What If

Case Studies

There are many programs and projects in the state of California and elsewhere that exemplify some of the goals outlined for smarter schools and smarter growth strategies. A recent "New Schools ¥ Better Neighborhoods," symposium in Los Angeles produced some interesting examples. Attending the symposium were a group of about 150 local and statewide leaders. The subjects for discussion were broad in scope, from vision and goals to policy and regulation. Presentations and panels focused on exploring obstacles and opportunities for an expanded vision of schools that could better serve students, educators, neighborhoods and communities. Included were some local case studies that address these issues in ways that were both informative and insightful.

Cahuenga Elementary School - Los Angeles, California

The Director of Real Estate and Asset Management for the Los Angeles Unified School District, whose responsibilities include managing the process for school site selection, presented the first case study. In his presentation, the director reviewed the recently selected site for a proposed new Cahuenga Elementary School, which falls within one of the most overcrowded attendance areas in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Over 1600 students living within Cahuenga's attendance area are bused to other locations every day. The director of real estate had worked in earnest to meet the goals for the site selection process. The process had proceeded by the book, following a "Site Acquisition Flow Chart" developed by the school district's real estate branch. The chart stipulates 124 functions, notifications, meetings and actions required for the approval and acquisition process. Included are three meetings with the neighborhood.

A community meeting was held on November 9, 1998 to explain the need for the new 1600 student school and to invite community suggestions for possible locations. Six people attended. A professional real estate consulting firm was employed to drive each block in the study area and identify three potential locations. In February 1999, staff reviewed the recommendations. No community suggestions were received. The staff recommended, by consensus, a 4.75-acre site that currently houses 21 single-family homes and an 8-unit apartment building. The site was approved by the Los Angeles Board of Education in March 1999. Six and a half million dollars were set aside for site acquisition.

Meanwhile, the Beverly-Kingsley Neighborhood Association had been meeting to discuss the new school project. The site selected by the school district included 19 of the community's most prized Craftsman bungalows that had long been nurtured by the neighborhood. At the symposium, the neighborhood association presented an alternative community-designed plan that would redistribute the 1600 students into three smaller schools. The proposed sites would eliminate some of the community's most blighted properties and put the schools closer to the heaviest concentrations of students.

Camino Nuevo Charter Academy - Los Angeles, California

The Cahuenga case study became even more interesting after a second neighborhood case study was presented. The director of a neighborhood nonprofit organization called Pueblo Nuevo Development led this case study. In collaboration with other community leaders and organizations, Pueblo Nuevo is proposing to create the Camino Nuevo Charter Academy, a 240 student charter school. As proposed, the Academy would occupy an existing 1/3-acre shopping center site in the MacArthur Park neighborhood. Recreational activities will be accommodated through a joint-use arrangement with MacArthur Park, which is three blocks away. The total capital costs for the project are estimated at $650,000 for site acquisition and another $350,000 for construction, or an average of about $4,200 per student.

As the panel of Pueblo Nuevo representatives continued their presentation, comparisons with the Cahuenga Elementary School, where the cost per student would probably exceed $4,000 just for land acquisition, became obvious. Including the cost of construction, the total cost per student for Cahuenga could exceed $22,000Ð more than five times as much as the Camino Nuevo Academy project. Even though the quality of space at a renovated shopping center may not compare as favorably with that of a brand new facility at Cahuenga, the lower cost and lack of complexity of the smaller project, and the opportunity to house large quantities of students in smaller, more intimate educational settings provided a compelling comparison. Given the large quantity of small faltering shopping center sites available throughout the Los Angeles region, the lack of disruption to existing residents and improvements to the urban fabric of the adjoining commercial streets presented other clear advantages for planning at a smaller scale.

TreePeople - Los Angeles, California

One of the most compelling case studies presented at the symposium came from another not-for-profit environmental group known as TreePeople. Rather than addressing issues related to a single school, this case study addressed environmental issues that apply to all Los Angeles school sites. The TreePeople organization has been developing an integrated environmental planning model for school sites that amalgamates beneficial qualities from multiple resources. One focus of their work has been on asphalt paving, which is an enormous source of heat at schools and also a contributor to flooding and pollution. A large proportion of a recent facilities bond was allocated for repaving asphalt at LAUSD schools, one of the largest amounts of pavement under one ownership within the Los Angeles watershed. With the help of scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy and Lawrence Livermore Labs, TreePeople determined that by planting trees to help shade and cool the buildings, a net savings of 12-18 percent in energy could be achieved, and that these cost savings alone would be more than enough to pay for installing and maintaining the additional natural landscape. As a result, the School Board has agreed to replace more than 30 percent of the asphalt on each campus with trees and greening. The TreePeople team is currently exploring how more natural landscape can also curtail runoff, reducing the construction of expensive storm water drainage structures and pollution abatement, resulting in reduced capital and maintenance costs for other state and municipal agencies.

In many ways, all of the Los Angeles case studies share a similar kind of David vs. Goliath subtheme. In the face of limited resources and policy hurdles, battles by neighborhood associations and environmental groups have ensued against the behemoth Los Angeles Unified School District and its policies. But one of the most endearing qualities of the case study presentations was the spirit of camaraderie that prevailed through the many alternating moments of frustration and revelation. No one stood up to blame the LAUSD's Director of Real Estate for what seemed to some like an impending boondoggle at Cahuenga. The director, with clearly honorable intentions, came off more as a victim than a perpetrator. Sympathy also prevailed for the plight of Pueblo Nuevo in their quest for approvals and charter school status. The director of TreePeople rose to heroic status as his programs and their convincing financial justifications have begun to chip away at the fiduciary Achilles heel of the embedded Los Angeles school bureaucracy.

