Places To Learn

A parent from Brooklyn, New York complains, “How can they expect my child to concentrate when two classes with separate teachers are happening at the same time in the same classroom?” Another adds, “My daughter’s school is dreary and dilapidated, and I see it affecting her.” Complaints like these are far too common in cities across the United States.

School facilities are both part of a community’s physical infrastructure and a vital factor in educational quality. As such, they can provide a concrete issue around which community groups concerned about educational quality can rally. Some community development corporations (CDCs) are even supporting this kind of organizing by becoming developers of new school facilities.

School Facilities in Crisis
Facilities in most of today’s urban school systems are crumbling. Many lack basic amenities like functioning bathrooms, libraries, playgrounds, gymnasiums, and auditoriums. Students are routinely squeezed into small classrooms that haven’t been painted in twenty years, with gaping holes in the plaster. Often teachers don’t have access to photocopying machines and basic supplies. What lessons do such buildings teach children about their own value, and about society’s expectations for them?

The current facilities crisis has its roots in decades of disinvestment from urban school districts. During the fiscal crisis of the late 1970s, for example, New York City drastically reduced maintenance and repair spending for most public facilities and infrastructure. The economically prosperous ’80s and ’90s saw massive infusions of capital into systems like highways and transit that served business and middle-class constituencies, but school maintenance budgets were never restored to levels adequate to compensate for years of neglect.

The need for high-quality school facilities has never been greater. Changes in the job market make a college education essential, while a surging school population in many urban areas exacerbates the problems created by the years of deferred maintenance. There has been a dramatic shift in neighborhood demographics as younger, often working-class and immigrant families with school-age children are slowly replacing older white residents. Populations have also increased in many formerly abandoned city neighborhoods, often as the result of redevelopment efforts by CDCs.

“We rehabilitated housing, revitalized the commercial strip, started a child care center and family day care network, created inter-generational and youth programs, and brought supportive services such as family counseling and employment services into the neighborhood,” says Michelle Neugebauer, executive director of Brooklyn’s Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation. “But what we found was that once children become school age, if the family has any economic means they will move out because of the overcrowding and other poor conditions in the local schools. Doing something to improve both the quality of the schools and school facilities is key to neighborhood revitalization and stabilization.”

Too often local government’s response has been financially inadequate, dismissive of local educational concerns, and indifferent to the importance of physical environment in education. Many urban systems don’t even plan systemically for maintaining facilities and building new ones. Those that do, like New York City, still underfund it and rely on cumbersome bureaucratic processes. New York City’s School Construction Authority, created more than a decade ago to remove design and construction responsibility from the Board of Education, has itself drawn criticism for delays, corruption, and poor quality work.

Many politicians have written off facilities and systems that serve the poor as too decrepit to fix. Instead they press to demolish buildings and privatize services. At the same time, a number of states have recently introduced class size reduction and universal pre-kindergarten programs, but the school districts that need them most often lack facilities to implement them.

Charter schools and new, innovative public schools face facilities issues of their own. They are typically provided with operating support on a per-child basis, so any use of that funding for facilities comes at a direct cost to program operation. Many operate in makeshift spaces, and, ironically, community-based alternative schools often need to look outside of their own neighborhoods for space.

Why It’s a Match
School facilities are a logical focus for community-based organizations (CBOs) because school facilities, in addition to affecting educational quality, are also part of a neighborhood’s physical and civic assets, and should therefore be part of broader neighborhood planning processes. Community groups that are familiar with their neighborhood’s needs are well placed to advocate for appropriate siting, design, and usage of new schools.

In Los Angeles, the Beverly-Kingsley Neighborhood Association (BKNA), a volunteer, neighborhood-based organization, was upset by school district plans for a 1500-student elementary school that would have required knocking down many houses for its suburban-style campus, and would have collected students from a large area. With the assistance of a planning and architecture firm, BKNA developed and presented an alternative facilities plan that recommends several smaller neighborhood schools that would replace mostly blighted commercial properties rather than houses. The group won a commitment from the district to conduct feasibility studies on six sites they identified.

The Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition (NWBCCC), located in one of the most overcrowded neighborhoods in New York City, developed a proposal to turn a 500,000-square-foot abandoned Armory into three new schools serving 2000 students, plus athletic facilities and commercial space. NWBCCC is organizing aggressively to see that schools are built in the armory, and to oppose a city proposal to turn over the building (and a $30 million public subsidy) to a shopping mall developer. The group is seizing an opportunity not only to provide needed school space, but also to ensure that a major civic asset is used appropriately to serve a public purpose. NWBCCC has brought powerful allies into its campaign, including New York City’s Central Labor Council and the United Federation of Teachers.

The Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA) in Chicago surveyed its community about the need for new school facilities. Residents expressed a strong desire to open up the school building during after-school hours to host a range of programs for youth and adults, including English as a second language (ESL) classes and high school–equivalency coursework. LSNA convinced the Chicago Public Schools to build annexes at four neighborhood elementary schools. These annexes now serve as classroom space during the day and community centers at night.

A Systemic Approach
Along with specific projects, entrepreneurially-minded community groups can help bureaucratic and rigid school systems invent new approaches to addressing their facilities problems. In New York, a city-wide coalition called the NYC School Construction Working Group has brought together parent organizing groups, CDCs, local technical assistance organizations, intermediaries, and banks to look for alternative ways to address the need for more and better school facilities.

New York City’s school modernization and construction efforts have not kept pace with the resurgence of formerly abandoned neighborhoods throughout the city. System-wide, the city’s classroom space shortfall is estimated to be nearly 100,000 seats (in a system of 1.1 million children); some schools and subdistricts are operating at over 140 percent of capacity, and most of the system’s 1000-plus buildings are more than 50 years old. In the early 1990s, the Board of Education’s Division of School Facilities began leasing commercial space from private landlords in an effort to create new space more quickly and cheaply than was possible using a traditional land acquisition and new construction approach. The private leasing program achieved some success but has also encountered problems, particularly in holding landlords accountable for the quality of the facilities they build and operate.

The Working Group proposed an alternative that would enable nonprofit organizations such as CDCs to acquire and renovate buildings and then lease the completed spaces to the city. Development would be financed through loans from private sources. Lease payments would be set at levels sufficient to cover building operation, debt service, and reserves. This model could make new sources of capital available for school construction by utilizing tax-exempt 501(c)3 bonds, Qualified Zone Academy Bonds (a federal tax credit for private investment in schools), and bank loans, as well as potential grant funding for initial planning work. While some details remain to be negotiated, the city has agreed to try the program, and was scheduled to issue a list of qualified CDCs this past spring.

Building New Schools
While New York City’s nonprofit leasing model is in its very first stages, the community-led small schools movement has already been inspiring CDCs across the country to independently begin work on building schools. CDCs bring some proven strengths to the task, including their real estate development expertise and entrepreneurial experience. CDCs know how to identify and acquire control of an appropriate site, how to assemble and manage a development team, how to unravel the arcana of real estate finance, and how to navigate the political and bureaucratic landscape. But developing schools may be more difficult than developing housing – at least at first.

CDCs were successful in bringing housing production to scale during the 1980s and 90s partly because of their ability to standardize designs, create efficient delivery mechanisms, and keep costs down. But standardizing school projects may not be feasible or desirable. Each school brings its own constituencies, a pedagogical agenda that affects the design and use of school space, and unique local issues in the planning and development of a site. This means predevelopment work on schools will be more costly and difficult than the more familiar “pipelined” housing programs; both funders and CBOs may need to assume more financial risk. Lenders may need to advance substantial funds in the early stages of a project based primarily on the CDC’s skill and determination to see it through, rather than seeking guarantees of a return.

Even more important, successful school development work by CDCs depends on organizing, whether it is done by the CDC directly or through collaboration with existing parent organizing groups. Organizing and development groups may have different values, cultures, and approaches; collaborators need to respect each others’ strengths. And organizing requires resources; both CDCs and funders need to support the whole process. The cost of funding organizing staff for the predevelopment phase is not something CDCs always think of, but in school development work it should not be underestimated.

Crafting and implementing a CDC-based facilities program may require several years of major investment in advocacy and technical work with local school authorities. However, parent-CDC partnerships can be a powerful force for change in school facilities. The current political context, in which public education is under attack as part of a broad conservative agenda, presents both challenges and opportunities for community-based reform. In a crisis atmosphere, some school systems may become defensive. Others may embrace innovation as a strategy for survival.

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