Schools as Centers of Neighborhood Vitality
Schools as Centers of Community
January 10, 2003
In the last decade, significant progress has been
made in blurring the traditional and rigid boundaries between
schools and the
community in the effort to raise student achievement and build
communities. As a result, the concept of "schools as
centers of community" – an idea that seemed so
novel to some just a few years ago at the National Symposium
of School Design in 1998 – is now increasingly accepted.
There are now a significant number of "model schools" to
showcase the success of the approach and a growing vocabulary
about how to articulate the concept, as well as numerous reports
and literature on the various ways that communities can make
greater use of their school facilities and how communities and
schools can work together.
In some cities – like Sacramento, Cleveland, and Chicago – municipal
and education leaders have made a commitment to support and develop
schools as community learning centers as a way to provide increased
services and encourage economic development and renewal at the
neighborhood level. Mayor Daley of Chicago, for example, has
made a long-term commitment to transform 100 schools into community
centers with extended hours. The federal 21st Century Community
Learning Centers program, initially enacted in 1998 and now funded
at $1 billion, has accelerated these efforts and given community-minded
advocates a new opportunity to build school and community partnerships.
In addition, a constellation of organizations – including
the Coalition for Community Schools, New Schools/Better Neighborhoods,
the Children’s Aid Society, Communities in Schools, the
National Community Education Association, the National Clearinghouse
for Educational Facilities, the American Institute of Architects,
the Council of Educational Facility Planners International, the
Gates Foundation and the KnowledgeWorks Foundation – have
been part of a growing effort to create and sustain school and
community partnerships. The Ford, Mott, Wallace, and Kettering
foundations also have committed resources to this effort.
Indeed, there are numerous related and overlapping issues and
policy initiatives linked to the core idea that schools can and
should be centers of community. These include the importance
of community engagement; the need for smaller schools; creating
full-service schools; expanding after-school opportunities; the
advantage of joint use and multi-purpose facilities; linking
schools more directly to community and civic institutions, such
as hospitals and museums; saving historic public schools as neighborhoods
anchors; smart growth; and a growing recognition that the larger
community can be used much more as a learning asset.
Despite the multitude of different messages, it is clear that
the broader theme of "schools as centers of community" does
resonate with many groups and organizations and continues to
grow. Even the National Association of Realtors has dipped its
toe in the water in advocating for smaller schools and smart
growth. All of these individual initiatives fall under the larger
theme, "the school is the community and the community is
The Changing Education Landscape
Still, for all the progress of the last few years, there is
a need to do some new thinking and go to the next level of developing
long-term institutional support for these ideas and to influence
the policy agenda of major institutions in the public education
realm. While success has been achieved thematically, what seems
to be missing is a fundamental change in policy at the state
and local level.
In addition, many mainstream education organizations have yet
to be fully engaged. And little has been done to build connections
to organizations that could be potential allies, such as the
AARP, Conference of Mayors, United Way, the realtor organizations,
the performing arts community, and the development and investment
community. Universities also may be a rich and untapped resource.
Successful community-university partnerships have been developed
in San Diego, Philadelphia, Chattanooga and a number of other
All of his comes at a time when federal policymakers have put
forward a clear and ambitious agenda regarding student achievement
that is articulated in the "No Child Left Behind" Act.
This legislation is transforming the education landscape in every
community and school district. Responding to the demands of NCLB
clearly is dominating the agenda of teachers, principals and
There is a growing concern among school officials, however,
that the lack of funding and the strict guidelines imposed by
NCLB may result in large numbers of schools being labeled as "low
performing," possibly leading to a negative public backlash
against public education. In a recent front-page Washington Post
article, Paul Houston of AASA noted, "What happens is you
create a situation where there are so many schools failing that
there is no public support for them."
NCLB almost certainly will lead to a rising demand for more
learning time for hundreds of thousands of children, which in
turn will put increased pressure on educators to create more
after-school tutoring programs and expand the use of existing
facilities. This, however, may have unintended consequences.
Some educators, for example, may feel the need to limit after-school
activities to reading and math in order to raise test scores
and in the process eliminate other enriching programs like the
arts and music. The immediate demand to raise test scores may
be so overwhelming that some school officials will see little
to be gained by investing energy in new school-community partnerships
and may, indeed, ignore them altogether.
But what do the American people think about this?