The New Schools / Better Neighborhoods symposium case studies present compelling examples of how a more systemic and community-based approach to the design of educational facilities can maximize the social, environmental and financial return on public investment. But in addition to addressing community needs and concerns, new environments for learning must also accommodate new strategies for educational delivery where curriculum is more interactive, hands-on and project based. In the words of one student: "Tell us why we need to know it - make it real or just forget it."

One example of this kind of educational innovation is being developed in San Francisco's Exploratorium museum. The following is a description of that program followed by some other community-based educational facilities case studies from across the state of California:

Exploratorium - San Francisco, California

The Exploratorium is a museum of science, art and human perception located in the Palace of Fine Arts in the Marina district of San Francisco. In addition to thousands of hands-on exhibits available to the general public, the museum also operates a wide range of educational outreach projects.

The Science Explorer is an outreach program that allows students of all ages to explore and create projects in their own home. A detailed publication provides opportunities to use everything from the refrigerator to the kitchen sink to learn the principles of math and science and a wide range of other educational content.

Another program called the Learning Studio is an experimental multimedia and communications lab. The Learning Studio works primarily with teachers, Exploratorium staff and artists, providing opportunities to share considerable knowledge and expertise through the development of creative interactive multimedia and telecommunications. Projects have included the world's first Internet video conference, a plane in the stratosphere and a special interactive event for the international celebration of Pi Day.

The extension of the Exploratorium's resources through the Science Explorer and Learning Studio programs illustrate an opportunity for other organizations to serve as extended learning centers through the application of current developments in project-based learning and multimedia and telecommunications technology.

Hayward Unified Master Plan - Hayward, California

A recently completed educational facilities master plan for the Hayward Unified School District presents a different opportunity for thematic learning. Hayward, California is a community of about 112,000 people (1990 census) on the east side of the San Francisco Bay. There are more than 88 different ethnic groups represented in the community. The school system teaches to more than 43 languages. The Hayward community has decided to celebrate its rich cultural diversity through the development of future educational facilities. The decision was made through an eighteen month community-based planning process that included more than 100 parents, students, educators and other stakeholders. As a result, a new site needed to accommodate approximately 400 students will be developed as a fine arts multi-cultural museum, academy and cultural center.

In addition to its formal education function, current plans call for the new facility to serve as a tourism attraction for the entire Bay Area and as a national center for research in multi-culturalism. An innovative new integrated curriculum will be the focus of the academy's academic program, with extensions to serve all of the community's existing Pre-K-12 and Higher Ed learning sites.

Western Placer Unified Master Plan - Placer County, California

The Western Placer Unified School District has developed a similar master plan. Known as "Project Build," the plan supports and enhances the district's instructional strategies within the context of the whole learning community. During two school terms, over 100 community members, faculty and staff, administrators, parents and students formed a committee to explore and investigate community resources that impact facilities development. In addition, the school district has incorporated the planning process into the curriculum, teaching students to design, draw and make models in preparation for better communication with architects who will be designing the area's new schools.

One local real estate developer learned through the "Project Build" planning meetings that the natural environment could be used as a powerful learning tool. The developer then donated 170 acres of prime real estate, including a Native American archaeological site, to the district. The same developer also donated 2,000 mandarin orange trees that will be planted on the site. At the end of seven years, the mandarin grove is projected to provide revenues of over $400,000 per year for the district. The agricultural project will be managed through an innovative environmental studies curriculum from which students will receive academic and ecological training in non-traditional surroundings. A primary component of the master plan calls for even more extensive use of existing community resources for learning.

The Western Placer Education Foundation, which was formed as an outgrowth of the planning process, has acquired over $3 million in grants and resources to support the development of an integrated environmental/arts curriculum. The district now owns or has access to more than 5,000 acres of natural land for educational use.

As a result of the "Project Build" planning process, the district is also moving to implement a shared 10-14 grade level Lincoln High -Sierra Community College Learning Center. The center will address the growing need for a seamless educational program to educate and train high school and community college students for careers in the region's burgeoning high-tech industry.

Cesar Chavez Elementary School - San Diego, California

The Cesar Chavez Elementary School was developed through a community-based planning process involving a cross-section of the community's predominantly Hispanic population. The new facility serves its larger community through a number of extended uses. The health center doubles as a community clinic; a parent center serves as a community meeting room; a library media facility is open in the evening and on weekends for community instruction and tutorials; the cafeteria serves as a community meeting hall; and playgrounds double as a Class III soccer field.

The architectural design includes many educational innovations to serve contemporary teaching practices, but goes even further to celebrate the community's predominantly Mexican-American heritage. A 350 foot long mural of a cosmic Indian is incorporated in the paving of the complex's large academic yard. On one facade of the Library/Administration building is a reference to the logo of the United Farm Workers, and on another is a colorful Quetzal Indian headdress. A two story, multi-striped serpent includes references to the Anasazi farmer and the Aztec astronomer. An Incan tapestry is designed into the classroom wing and storytelling facades of family, cooking, gardening and the jaguar world are incorporated into the walls of the cafetorium. Through its architectural design, the school serves as an interpretive center for students, a cultural resource for the community and a 21st century landmark.