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What Then? What Now? What Next?

NSBN's first monograph, "What if", published in 1999, envisioned an ambitious leveraging of billions of taxpayer bond dollars slated as public education facilities investments into a powerful force for reshaping blighted low-income neighborhoods into vital communities with schools as their vibrant centers.
The forward of "What if" read: "New Schools/Better Neighborhoods is no longer just the title of a one-time Spring gathering of civic and educational leaders at a Getty Center Symposium. It is the vision of a committed cadre of neighborhood, regional and state leaders who see the potential of voter-approved school, park, library, health and other public funds being intelligently utilized to build not only public facilities that keep the rain out, but more livable urban communities in California. As this compelling report by Steven Bingler makes clear, to fully realize the promise of such an investment strategy in our State, the Smart Growth and School Reform movements must "converge."
Drawing lessons from a decade of NSBN and like efforts and accomplishments, NSBN again has invited urban designer and architect Steven Bingler, with generous funding from the Stuart Foundation, to:
  • analyze the altered political and regulatory landscape that fuels continued public and private sector focus on building place-based, neighborhood serving partnerships around educational facilities
  • summarize specific cases that provide "facts on the ground" as a springboard for future efforts
  • document significant lessons learned, best and promising new practices, and new opportunities.
The product of his research is this monograph: "What Next?"
This new monograph begins with NSBN's creation in 1999 following a conference at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, to celebrate not only the passage of Los Angeles Unified School District's first school bond in 25 years, but also the passage of multi-billion dollar state and local library and park bonds. The galvanizing mission of the conveners was: to advocate for a vision of public facilities, most especially schools, that would breathe new life into underserved neighborhoods by integrating what communities need - more preschools, recreational centers, adult education centers and health-related services sites - into traditional single-use, public school buildings and campuses.
NSBN placed schools as the nexus of a revitalized community, a learning center with more grandmothers strolling than police officers patrolling, a safe place where families and residents could come to play sports, take a parenting class, drop their children off for pre-school, get their blood pressure checked and more - a vision that contrasts sharply with fenced-in urban mega-school campuses that shut the community out by having restricted access and limited hours.
The recommendations in NSBN's "What if " were informed by a holistic view of how students learn and develop sociallyIII, and by commitment to inclusive community planning. This James Irvine Foundation funded monograph anticipated the fusion of state and national school reform and smart growth initiatives; and, included policies and practices critical to building not only new schools, but also healthier neighborhoods and more livable communities.
Moving from vision to real-time facilities projects, NSBN identified four key goals for investing more than $100 billion in California state and local bond monies dedicated for such school, library, park, housing and health facility investments:
  • Create a strategy for including community dialogue indetermining the optimal location and design of schools, parks, libraries, pre-kindergarten and other public serving facilities.
  • Move from the outmoded single purpose "factory model" that previously defined public school building design to a model of community-focused schools that anchor increasingly diverse, family-centered neighborhoods.
  • Understand how place-based, joint ventures between schools and other social services (family resource centers, health, recreation, libraries) can leverage scarce assets and help make schools the centers of community.
  • Promote changes in statutes, regulations and/or decision-making processes necessary to implement policies that comprehensively align government and neighborhood service delivery systems.
Unfortunately, while school district building design has improved and new legislation offers promise, most states and school district have not made sitting, designing and building joint and shared use schools easier or mandatory. Nor have school districts embraced silo-bridging concepts and strategies to fully leverage all resources available to offer and enhance neighborhood and family services on school campuses. Nevertheless, over the last 10 years, a number of instructive examples of joint-use community schools in California and nationally have been "smartly" sited, designed and constructed. Individually and collectively these "facts on the ground" offer us an opportunity to imagine success at scale.
NSBN proudly counts as successful a number of metropolitan Los Angeles urban learning centers that now extend the learning environment further out into the community to take better advantage of a wider range of community resources. They include: Lennox (Whelan Elementary Project), Pico Union (Westlake-Gratts Project), Paramount (Los Cerritos Elementary Project), and East Hollywood (Santa Monica Boulevard Community Charter School). A dozen preschool sites were developed with support from Los Angeles Universal Preschool (LAUP).
Also documented herein are like national and international examples of success.
Along with achieving some measure of success come lessons learned. The vision and goals outlined by NSBN too often ran contrary to the way things are done. There's no way to easily align the silos: school, park, library, early education and health-care accountability and funding streams; and few, if any, public authorities exist to demand cross jurisdictional and program collaboration. The status quo has defined the success of most school building programs with metrics - demographic projections, cost of real estate, ease of securing approvals, seats added. Less valued were pedagogical needs, smart planning principles, community health imperatives; these intangibles were viewed by public officials and facilities authorities as more difficult to measure and evaluate and too time consuming to accomplish. The challenge of implementing NSBN's vision was further compounded by what might be called public indifference - no informed, organized and determined constituency demanding new, holistic ways to solve inner-city service delivery problems.
Ten years after publishing "What if", the institutional and bureaucratic silos remain and the current economic crisis pervading every level of government have become more dire. The increasing lack of service funding and program collaboration compounds the threat to our children's education and our quality of life in urban neighborhoods. Despite the challenges, NSBN and similar intermediaries are better prepared to advance and more committed than ever to the core principles of neighborhood centered, joint use planning. And thankfully, there's still time and opportunity to build new and "greener"IV schools, better neighborhoods and more livable communities.
LAUSD, for example, still has a guaranteed $8 billion or more in bond money available over the next 10 to 12 years. And the district has three years to plan-time enough to look at how it designs the next stage of facility projects. The staff of LAUSD facilities department is engaged presently in a process of surveying the physical environment of all of its schools on a complex-by-complex basis. The district then will create a priority list, which in the words of LAUSD Interim Chief Facilities Executive, James Sohn, "must adjust to our pedagogical mission and have a (more community oriented) focus for each complex and school facility."
NSBN believes the fresh insights included in this monograph serve as a resource for school districts, citizen leaders, community organizations, service providers, and elected officials who share the call for urgent action toward the creative deployment of California's vital human, financial and environmental resources to our inner city and inner suburban schools and neighborhoods.
David Abel
New Schools / Better Neighborhoods
April, 2010