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Sprawl vs. Small:

When can Johnny walk to school again?

September 16, 2005 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Gary Howe

Opportunities for students to walk to school are rapidly disappearing.

As students at Fairfield Senior High School in suburban Cincinnati headed back to school this year, they got a message from the local police: Don’t even think about walking.

Law officers issued the warning after the school district eliminated bus service for high school kids during a budget crisis. The school, built in 1997, is set among busy, multi-lane roads with no sidewalks; even students living within a mile of the school were taking the bus if they didn’t go by car. Police were terrified about kids trying to navigate that dangerous environment on foot.

Former Fairfield Mayor Erick Cook, himself an elementary school principal, echoed the plea. “The bottom line is, the school system, developers, and the city failed the kids by neglecting to put in sidewalks,” Mr. Cook said.

But the larger problem, he said, is where the school was built. Given the outsized parking lots and sprawling, single-story designs of most modern high schools, officials looked to the outskirts of town. Because most kids would therefore arrive by car, officials placed the building right next to a busy highway; they even skipped building sidewalks in favor of bussing nearby students to safety.

Fairfield is hardly alone. Mr. Cook’s own school, South Lebanon Elementary in South Lebanon, Ohio, was recently moved from a historic, centrally located building to a site accessible only by car or bus. In fact, that trend is both strong and national. In suburban DeKalb County, Ga., for example, 57 percent of school principals rate the area around their schools as moderately to extremely dangerous for kids on foot or bicycle, according to a county health department survey. Indeed, spread-out schools in unwalkable environments are so common that the phenomenon is called “school sprawl.”

“As the people began to move outward,” Mr. Cook lamented, “you moved away from the ability to create neighborhood schools.”

The slow die-off of neighborhood schools is causing another problem: Mounting evidence suggests that the sheer size and impersonality of new, edge-of-town mega-schools harm kids’ education. This realization is triggering a growing movement for small schools, a cause that is gaining ground with the involvement of the Smart Growth movement, which pushes for better planning instead of the current, willy-nilly rush by developers into green fields. Together, the small schools and Smart Growth movements are now working to change the rules and habits that contribute to school sprawl.

Smaller Is Better
In recent years some educators pushed for larger schools because, they said, such large operations can offer a more comprehensive curriculum and a wider range of activities, from chess club to Japanese club. State and local school officials also liked the economies of scale that stem from greater concentrations of students, services and facilities.

But a growing body of research demonstrating the benefits of smaller schools is providing a large boost to the return of the neighborhood schools. The research, motivated by the concerns of rural communities that are losing their local schools to consolidations, as well as by advocates for smaller, more manageable schools in low-income, urban areas, points to lower drop-out rates and higher average standardized test scores in smaller schools. Children in high-poverty schools see an even more pronounced improvement.

And while larger schools generally show a small savings on spending per student, when that figure is computed for students who actually graduate, the per-graduate cost is actually slightly lower. Moreover, although larger schools can have more extracurricular offerings, participation in after-school activities declines as schools get larger. And a U.S. Department of Education report found that schools with over 1,000 students have much higher crime and vandalism rates than schools with 300 or fewer students. Teacher satisfaction rates are also higher in smaller schools, according to a Chicago study.

Convinced by the research, several philanthropies are supporting the small-schools movement. Since 1994, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has spent more than $1 billion to improve public schools, primarily through building small high schools. The Gates foundation advocates high schools of 400 students or fewer, arguing that they can “provide a personalized learning environment where every student has an adult advocate. Students in small schools feel less alienated and tend to be more actively engaged in school activities.”

Part of a Smart Growth Puzzle
But small-school advocates face daunting challenges, particularly concerning school funding. Many administrators insist that fewer campuses means reduced administrative and other costs. The notion that big and (typically) new is better than small and (frequently) old is ingrained and difficult to reverse.

Another very thorny issue is the implications for student-body diversity when schools draw from smaller geographic areas.

“There is a bit of a conflict between small schools and integration,” acknowledges Jonathan Weiss, a former Clinton Administration official and author of Public Schools and Economic Development: What the Research Shows, a report for the KnowledgeWorks Foundation. “Because we tend to live in neighborhoods that are segregated by race and income, you often need to draw from a larger area to get a diverse population.”

