School Architect & Planner Steven Bingler On The Emergence & Need For Community Schools

July 28, 2005

Designer of un-conventional schools talks about improving outcomes for students and neighborhoods.

Architect Steven Bingler is the founder of Concordia LLC, a planning and architectural design firm based in New Orleans. He is the author of “Schools As Centers of Community: A Citizen’s Guide for Planning and Design,” published by the U.S. Department of Education and has served as a special consultant to the office of the secretary of the U.S. DOE for policy related to the design of schools as centers of the community. Mr. Bingler recently shared his expertise with the Los Angeles community at a sumposium held by New Schools Better Neighborhoods (, focused on model community-centered, joint-use schools.

Steven, we last interviewed you years ago for New Schools Better Neighborhoods. The focus: the work you were doing around the country designing shared-use, collaboratively planned schools. Bring us up to date on your projects. Let’s start with the Henry Ford Academy.

The Henry Ford Academy, a public school within a museum, has produced educational results that everyone involved was hoping for. Their test scores far exceed the other local public schools and their attendance rates have averaged over 96% over the past five years. There are five applications for every student position. It’s a place where kids love to go to school every day.

Describe the School Facility.

The original project was to integrate a 400-student school into the 80-acre campus of the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. By designing the educational facility into the existing museum buildings we were able to deliver the educational spaces for a fraction of what the cost would have been to build a stand-alone school facility. At the same time the educational outcomes are impressive. Retention rates at the Academy are at 92%, and the students, who are selected by lottery from a large cohort of urban at-risk youth, are graduating at levels that far exceed those of comparable public school students in Detroit. In a way, I guess the conclusion is that for a fraction of the cost, you can get multiples of growth in student achievement.

Is there more than one phase to this school facility project?

Based on these encouraging results, the Henry Ford Learning Institute is planning to replicate the model nationally in collaboration with other cultural institutions.

Talk about your work in Providence, Rhode Island with the Big Picture Company and its MET School. Describe the educational goals and how form fits function.

The mission that is at the core of The Big Picture Company model is personalized learning. This mission greatly influenced the planning and design of the MET facility, First, there was a lot of one-to-one contact through some pretty extensive community engagement. And of course the result has been a tremendous amount of community support. The school is located in the toughest side of Providence, but there are no fences, no security cameras and no metal detectors. Yet the campus is safe. There is no graffiti and there have been no incidents of crime in five years. The community has a genuine sense of ownership in the school. The main campus has a health center, a black box theater, a community fitness center, and a community catering kitchen. The whole site serves the general community’s needs through a wide range of programs that are in addition to those provided for the educational needs for the students.

There are four small schools located on the site in stand alone buildings. Each one serves about 115 students. There are actually six schools altogether in the MET’s “system of small schools” in Providence. In addition to the four at the main MET campus, one is in a high-rise office building downtown. Another is in a free-standing building located on a site in a different neighborhood. But the main thing is that the student outcomes there are very, very encouraging. The Met was chosen as one of six public high schools in the U.S. to participate in the 2002 Pathways to College Study for its extraordinary ability to get traditionally underserved urban students through high school and into college.

Since its first graduating class in 2000, 97% of Met seniors have applied to college; 100% of those have been accepted. Further, 70% of Met graduates who have gone to college are still there – again exceptional considering the high college drop rates for students with similar backgrounds and the fact that 75% of Met students are the first in their families to attend college

And your planning work in Oakland?

In Oakland we have been developing conceptual models for how the existing facilities could be broken down into smaller schools. At the same time we are facilitating a community based process in West Oakland to build understanding and capacity for stronger local participation in decision making around education reform and school redesign in the West Oakland community.

Has the model/concept of collaboratively planning, shared- and joint-use neighborhood centered schools won the hearts and minds of school districts and communities around the nation, or are there still obstacles that need to be overcome?

My personal feeling is that the largest obstacle is for people—especially people in decision-making positions—to either believe or act on the belief that these new models really do work. What is encouraging to me is that we now have empirical data that is supporting many of the concepts that we talked about so many years ago.

Elaborate on the obstacles. What is standing in the way of expanding the replication of these models?

I feel that the obstacles are more organizational than they are technical. There is a perception that there is a lot of risk involved in doing things differently, along with the fear of having to learn a different way of doing things. These personal and organizational resistances to change are the greatest obstacles. This is not about whether these programs actually work, nor about whether they even make common sense economically. The issue is whether the bureaucracies that are responsible for building educational facilities and implementing educational programs are willing to dedicate the resources of time and personnel to pause and retool so they can reap the rewards of doing things differently. Given the academic and financial benefits available, it is clear that it is the students and taxpayers who are ultimately the victims of this conundrum.

NSBN, with support from the Rockefeller Foundation, recently completed a monograph titled “Equity Beyond Dollars”, which stressed that formulas for allocating public education dollars more fairly were necessary but not sufficient if true educational equity for inner city and inner suburban children and families was the goal. Rather, true equity requires a healthy neighborhood as a well as a good facility. Facility bond funds ought must fund the building of not only new school seats; they must be leveraged to also build healthy neighborhoods. Given your experience working with throughout the country to improve educational outcomes for children, do you think this notion of equity rings true?

I think it is about as right on as you can get. We are doing work in Camden, New Jersey with the Ford Foundation, which has a multi-faceted initiative to address housing, open space, education, youth programs and a wide range of other issues. It is a very systemic approach. This kind of approach is especially important in areas that are challenged in terms of social issues or financial issues - and by the way, that is just about every major urban area that I know of. In my experience, the conclusions that NSBN has come to are right on target. If we continue to approach the issues of the urban condition from a single-minded or simplistic point of view that has to do with building seats, then we are really misunderstanding the challenge, which is to design and plan in a way that addresses and resolves many inter-related issues all at once. We need to create the kind of synergy that makes one plus one equal three, particularly in times when resources are scarce. The magnitude of the problem is demanding this kind of solution.

Can we justifiably say that the there is a new educational facilities model that can be replicated on a large scale in our metropolitan neighborhoods?

I think that model is emerging faster than we might have even thought that it could. The Big Picture Company now has funds from the Gates Foundation to replicate its model 50 times across the nation. As I mentioned before, the Henry Ford Academy model is also preparing to replicate. NSBN has had success in Los Angeles developing sites according to its own model, which is, I think, going beyond some of the models that we have been talking about to integrate housing, retail, commercial, open space, recreational facilities child care, and family resource services with education to create healthy neighborhoods. It appears to me that momentum is gathering at the same rate that quantifiable results are being documented. I applaud the work that NSBN has been doing and the models that it is building. I look forward to the time when your work will become the standard way of doing things.