CASE STUDIES: COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT
Building a Community-Based School: One Way to Do It--And One
Way Not To
By Steven Bingler, AIA Concordia, Inc.
The Planning Report
is pleased to offer this overview of the New Schools/Better Neighborhoods
conference (see intro, p. 6) from New Orleans-based architect,
school planner and educational consultant Steven Bingler, who
was a keynote speaker. Bingler succinctly summarizes the problem
that brought such a wide array of people together and provides
a telling summary of two contrasting case studies that encapsulate
many of the important issues involved in this effort.
The Los Angeles school system is in a physical crisis. As student
populations increase and class sizes are reduced, the number and
size of educational facilities must be adjusted to meet the need.
Obstacles faced by district planners include high land costs and
the environmental issues of safety associated with large, but
often toxic industrial sites. In the meantime, local communities
are agonizing over the displacement of the residential uses that
will be needed to create large school sites. These problems in
Los Angeles are in step with a national trend, where school enrollment
will increase by 1.6 million students over the next 8 years and
60% of these students will live in urban areas. There is an urgent
need for creative answers to the problems facing the planning
and design of the next generation of America's schools.
At this point, most of the consensus has developed around what
doesn't work. Large classes and large schools, once seen as the
panacea for increasing curriculum options and financial efficiency,
have more recently become the subject of serious scrutiny and
a new movement towards smaller and more intimate learning settings.
Another looming consensus seems to be building around the long
held suspicion that the bureaucracy of large school districts
may themselves be too cumbersome to deal with the more intimate
and urgent needs of local communities.
The New Schools/Better Neighborhoods symposium was just the kind
of venue needed to deal squarely with these kinds of issues. Attending
the symposium were a manageable group of about 150 local and statewide
leaders. The subjects for discussion were broad in scope, from
vision and goals to policy and regulation. The first day of the
symposium was spent getting to know the problem. Presentations
and panels focused on exploring obstacles and opportunities for
an expanded vision of schools that could better serve students,
educators, neighborhoods and communities. The second day focused
on some local case studies that address these issues in ways that
were both informative and insightful.
The first case study was presented by Bob Niccum, the dedicated
and hard working Director of Real Estate and Asset Management
for LAUSD whose responsibilities include managing the process
for school site selection. In his presentation, Bob reviewed the
recently completed site selection for the new Cahuenga Elementary
School, which falls within one of the most overcrowded attendance
areas in the District.
Over 1,600 students living within Cahuenga's attendance area
are bused to other locations every day. Bob worked in earnest
to meet the goals for the site selection process. The process
proceeded according to the book, following the Site Acquisition
Flow Chart developed by the LAUSD's Real Estate Branch. The chart
stipulates 124 functions, notifications, meetings and actions
required for the approval and acquisition process. Included are
three meetings with the neighborhood.
A community meeting was held on November 9, 1998 to invite suggestions
for possible locations and explain the need for the new 1,600-student
school. A professional real estate consulting firm was employed
to drive each block in the study area and identify three potential
locations. In February 1999, staff reviewed the recommendations.
No community suggestions were received. The staff recommended
by consensus a 4.75-acre site that currently houses 21 single-family
homes and an 8-unit apartment building. The site was approved
by the Board of Education in March 1999. Six and a half million
dollars were set aside for site acquisition.
In the meantime, George Richter, a neighborhood resident and
president of the Beverly-Kingsley Neighborhood Association had
been meeting with members of the community. The site selected
included 19 of the community's most prized Craftsman bungalows
that had been nurtured by the neighborhood association for years.
At the symposium, George presented an alternative community-designed
plan that would redistribute the 1,600 students into three smaller
schools. He proposed specific sites that would eliminate some
the community's most blighted properties and put the schools closer
to the heaviest concentrations of students.
The second case study was led by Rev. Phillip Lance, director
of Pueblo Nuevo Development. Along with other community leaders
and organizations, Rev. Lance is proposing to create the Camino
Nuevo Charter Academy, a 240-student charter school. The Academy
would occupy an existing 1/3-acre shopping center site in the
MacArthur Park neighborhood. Recreational activities will be accommodated
through a joint use arrangement with MacArthur Park, which is
three blocks away. The total capital costs for the project are
estimated at $650,000 for site acquisition and another $350,000
for construction, or an average of about $4,200 per student.
As Rev. Lance and others on the panel continued their presentation,
comparisons with the Cahuenga Elementary School, where the cost
per student would probably exceed $4,000 just for land acquisition
became obvious. Including construction costs, the normal total
cost per student for LAUSD projects, including Cahuenga, is $22,000,
more than five times as much as the Camino Nuevo Academy project.
Even considering that the quality of space at a renovated shopping
center may not compare as favorably with that of a spanking new
facility at Cahuenga, the lower cost and lack of complexity of
the smaller project, and the opportunity to house large quantities
of students in smaller, more intimate educational settings provided
a compelling comparison. And given the large quantity of small,
faltering shopping center sites available throughout the Los Angeles
region, the lack of disruption to existing residents while improving
the urban fabric of the adjoining commercial streets presented
another clear advantage for planning at a smaller scale.
One of the most compelling case studies presented at the symposium
came from Andy Lipkis, founder and president of TreePeople. Andy's
organization has, over the several years, been developing an integrated
environmental planning model for school sites that amalgamates
beneficial qualities from multiple resources. One focus of their
work has been on asphalt paving, which is an enormous source of
heat at schools and also a contributor to flooding and pollution.
A major portion of Proposition BB funds were allocated for repaving
a large portion of asphalt at LAUSD schools, one of the largest
pieces of pavement within the Los Angeles watershed under one
With the help of scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy
and Lawrence Berkeley Labs, TreePeople determined that by precisely
planting trees to help shade and cool the buildings, a net savings
of 12-18% in energy could be achieved, and that these cost savings
alone would be more than enough to pay for installing and maintaining
the additional natural landscape. As a result, the School Board
has agreed to replace more than 30% of the asphalt on each campus
with trees and greening. Lipkis and his team are currently exploring
how more natural landscape can also curtail run-off, reducing
the construction of expensive storm water drainage structures
and pollution abatement, resulting in reduced capital and maintenance
costs for other state and municipal agencies.
In many ways, all of the case study presentations shared a similar
kind of David vs. Goliath sub-theme. In the face of limited resources
and policy hurdles, battles have ensued against the behemoth Los
Angeles Unified School District and its policies. But one of the
most endearing qualities of the case study presentations was the
spirit of comradeship that prevailed through the many alternating
moments of frustration and revelation. No one stood up to blame
Bob Niccum for what seemed to some like an impending boondoggle
at Cahuenga. Bob, with clearly honorable intentions, came off
more as a victim than a perpetrator. Sympathy also prevailed for
the plight of Reverend Lance and his associates in their quest
for approvals and charter status. Andy Lipkis rose to heroic status
as his programs and their convincing financial justifications
have begun to chip away at the fiduciary Achillies' heal of the
embedded Los Angeles school bureaucracy.
One of the most powerful lessons of the two-day symposium was
that it's not the people, but the system that seems to be the
problem. The issue of large vs. small scale was a recurring theme
for planning as well as design. By the end, it appeared that the
goals prescribed by the conference organizers for defining issues
and a vision for the community-focused school of the 21st century
had met the mark. Over the summer, five committees will try to
find ways to turn some of the obstacles into opportunities. If
the attitude of good will and camaraderie that prevailed over
the two-day symposium can be maintained, the results could be
both a local and national model for more integrated, economical
and effective community-based planning.