Schools as Centers of Neighborhood Vitality

Forum on Schools as Centers of Community
KnowledgeWorks Foundation
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 school."

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 cities.

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 administrators.

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 facilities.

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.

Silo thinking 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 public education.

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?