An Evolving Mission

Nov. 1, 2002
Schools built at the beginning of the 21st century must take on new roles to serve a changing population.

When the nation's public schools opened their doors this fall, millions of children walked into outdated and crowded school buildings. These buildings are incapable of supporting an environment appropriate for learning. Unless districts get help planning facilities, the problem will get worse.

The U.S. Department of Education estimates that 53.2 million children were enrolled in elementary and secondary schools in 2001-2002, and that number is expected to climb to 54.2 million by 2009. To house this student population in environments capable of supporting the acquisition of rigorous academic standards, at least 2,400 new public schools will be needed by 2003, and thousands more buildings will need renovations.

But simply adding more schools and classrooms won't be enough. We need better schools; ones that can take on the new, nontraditional roles and demands placed on them. The next generation of schools must consider such community-based issues as healthcare, daycare, recreation, public safety and education needs beyond “Pre-K to 12.” Schools should serve as community hubs for learners of all ages, at all times of day.

In addition, new urban schools must consider how they affect housing, family displacement and traffic control. Rural schools with low or declining enrollments need to address how facilities can be better used for the well-being of the community.

On top of that, all new schools should accommodate the need for students to work in smaller groups and in areas conducive to more hands-on learning, particularly in science labs. Classrooms will need space and hardware for evolving technology.

Changing the status quo

These are not easy issues for districts to address. Many administrators realize they can no longer build schools that are out of context with the social and community demands being placed upon their facilities. But most districts have to deal with budget limitations, lengthy construction processes and continual leadership changes. Experienced school administrators are retiring in large numbers, making the job of balancing priorities and resources even more difficult.

The problem poses fundamental questions about how to plan and build better schools:

  • Who will do this work?

  • Where will those persons gain the necessary training?

  • Why haven't schools been able to keep up with facility needs?

  • What must change to get the job done?

This often is a situation in which the well-meaning but ill-apprised become tempted to use a “one-size-fits-all” approach. It may sound snappy and memorable, but it fails miserably when applied in diverse, real-world school environments.

Collaborative planning that involves community members and other stakeholders has a greater potential for success. Designing and constructing schools that reflect a community and its needs can help foster community pride and enable a neighborhood to become a virtual extension of the classroom.

An inclusive approach

Finding ways to put the pieces together isn't easy, but it's a worthwhile challenge. The National Center for the 21st Century Schoolhouse, a collaborative effort of leading education, planning and school architecture experts headquartered at San Diego State University, has been researching these issues and developing on a district-by-district basis a community-inclusive approach for building better schools. It sounds daunting to tackle a nationwide issue one district at a time, but the differences among districts are so great that no two have the same problems.

What schools nationwide need is a planning model that can be customized to each circumstance, one that goes beyond traditional approaches so that schools are built around the needs of students, parents and the community. Such a model would need to consider:

  • Extended hours for classes, meetings and community programs.

  • Supplemental health and well-being community services.

  • Resources and facilities for family-focused programs aimed at improving student performance.

  • Capabilities to handle recreational, literacy and youth programs.

This summer, the center tested such a model. It provides for “scanning of mutual issues” by representatives of a district and community, analysis and pinpointing outcomes that best meet the needs of students and improve the community. It brings together school leaders, community members, social-service agencies, philanthropic groups, design professionals, politicians, students, parents and others interested in the process.

At first glance, the process may seem too cumbersome. But the opposite is true. All these groups constitute powerful forces with significant agendas. If some are excluded, they can turn into roadblocks or opponents. Schools using this planning model will have much greater community acceptance because it addresses everyone's needs — in and out of the classroom.

In fact, a growing number of districts and communities are recognizing the need to take a nontraditional, more inclusive approach to facility planning.

In the East Lake area of Atlanta, great strides are being made toward improving the quality of life of its residents and the education of its children. Time and money have been invested into a set of school and residential buildings that are attractive and comfortable. The Charles R. Drew Charter School in Atlanta provides services and open hours beyond those of a traditional school. It has become a vital community resource.

More cities and school districts need to follow this lead. Our nation can't afford to build more schools that are ill-suited to grow and change with the needs of their students and their communities.

Meno is dean of the College of Education at San Diego State University. Karnyski is lead researcher for the National Center for the 21st Century Schoolhouse. For more information, visit

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