Summer 2001 Newsletter

Leveraged Strategies Key To Combating Staggering School Facility Needs

Coro Leadership ReviewThe need is staggering and the cost increasing exponentially each day we do not implement a strategy for curbing the rampantly growing need for school facilities within the state of California. To compound matters we are using an old paradigm for school construction which results in a system of crowded schools and under-utilized facilities which cannot fulfill our children's need for seats, let alone educational advancement. In this recently published article for the Coro Leadership Review, NSBN Chairman, David Abel, writes about the current and growing need for a comprehensive plan to expand our school facilities through joint use with libraries, parks, etc. and cites the growing number of cases where it has been successful in neighborhoods all around the state.

We are building over $15 billion worth of schools nationally each year and we will see spending continue to rise as enrollment increases by 1.6 million students in the next eight years. The nation's largest teacher's union states that public school systems will need to spend $322 billion to modernize, accommodate enrollment growth, and equip students with educational technology. The Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) is 85,000 seats short today and will be 200,000 short within a decade.

The Problem

Most new schools in California are dinosaurs the day they open. Routinely, they are stand-alone structures constructed on empty sites surrounded by chain link fences, planned to operate only seven or eight hours a day. They are too often built to accommodate up to 4,000 or 5,000 children. In contrast, most studies say children need the more intimate learning settings of smaller schools in which they can be known individually. Finally, new schools are being thrown up with little if any thought to how they could become true community centers for twelve or eighteen hour daily use. Too often, they are constructed on the fringe, accessible only by car trips or long rides in yellow buses—the very antithesis of smart growth principles of compact, walkable communities.

A Common Vision

We stand at an enormous precipice in our efforts to increase the quantity and quality of school facilities in the State of California. Crossing this canyon will involve a complete rethinking of our approach to facility construction. For too long the California prototype for new schools has been based on agricultural land considerations. The urbanization of California, however, has shifted the emphasis away from orange groves and green fields to urban infill. In the need for a new paradigm lies the crux of the New Schools-Better Neighborhoods (NSBN) proposal and the future of school facilities and neighborhood revitalization in California.

We learn, work, and live in a society of disjointed policy decision-making where oftentimes one public agency does not know what another is mandating. This dysfunctional relationship between the major players in our government agencies is at the root of our current dilemma in school construction. We have a dearth of adequate schools, a lack of sufficient libraries, increasing demand for accessible after school programs and healthcare, and a scarcity of useable and functional neighborhood open space.

To complicate matters, California will have a 37 percent increase in population by 2020. Yet these challenges go largely unmet because of state and local regulations which create disincentives for comprehensive planning, frustrate political will, and devalue instructional and neighborhood input into facilities decisions. As we enter a new millennium, we have an opportunity to convince those in state and local leadership positions to break out of the existing mindset.

A new paradigm is emerging in California. This new paradigm would conceive of schools as centers of neighborhoods and communities as centers of learning. The concept is simple: school districts must move away from large, isolated schools, and look to partner with neighborhoods to build smaller, more intimate campuses in close proximity to parks, libraries, and other facilities like healthcare clinics that offer joint-use possibilities. Gymnasiums and play fields ought to double as community parks and recreation centers; auditoriums ought to serve as community theaters; libraries, family health centers, and other community services ought to be integrated into the existing school framework and contribute to a thriving neighborhood.

The advantages of such a proposal are many. For example, parents benefit from the playing space for children and the community benefits from more facilities in which to come together. This is the NSBN vision. One need only look at a handful of projects already underway throughout the state to see that the possibility for success is achievable.

Cahuenga Elementary School
Los Angeles, California

The site originally selected for a new Cahuenga Elementary School lies in one of the most overcrowded areas in the LAUSD. The original LAUSD process for designing Cahuenga Elementary proceeded exactly as outlined by the District's Site Acquisition Flow Chart and ultimately lead to the unpopular recommendation of a 4.75 acre site that currently houses twenty-one single-family homes and an eight unit apartment building. In reaction, at the 1999 NSBN Getty Symposium, the residents of the Beverly-Kingsley Neighborhood Association kicked off an intense nine month community-wide effort. They proposed alternatives that would save the targeted neighborhood and instead redirect the construction to three smaller sites located close to the heaviest concentration of students and the community's most blighted properties. While LAUSD still is awkward partners with such community-spirited efforts, the promise of neighborhood- school partnerships is real.

Camino Nuevo Charter Academy
Los Angeles, California

In collaboration with community leaders and organizations, Pueblo Nuevo proposed and subsequently constructed the Camino Nuevo Charter Academy, a 240 student charter school. The design includes the adaptive reuse of an existing shopping center in MacArthur Park. Even more ingenious, the project converts the already existing structure of the shopping center into an educational facility, with costs estimated at 1/5 of the price of projects like the Cahuenga Elementary School. This provides an opportunity to house students in an intimate setting without disrupting existing residential neighborhoods and current economic drivers.

Hayward Unified Master Plan
Hayward, California

Another innovative project is the recently completed educational facilities master plan for the Hayward Unified School District. The City of Hayward, California has a population of approximately 112,000 encompassing more than eighty-eight different ethnic groups. Because of this diversity, the school district teaches in forty-three different languages. However, instead of treating this as an impediment to educational attainment, Hayward has used it as a vehicle for integrating the community into the school fabric. Over the course of eighteen months in a community-based planning process, one hundred parents, students, educators, and other stakeholders came together to design a fine arts multi-cultural center used not only as an educational facility but also a tourist attraction for the Bay Area.

These concepts help to solve the current school debacle and also begin to answer how California will cope with the enormous influx of people that will live in this state by 2020. Instead of consuming tremendous quantities of land and encouraging sprawling development and the destruction of the hinterlands, these community schools help to focus growth around smart principles. They have begun to lessen dependence on cars by placing necessary facilities within communities, in turn lessening congestion, curtailing air pollution, and preserving dwindling open space.

In order to accomplish these goals, we must not only speak to our representatives in government but also involve the entire populace. For too long groups around the state have focused on Sacramento as the only vehicle for change. This must end! We must incorporate the very people who will live in these neighborhoods, give them a voice in decision-making, and explain what these comprehensive alternatives are. We must urge council members, supervisors, department heads, and government representatives to open the gates of our underutilized schools and encourage the community to use them not merely from 8 A.M. to 3:30 P.M. Monday through Friday, but rather all day, everyday of the week.

We live in a society that speaks of community representation, grassroots organizing, and local control. Now is the time to collaboratively invest voter approved school, park, and library bond funds into urban revitalization efforts to produce not only new schools but better neighborhoods. Now is the time to reform and institutionalize our thinking and practices regarding the way we revitalize our communities. Applying New Schools-Better Neighborhoods principles is a way to start.