ERIC Identifier: ED479182
Publication Date: 2003-09-00
Author: Lawrence, Barbara Kent
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on Rural Education and Small Schools
Back to the Agora: Workable Solutions for Small Urban School Facilities.
Two preconceptions make providing facilities for small schools a challenge:
that they will be more expensive per student than facilities for large
schools, and that teaching and learning must occur in isolation from the
community. Yet Socrates taught in the "agora," an open market in ancient
Athens, which, like the Roman "forum," functioned as a marketplace for
ideas and commerce. For students and teachers it offered an ideal place
in which to learn and teach. This Digest suggests adapting such a model
to meet modern needs, and shows that there are successful small schools
that have already done so while reducing costs.
Several successful and innovative small urban schools (discussed below)
have created places that are the modern equivalent of the agora, places
where students and adults can interact with the community, share resources,
and learn from each other. Such school designs can be "courageously evolutionary--not
just astoundingly revolutionary" (Bergsagel, 2002, p. 1).
In a foresighted report, researchers DeArmond, Taggart, and Hill (2002,
p. 5) identified five trends of education that should guide decisions about
facilities: "pressure on schools to perform for all students, . . . demands
for the personalization of learning, new technologies, periodic shortages
of teachers, and shifts in student population and residency patterns."
These pressures may require that school facilities be reconfigured in creative
and innovative ways. DeArmond et al. suggest that "facilities should focus
on students' learning and achievement . . . be flexible . . . be responsive
. . . trade-offs and choices should be transparent . . . provisions should
be driven by data, and facilities should be economically efficient" (DeArmond
et al., p. 13).
How can the ideas of the ancient Greeks and modern researchers in education
apply to school facilities?
* Create small schools that have greater flexibility and personalized
opportunities for teaching and learning (Darling-Hammond, 2002; Lawrence
et al., 2002). Small scale supports these qualities in at least two ways:
(1) by aiding people in getting to know each other and in being known and
(2) by offering the flexibility that will allow for changes in teaching
needed to serve the largest (and most mobile) cohort of students in U.S.
history (Sack, 2001, p. 15; Bergsagel, 2002, p. 2).
* Create a facility that supports the educational program and allows
its occupants to focus on their primary goals of teaching and learning.
* Involve the community in open discussions of the goals and mission
of the new or renovated school and plan accordingly to gain community support
(U.S. Department of Education, 2000).
* Obtain as much accurate information about the condition of the facility
as possible to inform decision making. Such information is not always readily
available but should be sought to avoid the skewing of information to serve
particular interest groups (Beaumont & Pianca, 2000).
* Plan for efficiency. The word "efficient" has grim connotations for
advocates of small schools because it has often justified closing schools.
New research, however, challenges "economies of scale" by showing that
large schools can be inefficient and small schools efficient. Reports offering
new staffing models and budgets show small schools can be cost-effective
to operate (Darling-Hammond, 2002, pp. 60-64) and cost-effective to build
(Lawrence et al., 2002).
Today's teachers and students aren't likely to meet in an open market,
but schools "can" take advantage of their own locale by giving students
opportunities to interact with the community. Forming partnerships with
the community grounds and enriches students' education (Nathan & Febey,
2001). The following paragraphs highlight strategies communities have successfully
employed to keep their schools small and local.
Sharing facilities with other schools. The Julia Richman Education
Center in New York City exemplifies ways in which a large facility can
be converted for use by small schools. The 1923 facility was a comprehensive
school of 2,000 students, many of whom were failing. By the mid-1990s the
Board of Education accepted a proposal from the Coalition of Essential
Schools to open six small autonomous schools of choice within the space
Reconfiguring large high schools. Creating schools within a school may
not fully achieve the personalized environment of autonomous small schools
(Raywid, 1999), but can be a stop-gap measure for dealing with problems
of large schools. Another alternative is to reconfigure grades to PK-12,
which works by drawing students from a smaller geographical area, resulting
in a similar size school but with much smaller grade cohorts (Coladarci
& Hancock, 2002).
