Reimagine America’s Schools design teams worked with students from the Living Classrooms Foundation to help shape a redevelopment strategy for Baltimore's Fells Point neighborhood.
Reimagine America’s Schools design teams worked with students from the Living Classrooms Foundation to help shape a community redevelopment strategy for Baltimore’s Fells Point neighborhood. COURTESY GERRY CHASE, CHASE PHOTOGRAPHY

You Can’t Lift Up America’s Schools Without Lifting Up the Neighborhoods Where They Operate

Ron Bogle, CEO of the National Design Alliance, promotes revitalizing learning centers and their settings together. 

For decades, we’ve seen federal, state and local governments create program after program to “renew” marginalized communities while separately rolling out plans to improve the often-underperforming schools in those same communities. All too often, this disjointed approach has resulted in little progress. In many cases, it has made matters worse – by neglect, or worse, by design.     

Children don’t live in silos. Communities and their citizens don’t live in silos.

Ron Bogle

This is especially true in both schools and communities of color, where stark inequalities have been laid bare by the COVID pandemic. In Spring 2020, students in many American communities switched instantly to at-home learning on district-issued devices, using reliable broadband connections. Many families formed learning pods, often with privately hired teachers. But in lower-income communities, especially communities of color, learning ground to a halt as under-resourced schools scrambled to mail home paper worksheets or set up internet hotspots from school buses. In these same communities, COVID-driven unemployment and the sudden disruption of school food programs worsened the crisis of food insecurity.         

If there is a silver lining from these events, it’s a growing sense that creative and courageous new strategies must be developed to truly lift up our communities and public schools together.  As our nation’s infrastructure ramps up we have an opportunity to leverage massive amounts of funding that can be effectively used to support the needed changes.

Along with local, city and state resources, the federal resources available today include American Rescue Plan ESSR funds and allocations within the recently passed infrastructure law. Money for energy-efficient upgrades to schools, clean buses, healthy neighborhoods, and safe walking and biking routes to school are detailed in a White House toolkit identifying available funds across multiple agencies and programs. In addition, there is increasing federal funding for Community Schools. These funds, combined with historic levels of local funding for school construction, add up to billions of dollars for communities and for schools.

Rosa Parks School
Portland’s Rosa Parks Elementary School, designed by IBI Group, is a mixed-use Community Campus that includes a K-6 school, Boys & Girls Club, and a revitalized Parks & Recreation Community Center, on land donated by the Housing Authority of Portland. PHOTO COURTESY GARY WILSON PHOTO/GRAPHIC

But spending that money in silos won’t change lives. Children don’t live in silos. Communities and their citizens don’t live in silos. It seems obvious, but it’s a reality that has been ignored for generations: You can’t improve schools in underserved communities without uplifting their surrounding neighborhoods. And you can’t uplift a neighborhood without improving its public schools. The pandemic has already forced some communities and schools to come together. The city of San Francisco, for instance, launched its Community Hubs project at the height of the crisis, helping vulnerable students access their school’s remote instruction and receive physical recreation and peer interaction. We must build on this type of progress. 

During the pandemic, Reimagine America’s Schools (RAS), an initiative of the National Design Alliance, envisioned coordinated strategies for building the Complete American Neighborhood, based on equity, community, education and opportunity. Working with an interdisciplinary brain trust of educators, technologists, designers, innovators and community leaders, our work has focused on a strategy of Education-Centered Community Reinvestment, which expands learning outside of the traditional classroom to create multiple hyperlocal and walkable learning centers, using technology to connect various learning settings and drawing on mentors from the within the neighborhood and even globally. For example, A STEM learning center or makerspace could be set up in an empty retail space and be used by K-12 students in the daytime and by adults for workforce development training in the evenings and on weekends. Offices could become support centers. Libraries, recreation centers, offices, museums, and parks could become part of a learning ecosystem blurring the lines between in-school time and out-of-school time.

