Saving Older and Historic Schools: Are We There Yet?

Posted on: June 22nd, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 1 Comment

Written by Renee Kuhlman  

The Albert Bushnell Hart Junior High School, one of 25 facilities in Cleveland scheduled to be demolished. (Photo:

Reflecting on the 10th anniversary of the inclusion of older and historic neighborhood schools on the National Trust's annual listing of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, my toddler’s favorite phrase this summer keeps going through my mind – “Are we there yet?" Unfortunately, we have not reached our “destination” where community-centered schools are the norm across the country.  

For example, last week I read that a school district in Morgantown, WV plans to close and merge Woodburn (100 years old) and Easton (80 years old) Elementary Schools in favor of a new $12 million “green” school on a seven acre site within the city limits. I ask – what could be more “green” than updating an older school so that it could be used for another 100 years? Could those same millions of dollars have upgraded the facilities so that they could continue to serve the community for another century? And why did the West Virginia School Building Authority support this decision with $8 million dollars in building aid?  

Need more proof? The Cleveland Plain Dealer recently reported that their local school district plans to demolish 25 buildings starting this summer, with five of the schools being replaced through a state-funded construction program. Yes, you read that right – 25 buildings. Locals are scrambling to get the historic schools landmarked and/or under contract for others purposes to prevent demolition. Check out these photos of schools to be demolished.   

Going back to the analogy of a summer car trip, we have packed up the car (we have research in hand) and we’ve headed out of town (some policy has been changed). We’re getting closer, but we’re just not quite there yet.  

Before 2000, the threat was seen in a piecemeal fashion as locals struggled to save individual historic schools. The 11 Most listing placed these efforts in a larger context, helping advocates realize that they were not alone. Those same advocates also learned about the role their state governments were playing in this issue and received marching orders for policy reform thanks in part to the seminal Why Johnny Can’t Walk to School: Neighborhood Schools in the Age of Sprawl, which was released later in 2000.  

The listing and the Why Johnny resource galvanized hundreds of advocates and resulted in the continued use of many historic schools across the country. They also caught the eye of an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) staffer, Tim Torma, who realized that where communities chose to locate their schools was impacting both the number of vehicles on the road and the quality of the air we breathe. In turn, he wrote a report entitled Travel and Environmental Implications of School Siting. The EPA’s interest grew beyond research. Today, there are diverse coalitions at the state level working to educate decision makers about the benefits of community-centered schools and how they can encourage more of them.   

One of the reasons behind the 11 Most listing was a policy requiring a minimum number of acres for school sites. This posed one of the biggest challenges to keeping older neighborhood schools in use. Afterwards, the National Trust along with EPA, the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, and others urged the Council of Educational Facility Planners International (CEFPI) to stop recommending adoption of a “min. acreage” policy. In 2004, CEFPI reversed course and suggested that communities first evaluate their educational goals and then develop a facilities plan to accommodate those needs – much better than a one-site/size-fits-all approach.  

While we’ve made strides, we need your help in reaching the ultimate destination – where older and historic schools are routinely seen as being viable for continued use. So, in honor of the 10th anniversary of the 11 Most listing of older and historic schools, here’s my list of 10 things you can do to help.   

  1. Become familiar with the process of renovating, replacing, and consolidating schools in your area.
  2. Walk with or bike your kids to school at least once a week...more often if possible!
  3. Read Helping Johnny Walk to School: Policy Recommendations for Removing Barriers to Community-Centered Schools and share its finding with your local school district officials – principals of older schools, local superintendents, school board members, and the district’s school facility planner.
  4. Hold conversations with your local pediatrician about school location, rising obesity rates, and physical activity. Ask if they’ve seen the statement from the American Academy of Pediatricians that describes how the built environment affects children’s health.
  5. Help local schools apply for Safe Routes to School Funding to improve accessibility to the local historic school.
  6. Attend webinars or forums on school siting (e.g., Kentucky Safe Routes to School Partnership).
  7. List historic schools on local, state, and national registers of historic places.
  8. Write blogs and/or letters to the editor of your local newspaper touting the benefits communities receive from older and historic schools.
  9. Hold community events at historic schools to encourage others to appreciate them as much as you do.
  10. Attend public hearings and meetings to voice your support to preserve community-centered schools. Show how they can be renovated with modern technologies to be more energy efficient.

That's my list. What suggestions do you have for making sure that we "get there" soon?  

Renee Kuhlman directs the Helping Johnny Walk to School: Sustaining Communities through Smart Policy project for the Center for State and Local Policy at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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One Response

  1. Jen

    June 22, 2010

    Interesting article. Two years ago, my small town demolished an old school building that had been vacant for 15 years, despite the attempts of many in the community to save the building, which not only apparently had beautiful tile work, but was on a site that had served as a school since pioneer times. (We had just moved into town from another state, so pardon my lack of knowledge.) Those wanting to save the building hoped to turn it into a steelworker’s museum or a regional museum, but the city council simply wanted none of it despite the building’s being declared historic by the local landmarks commission and the state’s Division of Culture & History. (I thought it might make a fine office building, arts building, or retail building for a city that needs to do something to draw Pittsburgers in.) The city’s plans? Turn it into a parking lot. Sigh!

    There’s a little program about it here:

    It’s too bad, because I always thought the original portion of the building was quite handsome.