Written by Jenny Buddenborg
Historic schools are community assets. That's the message Colorado Preservation, Inc. (CPI) is taking to school districts across Colorado.
Through their historic schools survey project, CPI combed the Centennial State to inventory schools still owned by school districts, completing reconnaissance-level surveys for those more than 50 years old. Using this information, they commissioned a film (excerpt available above), "Our Living Legacy: Colorado's Historic Schools," featuring six historic schools that underwent successful rehabilitations. The goal? To demonstrate that older and historic schools can be rehabilitated to meet today's educational standards, save capital costs, eliminate indirect costs of sprawl, and be a source of community pride.
A copy of the film has been distributed to every school district in the state, along with publications from the Council of Educational Facility Planners International on how to successfully renovate older and historic school facilities. CPI also went on the road to publicly unveil the film to communities across the state. Cities and towns opened their doors – some even baked pies. All gave a lot of positive feedback.
What compelled CPI to take on such a project? In 1998, the State of Colorado agreed to spend $190 million over 11 years through the Public School Capital Construction Grant Program to address the most critical capital needs of public schools across the state. Although intended to address the significant need for maintenance and repair of school facilities in less affluent communities, school districts with the capacity to write the best grant applications actually received more grants than those for which the program was created.
In response, CPI partnered with the Donnell-Kay Foundation to pass a bill in the 2007 state legislature that required a portion of the funds to be directed to school districts with the smallest enrollments and the most dire building conditions. The bill also required that "rehabilitation" be given greater priority over "replacement" in grant applications, and that the Advisory Committee for Public School Capital Construction include a member with architectural expertise in school rehabilitations.
Despite this victory, one of the biggest obstacles to successfully administering the fund remained; the State Board of Education had no idea which school districts to target for assistance because they had no comprehensive list of public school facilities, much less any knowledge of the condition of the structures. This list was needed before any informed decisions could be made. Thus, CPI developed its historic schools survey. With funding from the Colorado Historical Society's State Historical Fund and the Donnell-Kay Foundation, CPI set out to develop the inventory while simultaneously encouraging communities to apply for the grant program for historic school rehabilitation.
As the project wraps up, CPI's efforts have already been positively received. With several existing examples of historic school rehabilitations in Colorado, they hope that their historic schools survey project will spur similar work across the state and perhaps the country.
Jenny Buddenborg is a program officer for the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Mountains/Plains Office. Visit PreservationNation.org to learn more about what the National Trust is doing to protect older and historic neighborhood schools.