Neighborhood Schools: The (Current) Missed Opportunity

The relationship between neighborhoods and schools is an important element in community building, and has been since the early years of the United States.  The importance of this relationship is rooted in the value that has always been placed on education and the opportunities of self improvement that come from an increase in knowledge which stems from education.  Historically, one of the first (if not the first) civic buildings that are constructed in a community would have been a school.

Conventionally segregated school     |     Rose Creek Elementary (Riverton, UT)
Conventionally segregated school | Rose Creek Elementary (Riverton, UT)

As with many other aspects of community building, our more recent history in the United States has involved the separation and compartmentalization of schools from the neighborhoods that they are intended to serve.  Over the past sixty years our school children have been directly affected by changes in the way our schools are sited.  Schools have moved further from their students and have grown in size as they have gravitated outward from the neighborhood.  Child obesity rates have also seen a rapid increase over the same time, while the number of students who walk to and from school has dropped sharply.  These results are highly connected to land use policy and the increasing reliance that Americans have on the automobile.  It has also affected the ability of school districts to balance their budgets and to provide the level of education that they would prefer to give if circumstances were different.

As an example, there was a recent news story in Utah which illustrates the negative impacts of school sites being out of scale with their community. In a Deseret News article (dated August 3, 2010), it was reported that the Jordan School District would be cutting bus routes because of budget constraints.  A few months later, on Dec. 10, 2010, a mother in South Jordan, UT was given a citation for allowing her kindergarten age son to walk to and from his school (CLICK HERE to read news article from the Deseret News).  In this particular instance the child was well equipped to make the walk to school, outfitted in an orange vest and helmet to increase visibility.  The child’s mother had mapped out a route for the child that allowed for walking on sidewalks rather than the shoulder of the road.  The reason the child was walking to school in the first place was because of the school district budget cuts which eliminated bus routes associated with hazardous walking conditions.  One of the effects of the routes being cut was causing children to either get a ride from their parents or be forced to walk along busy or dangerous roads and hazardous areas.  Interesting cause and effect, wouldn’t you say?

Source: Daybreak (South Jordan, UT)

What is intriguing about the recent discussion in Utah pertaining to school districts reducing bus routes in order to save on budgetary shortfalls is the recognition of the reasons that districts have to bus their students in the first place.  The two most prominent reasons for busing students are distance and safety.  Ironically, these are both issues that are outside of a school district’s ability to control, yet they are faced with the repercussions of how our communities are assembled.  When a student is too far from their school they have to find other alternatives (including the school bus) to get themselves to and from school.  These distances will often stem from Euclidean zoning principles which mandate the separation of uses and the favoring of large lot, single family detached homes.

When a student lives within a walkable distance of school, but the route to school is deemed too unsafe to walk, again the school district is often faced with the budgetary responsibility of having to move children to and from school using bus services.  Both of these issues are the result of the lost opportunities of not working together to better integrate the building blocks of community, making more responsible decisions about how our neighborhoods are designed and assembled, and the understanding of the financial benefits associated with better decision making.

A major cost that can be drastically reduced by cutting down on school size and by locating schools within a walkable distance of the residents they serve, is the expense for busses.  To reduce busing, more kids will need to walk to school, and the design of the neighborhood has a major impact in this regard.  One study found that students living within one mile of school were three times more likely to walk rather than travel by automobile[1].  Location of schools is a major player dictating walkability.

Eastlake Elementary
Neighborhood integrated school | Eastlake Elementary (South Jordan, UT)

Why can’t circumstances be different than what they are?  Why can’t schools be reestablished as essential centers within neighborhoods?  Why can’t a model for high performance schools be used for the greater good of all involved?  The easy answer is – it can!

A great place to start is to look at a tool called the Smart Growth Schools Report Card.  This particular tool is meant to demonstrate best practices to assist with the decision making necessary for better results in creating neighborhood schools.  If communities are able to save money, reduce environmental impacts of schools in the community, improve the health of their students, and increase long term support for the school system why would we not want to do act.  Better results will come as we think and act more responsibly.

Article co-authored by Graham Larson

Related articles:

[1] McMillan, TE. (2007). “The Relative Influence of Urban Form on a Child’s Trip to School.” Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice, 41(1): 69–79.

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