Building a Community-Based School: One Way to Do It--And One Way Not To

By Steven Bingler, AIA Concordia, Inc.
The Planning Report

Steven BinglerTPR 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 ownership.

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.