Education

COMMENTARY: It’s time to reimagine the school campus as a community center

Photo: Julie Leopo/EdSource

Schools have played a key role in providing resources and support to families beyond the needs of students since the coronavirus pandemic hit in March. But what if we took that one step further and developed schools as community centers, providing resources and supports to neighborhood families from food to wellness checks?

Last May, a survey of education leaders conducted by our in-house research team found 85% of district administrators were most concerned about community health and wellness as they return to school. Asked to rank their top concerns, health and sanitation was No. 1, followed by pedagogy and facility use (7.7%) and finance and operations (7.7%).

Once one begins exploring that idea, more possibilities emerge.

What if we incorporate wellness centers and clinics into more campuses? What about support spaces for parents? Are there ways to share learning and sports facilities to make the most of community resources and build a culture of health and wellness? It makes sense to explore opportunities to co-locate on campus services such as libraries and health services, which can serve the greater community.

The idea of expanding the purpose of schooling beyond a narrow academic focus is not new. It began as a counterweight to mass education in the early 1900s, when education philosopher and reformer John Dewey championed the concept of reorienting the role of schools within the broader society. In recent years, the community schools movement emerged as a strategy for equitable school improvement through integrated student support, expanded learning time, community engagement and collaborative leadership. 

The pandemic is prompting educators to take a renewed look at the opportunities for shared local resources and facilities. Many of the community school concepts can play an important role in the future, even if schools are not strictly-speaking community schools.

We are already seeing many of these concepts applied on campuses. Sequoia Union High School District’s Tide Academy in Menlo Park opted for a design that included a center for parent meetings and a research lounge and an outdoor workout area that could be open to the public and industry partners. The e3 Civic High School, a public charter school in the San Diego Unified School District, covers two floors of the downtown San Diego Public Library and shares spaces for a wide variety of community functions.

In 2019, architects at my firm explored how an urban campus could be integrated with a rail and bus station to become a community hub to support parents and families. The first floor was imagined as a combination of co-work spaces, meeting spaces and specialized learning environments — a place where parents could work in the same areas as their children’s schools. The design included laboratories, small meeting rooms and a 360-degree projection room.

But when students are not in school because of a pandemic, how are those resources — whether it’s Wi-Fi, nutrition or a sense of belonging — provided to the community? An open approach to school planning and design can support families, local culture and health services year-round.

Many of the fundamental shifts occurring in education before the pandemic are even more relevant now. Schools must respond to the needs of students and develop more individualized and project-based learning opportunities, recognizing that not all learning happens in the classroom. Spaces can be designed to support a range of activities, reflecting the needs of the specific community.

Communities and schools share a common goal of instilling in students a sense of civic and social responsibility. When student learning is connected to the community, we are developing learners with greater sense of empathy and understanding of the world around them.

Now is the time to reexamine how schools operate and rethink how space is allocated. Will school funding based on daily attendance work when students are encouraged to stay home when they are ill? Classroom sizes and scheduling are all being explored. Instead of grouping students by grade-level, perhaps they should be grouped by shared interests, and activity and learning preferences? Answers to these questions will reshape school design.

As schools begin to reopen for in-person learning, many return-to-campus guidelines, including those of Santa Clara Unified School District, limit or preclude visitors. Securing schools, particularly in communities with a high level of viral spread, is understandable. Several studies however have shown there is a real risk to student well-being and performance from walling off campuses. We want to create spaces where students feel healthy and secure, and where they can realize their best selves, which includes a sense of belonging.    

There’s been tremendous progress in the last decade on focusing on the needs of the students and using research as the guide to develop more collaborative and inspiring learning environments. Let’s not slip backward. We can keep our students safe and still find ways to open the campus to the community.

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Kate Mraw is an associate principal and design director in the San Antonio office of LPA Design Studios, which designs schools in California and Texas.

The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. Commentaries published on EdSource represent viewpoints from EdSource’s broad audience. We welcome guest commentaries from schools and teachers about their experiences with distance learning. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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