the link between education and economic development. It also highlights four schools from across the country, showing how they are being used as tools for revitalization within their communities.

Education —The Magic Bullet?
Education has long been touted as the cure for societal ills ranging from poverty to crime to social equality. Yet opponents of this view often site a lack of scientific research showing a direct link between the quality of education and the quality of life for residents.

In fact, a great deal of research exists. In 2004, the KnowledgeWorks Foundation released a report, "Public Schools and Economic Development: What The Research Shows," examining the existing literature in the field. Among its many findings, the report highlights studies that suggest four key points.

  1. Education has an impact on national economic growth and competitiveness.
  2. The quality of public schools impacts economic growth on a state level and has an influence on a region's ability to attract new business.
  3. The quality of public schools has an impact on real estate values in surrounding communities.
  4. Schools themselves have the ability to impact local economic development.

While the report admits that there is a great deal of research still to be done, the statistics presented can be startling. For example, one study estimated that if education in the U.S. were to match that of Sweden, the resulting increase in our national Gross Domestic Product could be up to $463 billion.

But while scholars debate the merits of the research, many communities have already embraced education as a means for economic development. They are using schools as tools for revitalization, for creating a highly trained workforce and to help improve the quality of life in surrounding neighborhoods. One of the most dramatic examples of this can be found in New Orleans, and the city's ongoing effort to recover from Hurricane Katrina.

Greater Gentilly High School — Re-imagining Education
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Orleans Parish (La.) embarked on a $1.8 billion effort to renovate or construct dozens of schools. But rather than simply replacing existing buildings, the community is using this opportunity to reimagine their approach to instruction.

Greater Gentilly High School is a shining example of the success of this effort. Built on a site that was once under eight feet of water, the 174,000-square-foot new school is leading a wave of revitalization within its neighborhood.

With its New Tech curriculum and 1:1 student to computer ratio, Greater Gentilly truly represents a new era of education within the district. To help students gain the critical thinking skills they need to compete in a global economy, the school stresses a project-based approach to instruction. Flexible floor plans, retractable walls and a string of open technology labs mimic a modern work environment.

Greater Gentilly was also developed to protect the community's investment. Designed for LEED Silver certification, the building features a wind- and water-resistant design to protect against future storms.

While Greater Gentilly represents an approach to preparing students for a global economy, some districts are developing schools to meet specific needs within the local workforce.

Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School — Training the Next Generation
In the early 2000s, residents and government leaders of Washington, D.C., recognized the need to create a specialized building-related training program that would allow students to tap into the area's major construction job market.

The result of this effort was the award-winning Phelps Architecture, Construction and Engineering High School, which opened its doors in 2008. Students at Phelps experience an innovative curriculum that provides college-preparatory and vocational education exclusively for the design and building professions.

The school's design mirrors the unique curriculum. In addition to traditional drafting labs, students have access to specialized technology such as heavy equipment and crane simulators.

In an article by The Washington Times, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty stressed the central role that Phelps would play in local economic development. "This futuristic school marks the launch of a new era of high-tech construction instruction in the District," he states. "Phelps graduates can look forward to well-paying jobs that can't be outsourced and trades that can never be taken away."

This new approach to instruction is creating a specialized, highly trained workforce in the District of Columbia. But some communities are using schools for more than education; they are turning them into mini-stimulus packages meant to rebuild entire neighborhoods.

Mary McLeod Bethune Academy — A Rising Tide

With the construction of Mary McLeod Bethune Academy, the Washington Park neighborhood of Milwaukee, Wis., received much more than just a new school.

The project was part of an innovative neighborhood redevelopment initiative meant to increase the rate of home ownership in the area and improve local housing. To obtain the 5.5 acres of land needed for the new school, the City of Milwaukee asked Milwaukee Public Schools to replace each demolished house on a 2:1 basis.

A variety of organizations participated in this effort, including Habitat for Humanity and the City of Milwaukee Housing Authority. The initiative injected more than $15 million into the local housing market and created 57 new housing units within the school's attendance area, and another 34 units within a four-block radius.

The results of the program have been dramatic. Home ownership in the area has increased substantially. In addition, a collaborative planning process helped turn the new school into a vibrant community resource.

Mary McLeod Bethune Academy has received national attention for its innovative approach to community revitalization and economic development. Still, urban communities aren't the only ones benefitting from such an approach; rural and suburban communities are as well.

Browning High School — Education and Economics
The Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Browning, Mont., is one of the most economically depressed communities in the United States. So when Browning Public Schools, located on the reservation, was planning for a new high school, the district examined ways to improve education and the local economy.

Despite being located near Glacier National Park, the reservation gains little revenue from the tourist industry. During master planning for the high school site, land was set aside for trailers and campsites, that could be used during North American Indian Days, the biggest annual event on the reservation.

The high school gymnasium was also sized to support state athletic tournaments, an attempt to attract visitors on an annual basis. The community hoped that the gym, in combination with a new casino located nearby, would attract restaurants and hotels, providing the infrastructure needed to grow the local tourist industry.

Taking the Lead
As the previous four examples show, there are many ways that schools can support economic development. By taking an innovative and responsible approach to education, communities can help ensure their long-term viability.

For example, many Rust Belt cities have experienced a significant decrease in population during the last four decades. The School City of Hammond, in Hammond, Ind., has addressed this issue by implementing a two-decade-long consolidation plan that has reduced the number of schools while improving the quality of education. As a result, the district is currently experiencing steady or slightly growing enrollment.

As new challenges present themselves, communities will increasingly turn to their school systems as avenues for innovation and growth. In the current economic climate, we should not shrink from our commitment to public education. School construction, maintenance, teachers’ salaries — these items should not be seen as costs, but rather as investments in the future.

Douglas Wickstrom, AIA, dwickstrom@fhai.com; Gregory Monberg, AIA, REFP, LEED-AP, gmonberg@fhai.com; and Michael Hall, AIA, REFP, LEED-AP, mhall@fhai.com, are principals with Fanning/Howey Inc., the design firm for the featured projects. Partnering firms were: VergesRome Architects, Bryant Mitchell, PACE and LPW.