Some small-schools advocates suggest breaking up existing larger campuses into several schools-within-a-school to make schools smaller while maintaining their diversity. The idea has worked well in some places, including New York City’s Julia Richman Education Complex, which was once a failing, violence-plagued school of thousands. Officials divided the big compound into six smaller schools, each with a distinct identity. Mr. Weiss said he likes the idea, but added that advocacy for small schools won’t succeed if done in a vacuum that disregards other community issues.

“In a way small schools are one part of the larger smart-growth puzzle,” he says. “Communities should be careful about pursuing small schools in isolation from pursuing broader, more integrated Smart Growth strategies. It’s unlikely small schools by themselves will be a panacea.”

A Big Problem
A raft of statistics illustrates just how big and stubborn the school sprawl problem is. As recently as 1969, roughly half of all students walked or biked to school. In 2001, only about one tenth of students did. A South Carolina study discovered that children are four times as likely to walk to schools built before 1983 than to those built after that year, largely because of the increasingly remote and pedestrian-hostile settings of newer schools.

The trend adds to the rising rates of obesity and physical inactivity among kids; today 30 percent of our kids are overweight or obese and a third of middle and high school students are sedentary. Even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has something to say about school sprawl; it identified a rise in rush-hour traffic associated with school trips and says it is a key contributor to air quality problems in a number of cities.

Critics of school sprawl also note that large, new schools built in previously undeveloped areas often act as a magnet for new residential development, drawing people and resources away from existing schools and neighborhoods. Because school districts and local governments do their planning in isolation from one another, the new growth often takes local officials by surprise, causing them to scramble to build the roads, water mains, sewer lines, and other services to support it.

Another, albeit subtle point: Large, drive-to schools that can’t fit comfortably in neighborhoods fail to serve as the neighborhood resource and focal point that in-town schools so often do.

Signs of Hope
There are signs that the tide is beginning to turn in some states, according to Constance Beaumont, author of Why Johnny Can’t Walk to School, a report by the National Trust for Historic Preservation that was among the first to address the issue of school sprawl.

Ms. Beaumont pointed out that Maryland now prioritizes rehabilitation and construction in urbanized areas, rather than building schools in greenfields. In that state over the last few years, 80 percent of school construction money went to reconstruction and rehabilitation; 10 years ago the figure was only 25 percent.

In 2004 the Michigan Land Use Insitute published Hard Lessons: Causes and Consequences of Michigan’s School Construction Boom, the first detailed review of how school construction decisions — whether to renovate existing buildings or build new, greenfield facilities — are made in Michigan and their effect on development patterns. Hard Lessons, which grew out of a joint project of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce and the Institute, aimed to help school officials, community leaders, homeowners, and parents evaluate the full cost of new school construction or renovation. It recommended changes in state policy that, if implemented, will capture the economic and cultural benefits of renovating older schools or building new ones in town.

In California, a program called Safe Routes to School earmarks one third of federal road-safety money for improvements such as establishing safe pedestrian crossings and adding sidewalks and bikeways. The program is so popular that a version of it is included in proposed federal legislation.

Some school officials are reconsidering the trade-offs involved between rebuilding and staying in town or building new out at the fringe. In Oregon, a study in the Bend-La Pine School District found that, compared to sites on the metro fringe, "sites in higher-density neighborhoods decreased total transportation costs by 32 percent annually and lowered site development costs by 14 percent.” As a result, this fall the district opened Ensworth Elementary School, a compact, two-story prototype neighborhood school designed and located so that all of its 300 students can walk or bike. And nearly all do, said Ms. Beaumont, who now works for Oregon’s transportation and growth management program.

Perhaps most significantly, the Council of Education Facility Planners, an Arizona-based professional association that has long claimed that a 500-student elementary schools requires 15 acres, and a 2,000-student high schools needs 50 acres, is starting to change its tune. CEFPI recently unveiled “Creating Connections,” a re-examination of its siting guidelines that emphasizes viewing schools in the larger community context.

This from an organization that once insisted that if the cost of rehabilitating an older school exceeds 60 percent of the cost of replacement, then it was time to build a new school. Given the organization’s acreage recommendations, that old school was destined for abandonment, while some greenfield somewhere on the edge of town was marked for bulldozing, sprawling construction, lots of cars — and very little walking.

David Goldberg, a regular contributor to the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Elm Street Writers Group, is the communications director for Smart Growth America. Reach him at dgoldberg@smartgrowthamerica.org.

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