Using Data (Ugh!) to Create a Better Plan for Billings, Montana Schools

Posted on: November 30th, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation


Written by Renee Kuhlman

Broadwater Elementary was one of four older schools scheduled to be closed a decade ago by the Billings (Montana) Schools District. Today, this 1909 school remains in use after an intensive advocacy effort by students, faculty, parents, and neighbors.

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.

Recent analysis of Billings, Montana demographics shows 353 children (age 5 as of 2000 census) living within 1 mile of city core, while there were 27.4 per square mile in the proposed new elementary school location (image on the right). Credit: Google Earth.

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.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

Green Preservation Needs "Passive Buildings and Active Users"

Posted on: November 19th, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation


Written by Jim Lindberg

The Emerson School eco-charrette.

The Emerson School eco-charrette.

Can a 125-year-old school be rehabilitated to meet or exceed the highest standards for energy efficiency and sustainability?  Without sacrificing historic character?  Yes, absolutely!  That was the consensus of a group of 35 architects, engineers, contractors, preservationists and green building practitioners who gathered at Denver’s Emerson School earlier this week for a day-long “Eco-charrette.”

(For the uninitiated, a charrette is an intensive design workshop.)

The Emerson School was recently donated to the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  Work is now underway to design and implement a $2.4 million rehabilitation of the school to create a new Colorado Preservation Center, housing the National Trust’s Mountains/Plains Office, Colorado Preservation, Inc. and Historic Denver, Inc.

The Eco-charrette was facilitated by Ralph DiNola, a principal with Green Building Services in Portland, Oregon.  His charge to the group was to look into the future and set a vision for energy performance and sustainability at the Emerson School and then work backwards to chart a course for how to get there.

The result was an aspirational, long-range target of reducing energy consumption at the Emerson School to “netzero” by 2030.  The short-term goal is to cut energy use by 50% within two years.  Both are ambitious goals, but attainable in the view of most of the charrette participants.

The Emerson School eco-charrette.

The Emerson School eco-charrette.

As with many existing buildings, immediate energy savings can be achieved by “picking up the fruit that is on the ground,” as Ralph DiNola described some of the easiest initial measures. These include insulating the attic, tightening windows and doors to eliminate leaks, and making thermostats operable (so that rooms are not heated to 85 degrees while sitting empty overnight, for example).  Other energy savings will require more substantial investment, such as the overhaul of the school’s heating and cooling systems.

A key theme throughout the day was to consider ways to use the passive energy-saving features of the original building design, such as operable windows and air ventilation stacks that are built into the central chimneys.  Making full use of these features may require future occupants to participate in the operation of the building -- opening and closing windows, drawing shades or switching on fans strategically, for example.  “We need passive buildings and active users” observed charrette participant Elaine Adams of the Rocky Mountain Institute.  (Historically, much of this work was carried out by a full-time building manager who lived in the basement of the school!  More on that in a future post.)

The group also determined that additional analysis, such as a building energy model, is needed to answer a number of key questions, including:

  • What kind of heating and cooling system will best complement the use of natural ventilation?
  • What window repair strategies make sense?  Should double-glazing or low-e films be added?
  • Should energy-producing technologies (solar, geothermal) be incorporated?  Now, or later?
  • How can interior spaces be rehabilitated to take advantage of daylight, while also allowing for privacy and efficient office layouts?
  • What energy efficiency and green building certifications should be pursued, if any?

Thanks to the great work of our charrette participants, we now have an inspiring vision for how to make the Emerson School a model of sustainable design.  Look for future posts on our progress toward this vision as well as more on the interesting history of this great old building.

A final note: We are just getting to know the Emerson School.  The charrette was our first opportunity to spend a full day in the building.  We liked it.  Our meeting was held in a former classroom on the second floor.  We enjoyed the feeling of the space, with its high ceilings and great views out large, south-facing windows.  These windows kept the room bright enough that we didn’t need electric light until the very end of the day, when a snow-squall darkened the sky just before sunset.  We didn’t need to turn on the heat either, despite outside temperatures that dropped to near freezing.  (Of course we were lucky it wasn’t too much colder, since the heat in this room doesn’t actually work!)

Jim Lindberg is the director of preservation initiatives for the National Trust’s Mountains/Plains Office.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

The Electorate Spoke: School Renovation is the Best Option

Posted on: November 10th, 2010 by Guest Writer 3 Comments


Written by Bill Hart

Political candidates weren't the only thing citizens cast their vote on last week. On November 2, many communities also voted on the fate of older and historic school facilities.  I’d like to share two stories from the Midwest region, where I work as a field representative for Missouri Preservation.

In Missouri, historic schools in Vernon County, which could have been at risk for abandonment due to an annexation proposal, will remain in place.  With an overwhelming majority of 69%, voters decided to keep the school systems separate and their older schools in use.

