Written by Renee Kuhlman
For those folks who enjoy statistics and actually take great delight in reading charts, I’m afraid we’ll never see eye to eye. I don’t like deciphering statistics or figures unless it’s in very small doses and explained with a lot of text! But lucky for me (and a few others, I suspect), there are folks like Kathy Aragon. This mother of three children and a Billings, Montana school board member is unafraid to examine what exactly her local demographic data actually means.
But, this blog isn’t about my phobia--and the story actually starts over a decade ago.
About that time, our Mountains/Plains Office helped some Billings residents when they learned that their school district planned to close two of the four historic elementary schools. They would be replaced with a new school on the town’s developing western edge, to save $180,000. Sadly, we also reported the outcome—three elementary schools closed despite efforts to encourage renovation—in the 2000 report Why Johnny Can’t Walk to School: Historic Neighborhood Schools in the Age of Sprawl.
Fast forward to November 2009. After learning that the same school district proposed further consolidation of facilities, Kathy asked me if the National Trust had resources and if there was a standard definition of a “community-centered school.” learned that Kathy was a school board member who passionately believes schools play an important role in the health of a community.
A physical therapist by training, Kathy began helping with local health and wellness events—including the launch of the annual “International Walk to School Day” in Billings. Her subsequent involvement in the “Go Play” educational campaign to raise motorist awareness about kids biking and walking led to her assisting with a county-wide parent survey on this topic that was analyzed and printed with the help of a local health department.
Through this assessment Kathy and other locals found out that distance from school is one of the main reasons why fewer students are walking and biking to school these days than ever before. Research shows that kids are more likely to walk or bike to school if they live within a mile of the facility.
Billings School District Policy 9001 requires an annual analysis of the city’s demographics and to use that information when planning for schools. When they looked at the number of five-year-old children per square mile, they found out that the core of Billings had 353 children per square mile and that the location of the proposed new school had 27.4 per square mile. Understanding that school location played a key role in how many students biked and walked to school, Aragon was concerned about these numbers.
Also, because the community had been through a lot when Rimrock, Garfield, and Beartooth schools were closed, the board also wanted to get them involved in the planning process. Realizing it had had flat school enrollment for forty years, the school board formed a Planning and Development Committee with two school board members, two representatives from the district, and nine citizens from across the city. This committee recently posted their findings online.
So why am I encouraging you to read this committee report from Billings? Three reasons:
- Because … this economic depression has led more and more school districts to make difficult decisions regarding school closures and reconfigurations. For example, neighboring Wyoming residents are asking their school district NOT to demolish the 1937 South Elementary School in Lander and instead renovate and expand the site so it can serve the community for another 73 years. This video shows the school sitting among “neighborhood homes and businesses” and the high quality of the materials used by the Public Works Administration during the Great Depression.
- Because … you can take the research done in Billings and compile the same types of information for your own community to ensure neighborhood vitality and walkability are considered during these discussions.
- Because … this type of data-sharing encourages closer cooperative planning between municipalities and school districts which leads to less waste of time and resources.
So in addition to completing their first demographic study that will be updated annually, what else is this school district doing? Well, they’re also:
- Working with the local Health Department on completing health impact assessments of all their elementary school sites;
- Beginning to hold meetings of city, school district, transit, and housing officials to plan collaboratively and find ways to meet their sustainability goals;
- Conducting listening sessions throughout the city; and
- Reconsidering all of the previously developed facilities plans this month.
The analysis provides the board with new insights about how their decisions can also meet other community goals—such as increasing the ability of students to walk and bike to school, decreasing transportation costs (the third largest cost for the district), and decreasing costly “sprawl” development. This information will help them achieve their goal of aligning facility needs with educational goals.
Kathy Aragon started researching community-centered schools a few years ago and as far as I can tell, hasn’t stopped. Hopefully, her story will inspire you to look at your own area’s demographics and their deeper meaning for older, walkable schools in your community.
Renee Kuhlman directs the Helping Johnny Walk to School: Sustaining Communities through Smart Policy project at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
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