Building on Community

June 1, 2001
Schools that share their facilities with the public can strengthen bonds with the neighborhood they serve.

During the day, 400 children fill the hallways and classrooms of Tomahawk Ridge Elementary School in Overland Park, Kan. But after the final bell rings and buses are taking the children home, the building they have left behind still courses with activity.

The facility is not only an elementary school in the Blue Valley district, but also a community center run by the city of Overland Park. Access to the building is limited during much of the school day, but after hours and on weekends, members of the community can use the facility's gymnasiums, exercise equipment and meeting rooms.

The city and school district have been partners at the site since 1987 when they teamed up to build the shared facility. That kind of joint arrangement was somewhat rare 14 years ago, but in recent years, more schools are welcoming the opportunity to form greater bonds — whether formal or informal — with the communities they serve.

The growing trend of schools offering their facilities for after-hours and weekend use is a logical extension of their role in a community and a practical effort to show constituents that schools are essential for all community members, whether or not they have school-age children.

“People want to see value coming from their schools,” says Charles Irish, superintendent of Medina (Ohio) City Schools. “They want us to broaden the base.”


Having the community take advantage of school facilities is not a new concept. It once was the norm, laments a report, “Why Lock the Doors at Three O'Clock?” from the Pew Partnership for Civic Change.

“Up until the middle of this century, a neighborhood would use its local schools frequently, for any number of public events,” the report says.

As cities and towns built their own civic centers and auditoriums and society became less neighborhood-oriented, schools and communities began to drift apart.

“Over the course of [the 20th] century, changing mores moved the schoolhouse away from the center of shared public life,” the Pew report says.

Now, the pendulum is swinging back. “It has come full circle,” says Michael Hall, an architect and chief marketing officer with Fanning/Howey Associates, based in Ohio. “People realize they need to be involved in their children's education.”

School facilities frequently are home to a community's recreation programs, performing-arts troupes, childcare programs, health- and social-service centers, and adult-education programs. Expanding the mission of a school facility continues to gain momentum:

  • The federal 21st Century Learning Centers program, which has helped pay to keep school buildings open after hours in more than 3,600 schools, is expected to serve about 615,000 school children and 215,000 adults during the 2000-2001 school year. The Bush administration's 2002 budget proposal recommends maintaining funding of the program at $846 million a year, so it can support centers at 6,300 schools.

  • To help districts adopt the concept of community use of schools, the U.S. Department of Education last year put together a planning and design guide, “Schools as Centers of Community” (available at

  • A mayoral candidate in New York City, Fernando Ferrer, wants to spend $100 million to open junior-high schools for after-school and weekend activities.


Sharing facilities makes sense for both a school system and a community. More efficient use of facilities can ease the burden on taxpayers.

“People are hit for money from every angle,” says Medina's Irish. “They say, ‘Why can't all you guys get together?’”

A community that sees a school district using its resources wisely is more likely to understand and support a request for more funds when other needs arise.

“We live and die by the success of bond issues,” says David Hill, director of facilities and operations for the Blue Valley district. “We need to involve [the community] and listen to them so they will continue to support us when we ask them the next time.”

Community members can get more out of school partnerships than access to facilities.

“Once community members are allowed to use the school building and are exposed to the good work being done there, they begin to feel a sense of ownership in the building as a civic institution,” the Pew report says. “This can lead to a situation where a spirit of greater cooperation replaces one of alienation and even hostility.”


How schools open up a facility to community can vary widely — from informal agreements to one-time rentals to full-fledged operating partnerships.

In Medina, school officials sought partners after in-depth examination of the community's desires (see sidebar above).

At Tomahawk Ridge in the Blue Valley, Kan., district, officials worked out an innovative arrangement with the city of Overland Park to meet the specific needs of the city and the district. In the mid-1980s, in the midst of an enrollment boom that continues today, school officials knew they would be building a lot of schools. Experiencing the same growing pains, the city needed more recreation facilities.

The solution? Tomahawk Ridge — elementary school on weekdays, community center on evenings and weekends. The district paid to build the school on city-owned land.

Blue Valley officials knew that at some point, the enrollment boom would subside and the district wouldn't need so many schools, so before construction began, they established a 30-year lease for the school. In 2017, control of the building will revert to Overland Park. Because the school patrons know that eventually the school will close, they can be spared the shock and much of the pain that comes when a district announces a closing.

About halfway through the 30-year lease, Blue Valley is happy with the arrangement.

“I think it has worked pretty smoothly,” says Hill. “We meet a few times a year to discuss matters of mutual concern. We work out who takes care of what.”

Even without a formal partnership, Blue Valley's other schools routinely welcome outside activities.

“The community uses our facilities quite heavily,” says Hill. “A dozen or so churches use our facilities on weekends. Performing-arts centers are used a lot by outside groups.”

Schools need to be careful that they have a clear policy on who can use their facilities.

“School officials take on a responsibility to be equitable when they decide to allow outside groups to use school facilities after regular hours,” says the Pew report. “School administrators need to be aware of the legal implications of denying community groups access to public facilities.”