A similar preservation victory was won in Ohio. There, the proposed levy to demolish five of Rossford’s schools in favor of building three new facilities was defeated 66% to 34% of the votes.

The Eagle Point Elementary School in Rossford, Ohio that was slated for demolition if the levy had passed (credit: The Coalition for Effective and Efficient Rossford Schools)

To prevent the demolition of these five schools, concerned citizens formed the Coalition for Effective and Efficient Rossford Schools. They believed that the walkable schools located in their neighborhoods were integral parts of the community, and that the structures were incredibly sound. The proponents of new facilities argued that the buildings (1924 high school and 1923 and 1922 elementary school buildings) were too old to be remodeled and that older buildings couldn’t be retrofitted with 21st century technology to become more energy efficient.

Also, the Ohio Schools Facility Commission preliminary assessment numbers showed renovation to be over two-thirds the cost of building a new facility. Nowadays, this is a state guideline, not a requirement, but it still led some residents to believe the state required them to go with the new facility in order to be reimbursed by the state agency.

So, advocates in both Ohio and Missouri gave many reasons for saving the historic school buildings in these communities.

Newer is not always better. Old age does not undermine an older school building; lack of maintenance does. Studies have shown that it is almost always less expensive to renovate an existing building than to build a new one. Up to 25% of a new school building’s cost is in the building’s shell, not to mention the investment in land and improvements to the land to construct a new school campus. Renovation is the ultimate in “green” building practice.  It contains sprawl and saves on valuable building materials that would otherwise be dumped in our landfills.

Bigger is not always better. It has been shown time and time again that lower class sizes usually produce better test scores. Studies have proven that at some grade levels lower student/teacher ratios correlate to higher mathematics scores. At the eighth grade, it has been shown that lower student/teacher ratios improve the school social environment, resulting in higher achievement.

Caption: If voters had not voted against the new facility, the architecturally rich Rossford High School was one of five schools that would have been demolished (credit: The Coalition for Effective and Efficient Rossford Schools)

Consolidation means loss of community. For students and parents alike, the school is a center of civic life.  It is where we vote, attend PTA meetings, take advantage of continuing education opportunities, and hold community events. It costs us our identity and feeling of safety, and will usually cost much more in transportation costs. Time used in getting to and from school is increased, and takes away from homework and physical exercise.

In Missouri, advocates will help the school district find other examples where older schools have been successfully adapted for modern purposes. In Ohio, now that the levy was defeated by almost two-thirds of the vote, the advocates are developing a plan to present to the Board of Education at their next meeting. It outlines a community-led process for developing a new master plan, suggests a new maintenance plan with dedicated funds for school facilities, and proposes an immediate energy analysis to provide detailed information on the state of the existing building to the community.

These studies may also lead the way towards potential improvements through the state’s energy-efficiency program known as Ohio HB 264, as part of a new Master Plan. The HB 264 program allows school districts to make energy efficiency improvements to their buildings and use the cost savings to pay for those improvements.  “In this one limited instance, school districts can borrow funds without having to pass a ballot issue … to borrow.”

So now that you heard these stories, why don’t you share how schools fared in the voting booths in your community?

Bill Hart is a Field Representative for Missouri Preservation and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. He is based in St. Louis, Missouri and would love to learn more about what was decided about older and historic schools in your community on November 2.

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Polling All Preservationists: Did You Walk to School as a Kid?

Posted on: October 12th, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 15 Comments


Written by Renee Kuhlman

In honor of Walk to School month, let’s take a poll.

[polldaddy poll=3911936]
[polldaddy poll=3911984]

When I give presentations about community-centered schools, I usually start out by asking folks how many of them walked to school as a kid. Almost half the room or sometimes even three-quarters raise their hands.  But, for many reasons, the majority of folks in the audience are unable to keep their hand raised. So it’ll be interesting to see if that holds true here.

Unfortunately, those community-centered schools that we grew up with are no longer the norm.

A study of South Carolina’s coastal counties found that “school site size has increased every decade since the 1950s and school sites built in the last 20 years are 41 percent larger than those built previously.”

But why is size important? Because as schools have increased in size they have also moved further away from the residents they serve. In 1969, 87% of students lived within one mile of their school; by 2001, only 21% lived within one mile of their school.

Getting ready to walk to school?

Getting ready to walk to school?

And then, just as our fries and sodas have been supersized, the same South Carolina study found that “… schools constructed since 1971… are 47 percent larger than the … requirement.” (NOTE: In 2003, South Carolina eliminated minimum acreage requirements for school site selection.)

Where we locate our schools matters.  In Georgia, where much of the growth has taken place in automobile-oriented suburbs, researchers estimated that 6% of elementary students, 11% of middle school students, and 6% of high school students in the state could reasonably be expected to walk to school.

But preserving our older and historic schools and changing state policy can help reverse this trend.

