On the Importance of Neighborhood-Based Schools

By Dom Nozzi, AICP

A number of years ago, the Duckpond neighborhood saw Kirby-Smith school converted into Kirby-Smith administration building.

No longer was there a public school within our neighborhood.

Many of us know young couples who no longer live in the neighborhood. They left because, while our historic neighborhood still allows safe and pleasant walks to downtown, local shops and offices, parks, and friends, it no longer contained a quality public school.

It is said that an important reason for a neighborhood school is that school children can walk or bicycle, on their own, to school. Such travel serves an important “training ground” for our young people in their formative years. A walkable school within a walkable neighborhood is one where youngsters can tentatively explore, further and further from home, as they grow and their skills in the outside world increase. (Crucially, their circle of venturing further from home can proceed at their own pace.)

As they venture further from home on their own or with friends and adults, they can observe other children and adults engaged in work, play and socializing. These are skills that are less available to the child who does not walk or bicycle to school.

In a neighborhood that does not allow safe walking to daily destinations, the child does not gain these life skills. They are trapped in cars or school buses as they are ferried multiple times each day by adults.

It is clear that a neighborhood school within a safe, walkable neighborhood serves as a significant “growing up” experience for children. Nearly all of us can look back to our childhoods and recall how we walked or bicycled to school each day.

Chances are, it was a proud, dignified school house that served as the focal point of neighborhood activity — a gathering place that bound us as a neighborhood and served as a neighborhood anchor.

“All over the country,” according to Edward T. McMahon of the Conservation Fund, “communities are abandoning historic neighborhood schools that students can walk to in favor of new schools the size of shopping malls built in far-flung locations.”

Today, fewer than one in eight students walks or bikes to school. Landmark schools that touched the lives of millions and became symbols of civic pride are fast disappearing. Along with their demise has gone yet another of the ties that once bound people and towns across America.

Is our neighborhood suffering because so many young couples with children are leaving for outlying neighborhoods with quality schools? Why are neighborhoods like our Duckpond losing neighborhood-based public schools?

“Public policies, including excessive acreage requirements, [and] funding formulas…,” reports Constance Beaumont, “are promoting the spread of mega-school sprawl on outlying, undeveloped land at the expense of small, walkable, community-centered schools in older neighborhoods.” These policies make it nearly impossible for historic, traditional neighborhoods to retain their neighborhood-based schools.

Part of the problem is the funding formulas. “Many states stipulate that if the cost of renovating an older school exceeds 50 percent to 60 percent of the cost of the new school, the school district must build new, even though renovation is frequently cheaper than new construction,” says McMahon. These formulas “typically don’t factor in the costs of land acquisition, sewer and water extensions, or road [widenings] required by new schools on the suburban fringe.”

Transportation is an important part of the hidden costs of abandoning neighborhood schools and building new schools. Because children cannot walk or bicycle to the bigger schools, a growing percentage of school children must be bused to most new schools.

Another hidden cost is the cost passed on to households. Many school children are now given a car ride to school, which is symbolized by the “soccer mom” cliché. A 1999 report by the Surface Transportation Policy Project reported that mothers with school-aged children make an average of more than five car trips a day.

Today, the average American parent is trapped behind the wheel of a car an average of 72 minutes a day, chauffeuring children to school, and then from there to soccer games, birthday parties, friends’ houses and the like.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, a private nonprofit preservation organization that works to save diverse historic places and revitalize communities, recommends eliminating arbitrary public school acreage standards and funding biases that are tilted toward building schools in outlying areas.

Many contend that these “higher” cost calculations of retaining neighborhood-based schools are actually “penny-wise and pound foolish” because they ignore the many unquantified community and household benefits of retaining neighborhood-based schools.

Real estate developers have been known to influence local public school policy by donating land to school districts, thereby improving the value of new subdivisions and altering a community’s growth patterns (a new school often acts as a sprawl magnet).

A few states have adopted policies to protect older, neighborhood-based schools. Maryland, for example, encourages renovation of existing schools and does not apply arbitrary acreage standards that discriminate against older, neighborhood-based schools. Similarly, New Jersey has adopted a rehabilitation code that makes it less costly to renovate older schools.

Maine promotes improved coordination between community planning and school facility planning. In fighting to save an older school, Two Rivers, Wis., residents raised an important question: If an older building is equated with a poor education, why would anyone want to send a child to an Ivy League college or to Oxford or Cambridge universities?

I believe it is time for the Duckpond Neighborhood Association schools subcommittee to become active again and discuss the need to re-establish a school (Kirby-Smith or elsewhere) in our neighborhood.



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Filed under New Urbanism: Timeless, Traditional, Walkable Design

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