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Schools cycle back into the heart of the neighborhood

What happened to the old neighborhood school?

Communities began to move away from the concept of a small neighborhood-centered school that kids could walk to in the 1970s. They sought better land prices, more land for ball fields and space for expansion, and they found it most easily on the outskirts of town.

But because the distance between these larger sites and the neighborhoods they served was no longer walkable or even reasonably bikeable, schools needed still more land to park the cars and buses necessary to get students to school. 

Today, the footprint of a school parking lot often exceeds that of the school itself. Elementary schools that once fit into a city block or two occupy 10-15 acres, and high schools once sited on four to 10 acres consume as much as 80 acres of land. 

Schools on large sites in outlying areas remain popular, but they bear hidden costs. Because most high school students now drive and most young students are driven or bused to school, districts are spending more for student transportation. 

Oregon state law requires school districts to provide busing for elementary students who live more than a mile from their school and secondary students who live more than 1.5 miles away. Although the state reimburses districts for 70-90 percent of their student transportation costs, rising fuel expenses squeeze budgets for school supplies, teachers and educational programs. And the state’s tab for K-12 transportation has risen from $120 million in the 2000-01 school year to $143 million in 2005-06.

Oregon ranks about 26th in the country in school transportation expenditures, spending an average of $325 per pupil, according to the most recent statistics from the National Center for Educational Studies. Roughly half of Oregon students are bused, compared to about 16 percent in California.

Kids’ health suffers; too much time spent in “park”

Meanwhile, the percentage of overweight youth has more than doubled since the 1970s. Public health officials lament that convenient opportunities for simple exercise -- like walking or biking -- have disappeared.

“School siting practices have helped engineer physical activity out of the life of children,” said John Chism, manager of Oregon’s Physical Activity and Nutrition Program. “But kids need to develop good physical activity habits at an early age.”

When the “kid-friendliness” of neighborhood streets suffers, time-strapped parents chauffeur children everywhere. Spontaneous play -- made possible by well-connected, safe-for-children streets -- is disappearing while kids spend more time on such sedentary and largely solitary activities as watching TV and playing video games.

Rising to the challenge

But some school boards and communities are pushing back:

  • They’re challenging stale assumptions about school siting and design that have yielded big-box-style schools engulfed by acres of asphalt.
  • They’re upgrading. Schools on smaller sites in neighborhoods enable students to walk or bike to school. 
  • They’re pushing for well-designed schools that harmonize with surrounding neighborhoods and generate civic pride, connecting an aging population that has become less and less engaged with its schools. 
  • They’re recognizing that “sustainable schools” means more than energy-efficient “green buildings” -- it also means finding energy-efficient locations for schools.
  • They’re building relationships to share the benefits -- and costs -- of building (or rebuilding) schools within communities, where school volunteers and parents are nearby to help. 
  • And to help children get around more easily and safely, communities are building systems of bicycle and pedestrian paths.
  • They’re finding that walkability allows more students the flexibility to take advantage of early bird and after-school activities, including sports, music and tutoring that students cannot participate in if they rely on the bus for transportation home.

Highlighting successes

Census primer for school boards

Community engagement resources

Schools at the heart of communities

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