Written by Renee Kuhlman
Last Thursday I had the pleasure of presenting to health and transportation officials on a webinar entitled, “Hide and Seek: Where is Your School and How Do You Get There?” for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. (If you choose to listen to the webinar, rest assured that while I sound like I’m about 12 years old, I - and my gray hairs - can assure you I’m not.)
The foundation's Center to Prevent Childhood Obesity is hosting a series of webinars about transportation changes that could help our kids live more active lives. Way cool … check them out.
In the 10 minutes allotted to address school siting, I tried to cram in as many snippets of my favorite reports as possible. But I’m afraid that I didn’t do the past decade of research much justice. While we could mark it down to my inexperience with this new technology or my inability to get “out of the weeds,” I think it was something different … I think the problem is something we preservationists know first-hand: Where communities choose to locate their schools is complicated … very, very complicated.
It’s not a simple process to begin with—there are lots of players and lots of issues to consider. It’s also confusing—in some states it takes multiple manuals full of pull-out diagrams to spell out the steps for funding, siting, designing, and repairing or constructing a school. It’s also a political process, which also tends to complicate things. States play a role in the process—through funding and administration—whether or not they want to be involved in such a “local” issue. Then preservationists such as ourselves, along with those in the health, planning, transportation, environmental and other fields, want decision-makers to take into account their suggestions when deciding the best place to locate a school.
So, it is with great joy that I can share with you a couple of new tools that have recently been launched that will help us encourage the continued use of older schools.
A Joint Use Calculator, developed by colleagues at the 21st Century School Fund and the Center for Cities and Schools at the University of California-Berkeley, helps calculate how much a school district currently spends to operate a gymnasium, or theater, or even a classroom. Armed with that knowledge, they can then decide upon “what’s a fair fee” to charge other entities for using a school’s space.
Why is this important? Because this tool can help older and historic schools become more economically-viable. The inventors of the calculator, Mary Filardo and Jeff Vincent, spoke about its uses on a recent webinar for the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities (NCEF).
Now meet my colleague Brian Fellows. Brian’s the Safe Routes to School Coordinator for the state of Arizona, has a great sense of humor, and a really laid-back demeanor … until you get him talking about ways to encourage more students to bike and walk. That’s when you see the fire in his eyes and the passion in his heart.
To help folks measure the walkability of school sites, Brian pulled together the Active School Neighborhood Checklist with the help of many volunteers and his own personal blood, sweat, and tears. Written for non-engineers like me, the checklist weighs the many factors that make a school site walkable—everything from policy to pedestrian safety.
In my biased option, I believe that older and historic schools will score high on the checklist 99.9% of the time and help us make the case for their retention. But don’t believe me, get out there and evaluate your own neighborhood school.
This brings me to my final point. Preservationists need to join with those interested in reducing waistlines and budgets. We need to work with those who are concerned about property values as well as those concerned about property taxes. Our best buddies should be those encouraging walkability and climate change. There are a lot of places where preservation interests converge with others around school siting. By creating a broad coalition, we can ensure a healthier future for both our children and our communities.
In addition to wanting to hear about coalitions being developed to encourage community-centered schools in your area, Renee Kuhlman directs the Helping Johnny Walk to School: Sustaining Communities project.