George Lucas Educational Foundation
Project-Based Learning (PBL)

Community-Based School Planning: If Not Now, When?

Steven Bingler explores the public engagement model of school planning and design.

September 3, 2003

Steven Bingler, founder and president of Concordia, LLC.

Credit: Edutopia

Throughout the country, elementary and high school districts are spending unprecedented amounts of money renovating existing school facilities and building new ones. In 2001 alone, roughly $27 billion worth of K-12 construction projects were approved and funded -- a trend that is likely to continue for several years out.

Like any period of rapid change, this construction boom presents both a challenge and an opportunity for everyone who cares about the quality of our schools. The challenge: to design schools that foster community, encourage inquiry, and are grounded in a commitment to lifelong learning. The opportunity: to engage an entire community in the formidable task of turning this grand vision into a reality. Increasingly, schools and communities are rising to this challenge, exploring a new model of planning and decision-making. They're assembling committees that are truly representative, including parents, teachers, and students, as well as business and community members. And they're empowering this group to review data, investigate options, and make firm recommendations to school boards about everything from curriculum to school size to the design of the facility itself.

Using a data-driven methodology, this engagement model is growing in popularity as an effective tool for authentic and autonomous large-group decision-making. In this model, elected officials receive clear input and direction about their constituents' wants and needs. As important, they obtain community ownership and buy-in.

Although the engagement model is sometimes construed as being more time-consuming than traditional processes, the outcomes are well worth the added effort. Through the open dialogue that is integral to this process, issues are more thoroughly reviewed and resolved. Protracted infighting, conflict, and debate are often avoided. Another benefit from broad-based community engagement is that recommendations are often more systemic, incorporating a broad range of the community's physical, cultural, social, economic, organizational, and educational assets into more elegant, cohesive, and efficient solutions.

Following are three case studies that represent the public engagement model of school planning and design. Although the communities and the schools vary considerably, all share a common commitment to going beyond the standard factory model school to build learning environments that are more inclusive, extensive, and integrated into the community as a whole.

The Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center (The MET) in South Providence, Rhode Island.

Credit: Concordia LLP

The MET: Providence, Rhode Island -- An Inclusive Learning Environment

The Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center (The MET) is a public high school serving South Providence's inner city youth. The school emphasizes personalized learning, authentic work, a strong sense of school community, and the involvement of families, the local community, and area businesses.

The learning environment, which was developed through an extensive one-year master plan and an additional four-year community engagement design process, is comprised of six small schools of one-hundred students each. One of the schools is located in an existing downtown office building. A second is part of a newly constructed neighborhood-oriented facility. The remaining four small schools are being built on a new single site in the inner city neighborhood of South Providence. The suite, scheduled to open in the Fall of 2002, will include a central "commons" that will serve as a neighborhood town square, as well as fitness and performing arts centers that will be shared with neighborhood residents.

The Met also includes mentoring and internship sites located throughout the city in restaurants, hospitals, and other locations, all of which are part of the total "Met" learning environment. Every Tuesday and Thursday, in response to the Met's innovative "Learning Through Interests" (LTI) curriculum, the students meet with their off-site mentors and a collaborative team of parents, educators, and community advisors to devise an individual learning plan.

Chutter's General Store, home of Chutter's Candy Connection, one of Littleton, New Hampshire's, Main Street Academies.

Credit: Concordia LLP

The Candy Connection: Littleton, New Hampshire -- An Extended Learning Environment

Learning academies in Littleton, New Hampshire, link Littleton High School's innovative high school curriculum to the community's vital Main Street redevelopment program. Developed as part of a one-year community engagement process, the academies were implemented within four months of presentation of the master plan.

The business academy, known as "Chutter's Candy Connection," is located in the basement of Chutter's General Store on Main Street, which was listed recently in the Guinness Book of World Records as having the longest candy counter in the world. The program now includes four units that manage the e-business for the store. Students design Chutter's Web page, advertise, market to targeted customers overseas, and negotiate all shipping contracts. A second academy is located in a Main Street bank and incorporates student use of a new spatial information technology program, developed for use with the town's new Geographic Information System.

Both of Littleton's Main Street Academies are a direct product of student engagement, where requests to "make the learning real" were honored and implemented by the community as a whole. An additional benefit to the school district was the creation of two new classrooms at a cost of only $3,500, creating a net value of more than $200,000 in the classrooms vacated at the high school site, which are now available to relieve overcrowding. Additional Main Street Academy projects are currently in the planning stages.

Henry Ford Academy in Dearborn, Michigan, located on the grounds of the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village.

Credit: Concordia LLP

The Henry Ford Academy: Dearborn, Michigan -- An Integrated Learning Environment

The Henry Ford Academy in Dearborn, Michigan, is a public charter school with a population of 400 students. The learning environment was developed one grade level at a time over four years, integrating an innovative public educational curriculum with the extensive resources of the existing Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village.

The Academy demonstrates how integration of resources can produce more economical and more effective learning environments. The project was built for 20 percent of the cost of a comparable stand-alone Michigan high school. Student retention is at 98 percent and test scores are four times higher than other Detroit public schools.

Built by Henry Ford in honor of his mentor, Thomas Edison, the Henry Ford Museum includes over 1 million museum artifacts located in one 12-acre building. The Greenfield Village complex adds an additional 80-acre outdoor learning environment with more than seventy-five significant buildings that represent some of the nation's most noted innovators and their creations. The design provides for the distribution of formal learning activities with access to the whole 80-acre campus.

The academy was developed as a collaborative venture that includes the Henry Ford Museum, the Ford Motor Company, and the Wayne County Regional Educational Service Agency (RESA). Following the initial opening of the ninth grade in 1997, an additional 100 students were added each year for the next three consecutive years. Facilities for each grade level were designed in collaboration with a school and museum community that included more than one-hundred students, parents, educators, curators, and museum and school administrators. The result is a facility that serves as both the physical and metaphorical "home base" from which a broad range of student excursions ensue, both within the museum grounds as well as externally through internships with participating adult mentors in the Detroit metropolitan area.

An Opportunity

The opportunity to design innovative, forward-looking learning is limited only by our collective imaginations. Given what we know about the benefits of parent and community engagement and about the value of more integrated, project-based and real-world learning experiences, there has never been a better time to develop more inclusive, extended, and integrated environments for living and learning.

Developing and maintaining these models will require a new kind of collaborative enterprise that involves a wide range of talents and interests. Parents and students, educators and city planners, business and community leaders all have a role to play in designing these new, integrated learning environments. As the communities of Dearborn, Littleton, and South Providence have discovered, the outcomes of these collaborative ventures can result in a vision of teaching and learning that extends well beyond the walls of a traditional school to include an entire community and all of its rich and diverse resources.

Steven Bingler is the founder of Concordia LLC, a planning and architectural design firm based in New Orleans and Pasadena. He is the author of Schools As Centers of Community: A Citizen’s Guide for Planning and Design, published by the U.S. Department of Education.

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