How? Well, researchers in Florida found a higher rate of walkability for schools built prior to 1950 and those built after 1996 when the state started requiring school district and local planning agencies to coordinate land-use decisions.

Keeping walkable schools in use and constructing new schools in walkable neighborhoods helps kids to get in their 60 minutes of daily physical activity through their “commute.”

I grew up walking to our community’s high school (c. 1950) which was one loooong block and two ballfields away. It was easy to get to band practice and a great place to ride my bike around after school.

Today, our family lives three blocks from the elementary school where I plan to walk my daughter someday and where we go to play on the week-ends. Unfortunately, the district closed the middle school in downtown about five years ago so we’ll have to get creative when we reach that milestone!

But enough about me … how did you get to school? Share your story in the comments!

In addition to wanting to hear about how you got to school, Renee Kuhlman directs the Helping Johnny Walk to School: Sustaining Communities project.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

Hide and Seek: Where Is Your School?

Posted on: September 27th, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation 1 Comment


Written by Renee Kuhlman

A new tool, developed by Arizona Safe Routes to School, evaluates walkability of school sites. (Photo: Dan Burden,

A new tool, developed by Arizona Safe Routes to School, evaluates walkability of school sites. (Photo: Dan Burden,

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.

By sharing space, schools can develop a new source of revenue which may help prevent schools from being closed.  (Photo: Adrian Scott Fine)

By sharing space, schools can develop a new source of revenue which may help prevent schools from being closed. (Photo: Adrian Scott Fine)

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.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.

Public Education and Sustainable Community Planning in California

Posted on: September 16th, 2010 by National Trust for Historic Preservation


Written by Elaine Stiles  

California has over 10,000 schools, with districts ranging in size from seven to nearly 700,000 students. Pictured here is a historic high school building in El Segundo.

Ten thousand schools. Districts ranging in size from seven to nearly 700,000 students. More than $100 billion (yes, billion) in state and local school bond issues in the past decade. Approximately 1,000 independent school districts that operate outside of local and regional planning and approval processes.  

These are just a few features of the vast, complex landscape that is school facilities planning in California.  

Two weeks ago in Sacramento, approximately 50 educators, planners, environmental professionals, policy analysts – and me representing the preservation field – met to discuss how California can amend its K-12 school facilities planning policies to be more supportive of sustainable community development. The scale of California’s public school system and the state’s recently enacted environmental performance measures make this an essential conversation. Californians produce 1.4% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, primarily from motor vehicle trips. To shrink this number, current state law mandates both a reduction of California’s greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 (AB 32), and that regional and local planning bodies aid reduction by eliminating vehicle miles traveled by curbing sprawl (SB 375). As in most states, California’s public school districts make decisions about the placement of core community assets that influence growth, transportation, and infrastructure investment patterns, all of which in turn impact a community’s environmental footprint.  

Participants in the round table, Smart Schools for Sustainable Communities: Aligning Sustainable Communities Planning and Public Education in California, recommended changing school siting policies, integrating school facility and local planning efforts, co-locating facilities with other community uses, creating incentives for choosing infill development sites, and increasing state capital investment in existing schools to support greater community sustainability.  

For me, one of the most striking discussions was on increasing state investment in existing school facilities. This topic would naturally prick up the ears of someone like me who cares about maintaining historic and community-centered schools, but incentivizing reuse of existing buildings is also a straightforward and easily-implemented solution to limiting sprawl, reducing costs, and keeping schools near their students.  

As the discussion unfolded, it became clear that the need for capital investment in existing schools in California is high, but that the level of the state’s funding assistance for rehabilitation and retrofitting needs to be reevaluated. The California Department of Education has a $3.3 billion, bond-funded modernization program that assists districts with improvements to existing school facilities. Established in 1968, the program guidelines basically reflect that time period, when building new schools in California’s booming suburbs defined the state’s school facilities program. Parameters such as a 25-year age threshold; a lower state match than for new construction; and eligible activities limited to in-kind replacement, systems upgrades, and new furniture/equipment mean that local districts are responsible for the full cost of substantive rehabilitation, retrofitting, or addition to existing school facilities.  

At present, over $1 billion remains in the modernization program coffers from the last bond issue in 2006. With 10,000 existing schools in operation across the state and a large bubble of mid-to-late 20th century schools nearing the age when they require substantive upgrades, California has a chance to support and incentivize the stewardship of existing infrastructure by retooling its modernization program.  

The public research gathering in Sacramento was the first step in the process of aligning sustainable community growth and public education in California, and the ideas generated and examined there show promise for successfully melding the best of these important values.  

Elaine Stiles is a program officer in the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Western Office. Click here to learn more about the National Trust's efforts to encourage and support community-centered schools.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation works to save America's historic places. Join us today to help protect the places that matter to you.

National Trust for Historic Preservation

National Trust for Historic Preservation

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a privately funded non-profit organization, works to save America's historic places.