Open House ... With Restrictions

The afternoon school bell rings, and children surge to the exits, followed later by teachers and staff members. Not too long after the school day ends, a building that had been buzzing with activity is vacant and quiet.

That may have been typical of a school building years ago, but today more districts are embracing the idea that schools aren't just for students anymore. Many of the facilities and amenities that schools offer students during the day can be used after hours by others in the community.

But that trend conflicts with another growing concern among educators: security. Allowing community members after-hours access to facilities means opening up a building to people who may be unfamiliar to school officials and who may have mischief or worse on their minds.

Many districts who are building new facilities are resolving the conflict between openness and security by designing schools so that the public can have access to the parts of the facility they want - auditoriums, gymnasiums, media centers, meeting rooms - without jeopardizing security in the rest of the building.

CENTERS OF COMMUNITY

Schools are realizing that opening up their facilities for community use makes sense not only for efficiency sake, but also for good public relations.

To neighborhood residents without children in the district, a school building can be just a faceless edifice they pass by as they hurry to work or the grocery store.

But community members who are familiar with, or even regular users of school facilities are more likely to support the school system. That concept is supported by the U.S. Department of Education, which is encouraging districts to welcome community members into their facilities.

"In most cases, the auditoriums, sports facilities, food service, libraries, media center, computer labs and other specialized areas of the school are available to the general public on a limited basis," says Schools as Centers of Community, the department's school planning guide. "In many cases, duplicate facilities are provided by local municipalities to serve the same functions."

The guide urges districts to make their schools inviting to the community.

"Their locations should encourage community use and their shared public spaces should be accessible, day and night, all year round. Schools should be places where creative configurations of space expand their use; where learning occurs after hours, late at night and on weekends."

STRANGER DANGER

But, viewed from a security perspective, opening up your buildings to community members can be seen as a threat - letting strangers wander through your empty and mostly unsupervised facility to get to the auditorium or gymnasium can increase the chances of vandalism, theft or assault.

Prior to opening a new high school in 1997, community use of facilities was more of a problem for Wayzata Public Schools in Plymouth, Minn.

"We weren't able to isolate those spaces," says Joe Matson, the district's director of buildings and grounds. "That caused a few problems - a little vandalism, more of a nuisance than anything."

With a string of tragedies across the nation to convince educators that schools are not immune from the violence in society, districts need to make sure their schools offer security as well as community involvement.

A WELCOMING DESIGN

Districts like Wayzata are building new schools that are designed so they can provide community members with easy access to areas used after school hours, yet keep the rest of the facility off limits and secure.

The idea is simple to grasp: The less space there is to monitor, the less time and resources a school will have to devote to provide adequate security for an area.

Instead of burying gymnasiums and auditoriums in the bowels of a building, many new facilities have those areas readily accessible to visitors and community members, with prominent entrances that often are separate from the main school entrance. Using doors, movable walls or other barriers, schools can limit access to just the public-use areas and keep the rest of the facility shut down.

Wayzata's new high school opened in 1997. School officials can close off most of the school by locking doors. Community members still can easily get into the auditorium and gym after school hours.

"It's a really good setup," says Matson. "It isolates the rest of the building. We don't have to put as many personnel on duty for cleanup. To close off the rest of the school, it's just a matter of locking down some doors."

At the new Ballston Spa High School in Ballston Spa, N.Y., which opened in 1998, the cafeteria space, also known as the Central Square, can be isolated from the building's classroom wings by pulling down 16 rolling metal doors, says Ron Gorham, assistant coordinator of facilities for the Ballston Spa Central School District.

The ability to separate the Central Square from the rest of the building enhances the school's security, but Gorham says security was not a problem in the old school facility. The major benefit of the doors is to provide both students and community groups with a space not affected by the noise and commotion in the rest of the school.

"It serves more as a privacy barrier," says Gorham. "You can have a lawnmower running outside and students in the cafeteria can be taking exams and not hear it."

The space is used before and after school hours, for meetings, cheerleading practice, dances, classes, luncheons, exercise groups and receptions.

Isolating the space from the rest of the school lets the district custodial staff work more efficiently.

"You can set up an event and get everything ready, then roll down the doors and keep everyone out of there until the event begins," says Gorham.

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