Schools vital part of Smart Growth strategy

November 22, 2005

By Chad Emerson
From The Montgomery Advertiser

Since March, Jones School of Law and Envision 2020 have partnered in a series of Smart Growth breakfasts as follow-up education and networking opportunities to the February Seaside Institute seminar held at the law school.

As a result, businesses, citizens, and governments in the River Region have continued addressing the most important Smart Growth topics from transportation to city planning to community participation to the economics of Smart Growth. The result is that the River Region is becoming smarter about key growth issues.

That is except for one: Schools.

And this is significant because schools represent an important piece in the Smart Growth puzzle.

Many of us remember attending a neighborhood elementary school, or, in some cases, even a neighborhood middle and high school -- one where we walked or rode our bicycles to easily accessible schools that served as more than classroom space, but rather as neighborhood gathering centers. Those schools served as a community resource that doubled as a playground, ball field, or community meeting space after school hours. A shared place for scout meetings, PTA events, neighborhood festivals and the like. In Montgomery, good examples of these community assets surely included the Forest Avenue elementary school or the former Cloverdale middle school.

Sadly, most of our children will never experience these same memories because many of today's schools have more in common with an industrial park than a neighborhood-meeting place. Indeed, just down Ray Thorington Road in East Montgomery is one of the most alarming school results in the region: a brand new elementary school that must certainly rank among the least walkable schools in the state, with not a single sidewalk leading to the school -- thus creating a situation where not a single student can safely walk or ride a bicycle to that same school.

Worse still, the negative effects go well beyond the loss of community cohesiveness. Organizations such as the Small Schools Project and the Gates Foundation have pointed to other wasteful and downright dangerous effects caused by isolated, super-sized schools. These include child obesity (from the inability of students to walk or ride to school), environmental damage (from massive amounts of land consumed by many of today's schools, massive amounts of energy used, and massive school bus fleets required to service them), even to lowered learning and testing results from these type schools.

And, truth be told, the one major thing that these negative effects have in common is that they are exacerbated by the increasingly isolated and large size of today's new schools -- both in terms of enrollment and actual physical acreage. This is particularly disconcerting since studies show that smaller schools increase student performance -- with a 2000 report by the Rural School and Community Trust and an April 2004 report by the Rural Policy Matters group both demonstrating that this is especially true for schools with lower income students.

So, how does this all affect the River Region? The answer is simple: if superintendents and school boards in this area do not immediately begin a crash course in the importance of small, neighborhood schools, then many of the Smart Growth advances made in this region could be hurt, if not even undone. The possibility of this occurring is directly tied to the reality that new schools often drive sprawl since families generally try to move to the best scoring schools and, sadly, those schools are commonly located in isolated suburban locations.

Fortunately, there are embers of hope in the River Region. For example, some Smart Growth projects such as The Waters in Pike Road and Hampstead in Montgomery have set aside specific sites within their development for neighborhood schools. Even better, Smart Growth projects elsewhere in the state, such as Mt. Laurel near Birmingham and Providence in Huntsville, have recently opened new public schools that are both walkable and neighborhood-based.

Today, the facts are clear that Smart Growth principles provide an answer to the sad situation of underperforming students attending underperforming schools. Smaller neighborhood schools are more cost-effective, often lead to better scoring and healthier students, and foster an important sense of community where the school itself becomes a neighborhood gathering place rather than simply a school bus destination.

With many new schools on the drawing board, citizens, business, school boards and superintendents must pause and reconsider if these plans are simply rehashed versions of the super-sized, unwalkable failures that deprive our children of the educational, social, and health benefits gained by small, neighborhood schools. Never mind the fact that these type schools are also more cost-effective and environmentally friendly.

I can report from firsthand experience that the River Region is quickly gaining a positive reputation for our Smart Growth efforts. Bold, new land planning tools are being embraced. Exciting and innovative projects are being developed. All because of an increasing commitment to Smart Growth and the long-term benefits that it provides.

So, with all that's at stake, isn't it time that we now demand a Smart Growth commitment from our school leaders too?

Chad Emerson is associate professor of law at Jones School of Law.