Schools as Centers of Neighborhood Vitality

Statement of Richard W. Riley
Former U.S. Secretary of Education
NSBN Getty Symposium - May 29, 2003

Good morning. Thank you Barry for your generous introduction.

I have known Barry for a good many years now and every time he introduces me he gets a little better at it. I have had the good fortune to come here to the Getty on several occasions -- and like all of you -- I appreciate Barry's leadership of this great institution.

I want to thank David Abel for his leadership of New Schools- Better Neighborhoods and his belief that when we build new schools it makes a whole lot of sense to create the community partnerships that can restore vitality to our neighborhoods.

I want to acknowledge a few other people who have come all the way across the country to see what creative ideas we can steal from all of you smart people here on the West Coast.

Chad Wick is the CEO and President of the KnowledgeWorks Foundation, the largest foundation in Ohio dedicated to improving education. Like California, Ohio is in the midst of a decade long effort to design and build new schools to the tune of $23 billion dollars.

With the help of the Gates and Ford Foundations, Chad, Barbara Diamond and others are making a major effort to promote authentic community engagement and to transform Ohio's urban high schools by making them smaller and more personalized.

This is something that I know my good friend Roy Romer is thinking hard about when it comes to the next generation of schools here in LA. We Americans love bigness -- we are a big country and we think in big terms and that's not bad. But big is not always better when it comes to the education of our children.

Building smaller schools also has important implications for how residents of neighborhoods see themselves. As true neighbors and part of a community or as isolated strangers each going their own way. This is why I am a strong supporter of the collaborative planning process.

Just as educators need to measure student achievement so we can help students improve, those of you who are thinking hard about facility use know that the planning process is where the hard work gets done -- where you break down the silo thinking, share resources and put all the pieces together.

We are long past the time when we can live on old assumptions about the design and building of new school facilities.

Dr. Terry Peterson is a long time old colleague from South Carolina and the U.S. Department of Education. Terry is now in the forefront of the national effort to create more after-school opportunities and to expand arts education; two ideas that go hand in hand.

Mary Filardo is the Executive Director of the 21st Century School Fund in Washington, D.C. Mary is one of those moms who got riled up about her local neighborhood school and became a national expert in the process. Mary was the leader in the design and funding the Oyster Bilingual Elementary School, the first new public school built in D.C. in several decades.

Kevin Sullivan is also another long time colleague. Kevin organized the National Symposium on School Design in 1998 with Steven Bingler, who many of you know.

Even though he has 3 little girls, Kevin has been thinking hard about the intergenerational aspects of public education -- about how to make our public schools more inviting to senior citizens.

This is not our first meeting together with David Abel. Last January with the support of Chad Wick and Anne Bryant of the National School Boards Association, we brought together 40 different national organizations to begin a dialogue on how we can put all the pieces together and scale up this growing effort to see our schools as centers of community.

At the meeting, I was struck by the diversity of groups involved and how many people were coming at this issue from many different angles -- whether it was the health of children -- the design of full service schools -- the need for authentic community engagement -- community school advocates -- smart growth experts -- green school proponents and many, many more.

We came to several initial conclusions. Let me share a few of them with you.

First, that policymakers may be much more open to the idea that sharing resources is a smart way to improve education and build communities at a time when state budgets are running in red ink. As someone aptly put it -- the poverty imposed upon you by all the budget cuts forces you to be creative and resourceful.

There was also a clear recognition at the January meeting that community partnerships can be and should play an important role in responding to the "No Child Left Behind" legislation. The community needs to be seen as a valuable resource by principals and teachers in our national effort to raise standards.

Now getting educators to think in those terms may take some doing and the doing needs to happen now.

Let's remember that the issue isn't just building the building -- the issue is what do our young people need to learn inside that building to be ready for the coming times. There is no point in spending millions of dollars to build a brand new gleaming high school if it winds up housing an outdated academic program that prepares young people for jobs and opportunities that no longer exist.

This is why I am a strong advocate for putting more AP courses into our urban high schools, and for successful initiatives like the AVID program -- that have a proven track record of getting students from high poverty schools on the path to college success.

I encourage you to read the cover story in this week's "Newsweek" magazine by Jay Mathews.

We also recognized that for all our complaints about regulatory barriers and silo thinking at the state and federal level, there are a lot of disconnections among the many groups that are advocating around the idea of school as centers of community. Facility experts aren't talking to program people and vice versa. So one of our goals is to help make those connections in the coming year.

As we talked through the day, we realized that there was a growing need to scale up our efforts to reach beyond the education community to national organizations that might be receptive to our message -- from the National Conference of Mayors to the AARP.

I also believe that those of us in education have to reach out to the community in new ways. Put simply, we need to design new public schools as community learning centers -- to be open later, longer and for more members of the community -- schools that really become the hub and center of the community.

A school district, for example, that reaches out to its senior citizens and invites them "in" may have a much easier time passing the next bond issue. This is why I believe that we need to do much more to develop the inter-generational aspects of public education; to promote life long learning at every opportunity.

Schools in the future surely ought to be designed so there is room for pre-k activities, room for all day kindergarten and creative after-school opportunities. And we need to recognize that the school building of the future is probably going to be open year around to fulfill some community need.

It is also important to recognize that the community can be the school as well. Schools can be attached to museums and art galleries; they can be situated in shopping malls and even next to a factory.

My friends, schools don't have to be large and they don't even have to be small, they just have to be excellent. And on every occasion that I have had the opportunity to visit an excellent school -- I can assure you -- the community is deeply involved in every aspect of its success.

Making our schools healthy and environmental safe and energy efficient also has important implications, and I am pleased that these important topics are part of our discussion today.

Here I want to make the important point that I have asked David Abel to circulate a letter to all of you in the near future in support of the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities.

School construction, unfortunately, is not high on the agenda back in Washington, and we need your help to keep the Clearinghouse going. I am sure that many of you have used its services.

I also invite you to join the Coalition for Community Schools led by Marty Blank, a broad based and growing national effort that has united many different organizations to spread the message that school can and should be centers of community.

In conclusion, I urge to do some creative thinking today.

Instead of building schools for 1950, we need to be building schools for 2050. Schools that are healthy, safe, energy efficient, environmentally sensitive, that use up to date technology -- that complement and enhance academic excellence; schools designed by the community, with the students and for the community in mind.

Schools that act as anchors for community renewal and encourage a new community based vitality in every neighborhood here in LA and all across California.

Thank you very much.