Sharing with an education partner. In New York, three new specialized
small high schools, each serving a maximum of 100 students, have opened
in campuses of City College: Queens High School for the Sciences at York
College; the High School for Math, Science, and Engineering at City College;
and the High School of American Studies at Lehman College (New York City
Public Schools, 2002).
Sharing the facility with noneducation partners. In the South Jamaica
section of Queens, New York, a new facility will house the Police Athletic
League Community Center and the High School for Law Enforcement and Public
Safety (Fuchs, 2002). The Zoo School in Apple Valley, Minnesota, and The
Henry Ford Academy in Dearborn, Michigan, are examples of similar partnerships.
Sharing with the community. Many schools welcome use of the facility
by the community, often charging for space and services. Chicago provides
community services within its schools, including tutoring, job-training,
arts, sports, and family therapy. Other schools house health centers and
libraries for students and members of the community (Whalen, 2002). These
models show that using the school as the center not only benefits the community,
but increases the time in which the facility is used and can augment funds
for its maintenance and operation (Warger, 2001).
Leasing space in the community. Schools can also lease nontraditional
space for classes and programs in factories, malls, office buildings, churches,
and other large structures and use community facilities such as libraries,
gyms, and parks. Students in the Snowden International High School in Boston,
Massachusetts, for example, use the Boston Public Library across the street
and the facilities of the YMCA located a few blocks away. Students at Cambridge
Ridge and Latin, a high school on a small lot in Cambridge (MA), share
a city park with local residents, which offers extensive fields and a competition-quality
Using the small facility in new ways. Schools can be so well integrated
into the community that they use community facilities on a regular basis.
For example, students at The Big Picture Company's Met Schools spend two
days a week in an internship in the community, and three days a week working
with their peers and an advisor at the school. Met school buildings are
small in scale and reflect local architecture. In fact, they look more
like homes or offices than schools, and are intended as places that will
nurture relationships among students, teachers, and members of the community.
The Big Picture Company "believes that the physical design of a small school
shapes the reform efforts and learning that goes on within that school."
Leasing the whole facility. Districts lacking funds for capital projects
may find private investors for joint ventures, or to build the facility
and lease it to the district. In 1997 the school district of Niagara Falls
used private funds to construct a school-community facility, and the way
in which it was financed is instructive (DeArmond et al., 2002, pp. 20-23).
Capitalizing on the facility. Some facilities can be leveraged to create
funds for renovation or new construction projects and rental income. Many
closed schools were turned into desirable residential apartments and commercial
spaces. When the student population has diminished and the school facility
or its site is too large, space can be leased or sold to appropriate users,
including condominium owners and tenants. James F. Oyster Bilingual Public
Elementary Schools and Henry Adams House, a 211-unit apartment house, is
a successful example of capitalizing on the land to fund a new school (National
Council for Public-Private Partnerships, 2001).
To attract and retain teachers, Santa Clara School District in California
invested $6 million to build 40 low-rent apartments for new teachers on
land occupied by a school that was closed (Folmar, 2002, p. 1). This strategy
can reduce teacher turnover and provide income for the district.
Districts might sell air rights over single-storied schools (especially
when buildings are architecturally undistinguished) for construction of
a new school and residential apartments on the same site. This strategy
could defray initial costs and contribute to a continuous income stream.
Promoting renovation instead of new construction and locating new schools
on sites already served by infrastructure or planned for growth promote
investment in existing infrastructure. Maryland has been a leader in this
approach. In 1991, 38% of the budget for school construction in Maryland
was allocated to renovation of existing buildings, but in 2002 that percentage
had risen to 79% (Noonan, personal communication, 2003).
Though "small is not synonymous with successful" (Darling-Hammond, 2002,
p. iii), the message from education research over the past 30 years is
clear: small schools offer many advantages for learning and for supporting
communities, and physical structures should promote good educational programs.
Schools need to be flexible, promote personalization of learning, and be
adaptable to shifts in population. School facilities also need to provide
flexible and responsive environments and opportunities for community engagement,
and to be efficient. Some schools are meeting these challenges with facilities
that are so well integrated into their communities that they function much
like the "agora."
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