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Hey Kid, Try Walking!

Communities win when schools are close to home

October 2, 2001 | By Johanna Miller
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Patrick Owen/MLUI
  There is immense value in investing in older schools and giving young people, such as these kids in Ann Arbor, Michigan, a chance to walk instead of ride.
Every day parents across America send their children to warehouse-sized schools and hope that their loved ones do not drown in the sea of anonymity that many schools have become. More and more parents ask: "What happened to the schools that were safe places for kids to learn, build friendships, and explore new ideas?" Many factors contribute to the growing apathy and violence that plagues America’s schools. But it is no coincidence that, along with increasing anonymity and violence, we have shifted from building schools within our communities to locating them in distant fields and open spaces, isolated from the neighborhoods and small towns that used to hold them close. 

If we want that closeness again, we have to change this pattern of sending schools and children away from the heart of our communities.

Federal school construction guidelines, which local school boards often use in their decision-making process, favor building new facilities instead of revitalizing older ones. The recommendations for a high school, for example, — 30 acres of land plus one acre for every 100 students — result in huge institutional-sized complexes surrounded by acres of parking lots and athletic facilities. These locations distance students from their neighborhoods and virtually eliminate the centuries-old pastime of walking to school, or from school to the public library and local stores. School boards often make the decision to move facilities into outlying areas because they feel it is the best choice for students. The intention is good, but the effect is a dramatic loosening of the glue that bonds communities together.

Schools are the anchors of family and community life, just like major department stores are the anchors for shopping districts. Just as downtown shopping districts fold when their anchors move to the mall, so do the neighborhoods and businesses that the school bonded together before it moved out of town. Spreading our schools, businesses, post offices, and homes further across the land, often accessible only by car, encourages a society where people don’t know each other and eventually do not take care of one another.

When communities plan new school facilities, it is important that they account for the full costs of moving the school out of the town center. A full and accurate comparison of the costs to build new rather than rehabilitate old will often prove it is more economically responsible and better for the health of the community to use existing buildings or to keep new facilities in central locations.

Tax dollars required to bus students out to distant schools, for example, are typically not included in decisions to relocate. Neither is the larger community cost of building and maintaining new roads and other infrastructure that comes when residential and commercial development follow outlying schools.

Traverse City recently built a second high school, for example, on farmland outside the city limits. Not long after the new Traverse City West Senior High School opened, the school district could no longer afford to provide transportation to the high school, which is too far for walking or bike riding. For two years parents and students had no choice but to use their own cars or the public bus. In August 2001 Traverse-area public schools once again began providing public transportation services for students.

Moving schools out of convenient, central locations also means, in most cases, moving into larger buildings with larger class sizes. Today more and more students find themselves in larger schools with total high school class sizes ranging on average from 800 to 1400 students. In some urban areas, consolidation has elevated these numbers to 2000 or 3000 students. Studies show that an average total class size of 400 to 800 is best for optimal student performance.

Alternatives, such as renovating older schools and putting any new facilities inside neighborhoods and town centers, have benefits that can outweigh any extra effort that might go into finding creative ways to keep schools and communities together. The advantages of neighborhood schools are rich and immeasurable. School children can walk down tree-lined streets, interact with their neighbors, patronize local businesses, and cultivate a sense of independence.

These interactions tie children to their community — and the community to its children — in invaluable ways. Smaller schools often promote better social bonding, self-esteem, and academic performance. Students are better able to connect with their friends and interact with teachers and other adults, as indicated by a significantly higher rate of participation in extracurricular activities at community-centered schools.

Reversing the trend of violence and isolation in schools is, in large part, a matter of reversing the direction we have taken with school construction. Schools are the center of family life. And they can be the center of communities in which people know each other and care for one another if we put them back in the heart of our towns. Reestablishing the smaller, walkable, town-centered school is the key to helping both parents and children feel safe again.

A version of this article was published in the September 2001 edition of Country Lines, the magazine of the Michigan Electric Cooperative Association.

Johanna Miller is the policy specialist at the Michigan Land Use Institute. Reach Ms. Miller at 231-882-4723 ext. 16 or joey@mlui.org.

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