Some excellent case studies already exist: The Fair School for the Arts, in Central Minneapolis, expands its offerings by partnering with professional artists in the downtown community, while the John Rex Elementary School in Oklahoma City takes advantage of local resources like cultural institutions and businesses, and welcomes experts from the community as “adjunct faculty.” Technology allows these remote spaces to be connected and to access to expertise from around the world, and to personalize learning experiences. This approach builds on the Community Schools movement, which leverages community resources to ensure that students are healthy and ready to succeed, by extending educational activities into the neighborhood to more broadly serve the entire community. 

This diagram by education design firm Fielding International illustrates rethinking when, where, and how learning happens, moving from school as an isolated building in a neighborhood to a neighborhood learning ecosystem. COURTESY FIELDING INTERNATIONAL
This diagram by education design firm Fielding International illustrates rethinking when, where, and how learning happens, moving from school as an isolated building in a neighborhood to a neighborhood learning ecosystem. COURTESY FIELDING INTERNATIONAL

This approach is built on meeting the needs of the whole child and understanding that learning can’t happen unless essentials like food security, access to healthcare, predictable transit, and mental health support are present. And rather than simply work with educators and architects to improve learning spaces in a vacuum, we embrace the 15-Minute Neighborhood concept, where almost everything people need in their daily lives is available within a 15-minute walk or transit ride. As we map a neighborhood’s assets and needs, we connect directly with those who know the needs of the community.

Issues of all types of infrastructure, from building stock and social services to internet connections, impact K-12 learners around the country every day. Siegel Family Endowment, a foundation focused on the intersection of technology and society and a funder of Reimagine America’s Schools, has been championing a multidimensional approach to community infrastructure that accounts for the overlapping physical, digital and social components at play for those who experience it. This means we not only build differently, but we bring together experts in pedagogy, technology and physical space design in conscious collaboration.

This doesn’t means changing laws or upending school governance. We just need to remove the roadblocks to coordinated planning. It’s time to recognize that students are the responsibility of the entire community, not just the of public schools – especially in under-resourced areas. This also means giving community members a meaningful voice at the table; true community engagement rather than polite lip service. 

Concept plan from a Reimagine America’s Schools design charrette that allowed communities and educators to visualize their ideas on how schools and neighborhoods can be planned to support the needs of both.

Following our National Summit on School Design planned for May 12, Reimagine America’s Schools expects to announce initiatives in Atlanta and in Clayton County, Georgia, to co-create a roadmap with actionable strategies for civic and education leaders. By spring or summer, Reimagine America’s Schools plans to send pro bono teams of urban planners and school designers to partner with these communities in shaping an empowered future. 

The next step is scaling the work nationally. Reimagine America’s Schools, as a nonprofit, is growing a movement of people who are rethinking how schools and neighborhoods are designed. Communities are becoming empowered to think big, and to create a vision based on their own input that is informed by the work of educators, design professionals, technologists and other innovators. It’s vital to seize this momentum. 

The John Rex Elementary School in Oklahoma City uses downtown amenities and local partners to provide learning beyond the walls of school. ©SIMON HURST PHOTOGRAPHY

To address the massive challenges that young people will face in the coming years, they will need to be effective problem-solvers and collaborators, strong communicators and creative thinkers. The ideal place to get the skills to handle those challenges is our schools. Yet the physical design of most American schools does not foster that kind of creative decision-making. The addition of a roomful of laptops or iPads won’t change that. And neither will airlifting in a social program that wasn’t created with the true participation of a community. But a wide-ranging, multi-disciplinary approach fueled by true community involvement and built on the inextricable link between schools and neighborhoods can. We must not return to the old ways of doing things. New strategies are required – and for a host of reasons, this is the moment we must act. 

Ron Bogle, Hon. AIA, is founder and CEO of the nonprofit National Design Alliance, which is supported by the Siegel Family Endowment. Reimagine America’s Schools, the signature project of the Design Alliance, works in partnership with educators, technologists, communities, and architects to create a new model for learning environments in our public schools and neighborhoods.

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