Voters in the mid-term election made it quite clear that their
support for public education remains very high. In California,
voters passed a $13 billion bond issue to build new school facilities
and at the same time approved a statewide after-school initiative
that can provide $85 million in the first year and up to $550
million annually if the state revenue grows. In Houston, Texas,
voters supported an $800 million bond issue to build new school
Although Florida voters re-elected Governor Jeb Bush, they rejected
his advice not to support Proposition 9, a ballot initiative
requiring a phased-in class-size reduction by the year 2010 to
18 students in grades k-3, to 22 students in grades 4-8, and
to 25 students in high school. Florida voters also approved a
voluntary universal pre-k initiative for 4-year olds (Proposition
8), in addition to reforming the governance structure of their
higher education system (Proposition 11).
In short, in three of the largest and fastest growing states
in the nation, voters went to the polls to support significant
new investments in education facilities and programs, despite
substantial uncertainties about state revenue streams. All of
these measures clearly will have an impact on the future use
and design of school facilities. Voters in various other states
also came forward to support education. Education initiatives
in Tennessee, Michigan, Hawaii, Oregon and New Mexico were successful.
All of this is taking place at a time when an enormous amount
of money is still being spent on building new school facilities – approximately
$20 billion in FY 2001, as well as FY2002. While overall spending
on new facilities will stabilize and even decline in the next
few years, the fact remains that this is still a golden opportunity
to influence the design of new buildings in terms of teaching
and learning, community use, economic renewal and meeting the
demands for lifelong learning. And, of course, enrollment will
begin to rise again in 2010.
The education landscape is being changed in other ways, as well.
Cities and states all across the country are in fiscal crisis
and struggling to balance their budgets. While governors, both
Republicans and Democrats, have made a significant effort in
the last few years to avoid cutting spending for public education,
they may have few options left as we enter into a third year
of national economic recession.
There is, perhaps, a silver lining to be found in the budget
crisis that now confronts many states and localities. School
and municipal leaders may be much more open to the idea that
they will be able to find economies and save money by combining
resources and building schools as community learning centers.
However, despite the real progress that has been made in articulating
the idea that schools should be centers of the community, the
policies and programs associated with this idea have not fully
penetrated established education thinking. In many communities,
after-school programs and community groups still struggle to
gain sustainable, long-term funding that will encourage community-school
partnerships. Public charter schools continue to face an uphill
battle in their efforts to gain adequate and decent facilities.
California voters may have supported a $13 billion bond issue
for education facilities, but only $100 million of those funds
can be used for joint-use facilities. And the energy for reforming
American high schools and creating schools within schools is
still coming from outside the education establishment, with the
Gates Foundation taking a substantial leadership role.
The other clear difficulty is that there are still significant
institutional and regulatory barriers to overcome at the local
level to create school and community partnerships.
still dominates and the best of all plans for developing partnerships
can fall apart over disagreements regarding rental
fees and who pays for custodial services. And, while many community
groups may be eager to develop new partnerships, they simply
do not know how to get started.
What Can Be Done Now – Creating a Shared Vision
As we begin 2003, community advocates, educators, school officials,
government and philanthropic leaders face a new and changing
education landscape. Given these changing dynamics, this seems
to be an opportune time to consider what can be done now to encourage
school and community partnerships that can increase student achievement,
sustain and renew communities and increase public support for
America still remains a nation of communities and, in these
challenging times, creating a shared vision of communities and
schools working together to achieve education excellence for
all children is very much needed.
Here, a series of questions may help frame the discussion.
(1) While there is a great deal of energy behind the concept
of schools as centers of community, it remains quite diffuse.
Each organization has its own agenda; thus, there is no common
policy agenda. Can we create a common policy agenda and message
that will influence decision makers at the state and local level?
(2) How can advocates for school and community partnerships
help and support teachers, principals, and school administrators
as they respond to the challenges posed by the No Child Left
Behind law? What can be done to convey the idea to educators
that school-community partnerships are not an "add on" or
extra burden but an essential way to improve student achievement
and create better citizens?
(3) What barriers exist at the state and local level that prevent
creative school and community partnerships? What can be done
to knock down these barriers? What else can be done to influence
the design of new schools to encourage greater community use?
(4) Is this the right time to build a broader coalition to support
school and community partnerships?
- How do we engage mainstream education organizations
to be more fully involved in this growing effort to make schools
the centers of community?
- How do we reach out to many new groups – senior
citizens, faith-based organizations, realtors, municipal leaders,
etc. – to create a new set of allies at the state and local
level to support public education, which is the foundation of
free enterprise and democracy?
(5) Do we want to work together to advance specific ideas and
policy initiatives – for example, developing best practices,
proposing model legislation, and organizing a larger conference?