Earlier this year, a federal judge blocked Broward County, Fla., Schools from denying meeting space to the Boy Scouts. The district objected to the Scouts' ban on homosexual leaders and members. The judge ruled that the ban would interfere with the Scouts' First Amendment rights.

Broward officials may decide at some point to require rent payments from the Scouts, but first will review leasing policies to make sure groups are treated consistently.


Knowing at the early planning stages how the community will use a school facility can help designers create a building that effectively meets the needs of students and the public at large.

“It touches all areas of design,” says Fanning/Howey's Hall.

It's common in new school designs for public-use areas — gymnasiums, auditoriums, media centers, meeting rooms — to be situated so the public can get to them without having access to other parts of the school. By limiting how much of a building is open to the community, a district can provide better security.

“In Blue Valley, we design that capability into all our buildings,” says Hill. “We isolate those areas that are used by the public. The instructional spaces are off limits. All our pools have separate entries. We cut off the hallways around the gymnasium areas.”

Properly designing for community use also allows schools to conserve energy — they heat or cool only those areas being used.

“You have to zone the facilities, so you don't have to open up the entire building and run the air conditioner for the two-thirds of the building not being used,” says Hall.

SIDEBAR: One community's journey: Exploring values

In 2003, a newly renovated and expanded high school will open its doors to students and community members in Medina, Ohio. The $63 million facility will include not only plenty of classrooms to accommodate a burgeoning student enrollment, but also space where community members can take advantage of recreational activities, performing arts, health-care services and higher-education courses.

Medina High School will be a prime example of a district that has cultivated a relationship with the community it serves — and not just because of the partnerships it has formed with the city of Medina, Medina Hospital, Medina County's Performing Arts Foundation and the University of Akron. Just as critical to the success of the community partnerships, superintendent Charles Irish says, was the process the district went through to make sure the community would embrace the district's plans.

“The most important thing is to take the time to create a true dialogue with the community,” says Irish. “You have to establish values for a project — define what you're trying to do — and stick with it. You've got to talk with the community and listen to the community.”


Many districts solicit community input before pursuing a building project. Officials might set up a microphone in a school gym and spend an evening listening to opinions. If there appears to be a consensus — especially if it confirms the views already held by administrators and board members — the project typically goes forward.

The path wasn't that easy in Medina. From community forums, the district learned that people wanted the impossible: One high school with enrollment capped at 1,500. Enrollment was already approaching 2,400.

The community appeared split. As the issue seeped into everyday conversations, school officials began to look at not just the opinions being expressed, but also how well grounded they were. “A community must work through its understandings of the issue and chew on them in the context of its personal values,” says Irish.

Medina school officials spent months talking to folks in the community and were able to articulate six core community values:

  • Community unity: Preserve Medina's close-knit feeling.
  • More personal education: A large, impersonal high school would let kids fall through the cracks.
  • Equity: Don't divide the district into haves and have-nots.
  • Long-term solutions: Don't come back in a couple of years asking for more facilities.
  • Frugality: Be cost-efficient, and give value to the community.
  • Community partnerships: Provide the community with some of the services the area lacks.

With those guidelines, school officials decided to build one high school that would hold 2,400 students. But to provide a more personal environment, the school will be divided into four houses, each with 600 students in grades 9 to 12. The core facilities were designed to accommodate an expansion to 3,600 students.


To enhance the value of the project to the community, the district persuaded the city of Medina to contribute $7.5 million and become a partner in building a recreation center. Medina Hospital paid $300,000 to defray the cost of exercise equipment, and agreed to lease part of the recreation center and operate a physical therapy branch.

The city's Performing Arts Foundation, with a $500,000 state grant and $400,000 more from a local foundation, agreed to become a partner and operate a 1,200-seat auditorium on the high-school campus. The University of Akron, which already offered distance-learning courses to Medina High students, agreed to extend those opportunities in the new high school with courses for post-secondary students and community members.

SIDEBAR: Tackling turf issues

Partnerships by definition involve give and take on both sides. But when the entities involved in school-community partnerships — government agencies or private companies — are accustomed to running their own operations, misunderstanding can occur and the spirit of cooperation can disintegrate.

In some cases, schools may have to adhere to construction codes and regulations that are stricter than what a private developer or another government agency expects — or vice versa. Conflicts also can arise after construction is completed. For example, public libraries that partner with schools might insist on fewer restrictions on materials than a school district does.

New Schools/Better Neighborhoods, a California group that promotes the concept of schools as community centers, suggests these ways schools can avoid turf conflicts with partners:

  • Obtain support of the joint-use project by the organization's policy makers.

  • Identify specific benefits and relative value of the project to each party.

  • Document benefits in a formal agreement.

  • Determine upfront who will govern the joint-use facility, and document it in the agreement.

  • Outline a process to resolve inter-jurisdictional conflicts in the formal agreement.

  • Obtain approval of the formal agreement by the policymakers.

Kennedy is staff writer for AS&U. He can be reached at [email protected].

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