Spring 2004 Newsletter

Schools As Centers Of Communities: KnowledgeWorks Foundation Concept Paper

Getting community residents into school buildings is a pivotal step toward building social capital. A focal point in the conversation about schools-as-centers is school facility planning. Given the major investment in school rehab and construction across the country, the Coalition for Community Schools has been working in partnership with the KnowledgeWorks Foundation and the BEST Collaborative, which NSBN is a member, on these issues, promoting the intentional integration of community school components into new buildings.

In the past decade there has been an increasing effort by a broad and diverse group of reformers to improve public education. Policy experts have worked to raise standards, to close the achievement gap and to expand early childhood and after-school opportunities. The many efforts to improve public education and meet record setting enrollment increases have led to a growing national conversation about the role of the broader community in supporting and sustaining public education.

At present, the current dialogue about public education is between those who seek to support new accountability standards and those who believe that the lack of resources to implement No Child Left Behind (NCLB) will further erode public support for public education. This "either/or" debate is out of touch with the concerns held by most Americans about the education of their children.

The American public, however, is eager to hear a new conversation about public education built around the themes of partnership and community renewal. Such a conversation can lead to the development of partnerships that build on a community's strength and create the public capital needed to sustain public education.

As a result, an increasing number of community leaders and educators have sought to blur the traditional rigid lines between schools and communities by supporting new community/school partnerships in addition to scaling up 70 year-old "community school movement." They also recognize that schools can be a much greater resource to the community in order to strengthen community life.

Developing community/school partnerships is also an effective way to support education and stretch limited public tax dollars at a time when state and local governments are faced with a severe fiscal crisis. A growing number of models now exist that demonstrate that communities and schools can do more for less when they join forces to build new schools and develop community-based partnerships.

The push for increased community support and the creation of community/school partnerships has led, in turn, to new ideas about the planning and design of new school facilities. In the past decade, school districts have been hard pressed to meet the enormous enrollment demands of the "baby-boom echo." Even now in 2003 with enrollment leveling off at 53 million children, school districts will spend almost $29 billion to build approximately 1,580 new facilities.

The demand to build so many new schools has raised a host of new questions about building the next generation of school facilities. A growing body of research has led many reformers to call for reduced class size and for smaller and more personalized learning environments. They recognize that the old, large, factory-model school, isolated and little used by the general public, has seen its day.

The efforts to redesign the American public school have placed new emphasis on the important role that citizens should play in the design of new schools and on building new facilities that are protective of children's health, energy efficient and sustainable. New attention is also being paid to the role of historic schools in anchoring communities. The design and building of new schools is increasingly seen as an opportunity to encourage integrated planning and smart growth thinking.

Yet for all the progress that has been made, the links between the many efforts to improve public education and those that encourage community renewal are not as strong as they could be at a time when public education is under increasing public scrutiny and communities remain hard pressed. Community school advocates and after-school leaders have had little contact to date with architects and reformers who are rethinking the design of new schools. School administrators and city officials too often fail to pool their resources or see new possibilities in the public school as a larger civic institution.

Again and again, efforts at cooperation are stymied by silo thinking, the lack of planning time or outdated regulatory policies. Local and state successes are often the work of individual reformers and committed educators who have been willing to buck the system.

What seems to be missing are a set of established policies and approaches that state and local governments can use to encourage community partnerships. In truth, despite a decade of effort, advocates of reform have yet to develop the critical mass necessary to change the direction of public education or to fundamentally change the design of the American school building.

The time is right to "connect the dots" and to "scale up" the many local efforts of reform by reaching out and joining forces with other significant sectors in our society, from mayors and governors to senior citizens and the development community to encourage new collaborative opportunities and strategic alliances at the state and local level. The American people remain determined in their effort to improve public education and are eager to renew the democratic habits of community and active citizenship that have made us a stronger and more inclusive people.

By forging new links and encouraging a convergence of ideas, advocates can develop a more powerful and shared message, which, in turn, can translate into practical new policy approaches that can encourage school and community partnerships. This paper seeks to define where we are today and how the different strands of reform can be brought together to improve public education and encourage community renewal.

A broad consensus can be built around a five point agenda:

Point 1: The Role of Community in a New Era of Accountability. In this new era of accountability, community support is essential to improving and sustaining public education. Just as accountability without investment can lead to failure, we believe that accountability without community will lead to failure as well. Education is a community-wide task. There are many different types of community, and we are well beyond the time when the definition of "community" should be limited to the geographical boundaries of the local neighborhood school. We also recognize that accountability goes both ways; just as communities have a responsibility to sustain and improve the education of their children, schools must also be open and accountable to the community. Finally, community-wide support for public education must be rooted in a deep and abiding commitment to equity.

Point 2: Building Community-School Partnerships. Communities can play a powerful role in supporting the academic mission of public education to prepare all of our children to lead productive lives in a democratic society. This is why we support the development of community/school partnerships that can provide an array of services and after-school opportunities to support the academic mission of the school. Community/school partnerships provide a framework for increased family involvement and link schools to a diverse network of organizations and cultural institutions (museums, the arts, community-based organizations, youth development groups etc.) that have a capacity to sustain and support public education. The creation of community-school partnerships is also an opportunity to reach out to new and important constituencies from mayors to senior citizens to support public education.

Point 3: Building a New Type of School Facility. In this era of life-long learning new schools should be built as "community learning centers," facilities that are open later and longer, for more people. Creating such schools, by definition, requires an entirely new way of doing business in the planning, design and funding of multi-purpose facilities that serve the entire community. Every effort should be made to pool resources and to create new joint governing structures and ways of managing that foster the development of community-wide partnerships.

The planning and design of new schools is also a unique opportunity to rethink the teaching and learning process and encourage development of smaller learning environments. Community values should shape teaching and learning, and small learning environments foster parent involvement and use community partnerships for learning. Research demonstrates clearly that children are safer, and have higher achievement and graduation rates in smaller learning environments.

Point 4: Smart Growth, Sustainability and Community Renewal. The planning and design of new school facilities is an important opportunity to anchor communities and to support community renewal. School boards need to be supported in the development of safe, healthy, and energy-efficient facilities and be encouraged to apply the principles of smart growth and sustainability in the planning and design of new facilities. Historic schools need to be seen as generational links to the past and modern examples of community-centered schooling.

Point 5: Building the Capacity to Develop Schools as Centers of Community. Public policy must fundamentally -- if not radically -- change to accommodate this new vision of public education and the role of the community. The core of the issue is that current practices, policies and governing structures that define public education's relationship to the broader community are inadequate to meet the demands of 21st Century education.

At a time when state and local government are facing severe budget constraints, they are also seeking solutions and new ways of operating. There is an urgent need to develop creative solutions and incentives that encourage increased collaboration between schools, local government agencies, civic and community based organizations. Just as teachers must learn new skills and schools need to be modernize, we need to develop new policies and governing structures that allow us to spend public tax dollars in a collaborative way. The era of silo-thinking is over...