School-community planning: Very hard and very important

Collaborative school and community planning is basically generally agreed upon best-practice in the community and school planning literature. One wonders, therefore, why schools are ever built without the investment of community members and the integration of both community needs and community resources.

The case for community investment in school planning is one of resource management, which means it falls in the realm of political necessity.  As Kenneth R. Stevenson contends:

Unless schools come to be seen as integral to the lives of those without children in school, tax dollars will slowly but surely dry up for public education.  Policymakers and community leaders must encourage and expect the educational enterprise to broaden its mission so that places called schools are viewed as community centers.

Again, this thinking is nothing new. Originating from the Department of Education’s National Symposium on School Design (October, 1998), the 6 principles are clearly inline with the recommendations of other community and school planning research (as I have reported previously herehere, and here – I guess I should find a new topic now).

The principles are predicated on three generally accepted conditions: learning is a lifelong process, design is always evolving, and resources are limited.

The principles are simple and straightforward. To meet the nation’s needs for the twenty-first century, school learning environments should (1) enhance teaching and learning and accommodate the needs of all learners; (2) serve as a center of the community; (3) result from a planning and design process that involves all community interests; (4) provide for health, safety, and security; (5) make effective use of available resources; and (6) be flexible and adaptable.

This doesn’t seem revolutionary, but I have been in several new school buildings in Philadelphia whose design not only ignored community members in the planning, but also made no attempt to make the school building serve the needs of or even positively interact with the local community. These are massive, permanent buildings with limited flexibility in terms of their use.

The lack of integrated school-community planning suggests that districts and schools lack the capacity for effective planning or that they disagree with the principles of collaborative design that are ubiquitous in the literature. I would prefer to optimistically believe the former.

In closing, from the National Summit on School Design’s 8 principles (it’s hard to keep all of these principles straight) includes the school-as-community-center focus. This quote lays out some of the needs and challenges in their full complexity. I include it  because I am not trying to pretend that this work is easy, only that it is essential for the success of both students and their communities.

5. Create Schools as Centers of Community: Successful schools often are ones with great support and involvement from the community and ones that are often open to the community as well. Summit participants discussed the benefits of developing partnerships with local cultural organizations such as museums and libraries, universities, and business to expand educational opportunities for students and more deeply engage the community in the school. In some examples, schools are sharing public libraries or recreation facilities and using museuas a place for greater learning opportunities. A number of school districts have built schools to serve as the center of the community, so that facilities are used not only as a school but also as a place to house other community services such as recreational centers, resource centers, and performing arts spaces. In those situations, the school becomes a central resource for the entire community, garnering greater support and playing an important role in the community’s health. Participants expressed the importance of policies and design considerations to ensure student safety and security in these examples. In addition, participants felt school districts need more information about how to structure and administer partnerships to maximize the benefit to their schools and communities. They cautioned that partnerships can sometimes come with strings attached that may not be in the best interest of schools.

Update: For a thorough read of school design principles and issues, check out school-design researcher Jeff Lackney’s extensive piece.

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