Trendspotting July/August 2009 – A Team Effort

Traditionally, athletic facilities are the responsibility of the school district, while recreational facilities are the responsibility of the municipality. The spaces — gyms, pools and fitness areas — are similar; however, most of the time, districts and municipalities build them separately.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Collaboration is a definite possibility. Maybe it’s time for community schools to make a comeback.

The community school movement began in the 1930s when Charles Stewart Mott, who served on the General Motors board of directors for 60 years, became concerned about the lack of after-school and summer programs for children in Flint, Mich. After school days ended and during summer vacation, school buildings were locked and school sites were fenced off, leaving kids to play on the streets.


Mott approached both the school board and the city about this dilemma, and the community school movement was born. He later formed a foundation in his name that continues to support community schools.

In the early 1980s, I had the good fortune of heading a project funded by the Mott Foundation. The National Center for Community Schools Facility Planning was coordinated by the Council of Educational Facility Planners, International and focused on increasing community involvement in education as well as interagency collaboration. Through this experience, I learned firsthand about the opportunities and challenges of developing joint city/school facilities. 

While a number of community schools have been built in North America, the community school movement hasn’t completely taken off. One reason is that the public and private sectors are separate entities. Even though schools and cities serve the same constituencies, they have their own governing structures, tax revenues and bureaucracies. They also don’t have a good history of sharing and collaborating.

There is no reason for the two entities to not collaborate. After all, communities and school districts have common goals: create more livable communities, address youth issues such as health and obesity, manage aging populations, maximize facilities and nurture community pride.

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A community school comeback will require an attitude change among policymakers. It will also require certain laws and systems to allow for co-mingling of resources as well as new interagency bureaucratic structures. It won’t be easy, and there will be obstacles to overcome. But when it’s done successfully, everyone benefits.

An excellent example of a modern-day community school is Mason High School in Mason, Ohio. Located roughly 25 miles north of Cincinnati, it is one of the highest-performing schools in Ohio: 97 percent of students graduate and 80 percent attend four-year colleges or universities.

This school was constructed through a school-city partnership. During the 1990s, the city considered building a community center, and the school district considered building a new high school that would include a state-of-the-art fitness/training center. They joined forces to build a new community center adjacent to the new high school.

Since the high school and community center are connected, students are able to access the lap pool, leisure pool, weight room and indoor track, as can members of the community. In addition to recreational activities, the community center also offers a child-care program and senior center. This cradle-to-grave initiative covers every generation, thus enhancing a true sense of community.

The high school and community center are part of a complex that also includes municipal offices, a public library and extensive playing fields — all located on 200 acres of city-owned land. Most of the construction of the complex was financed through school bonds. However, part of the complex is operated by the city, part is operated by the school, and some parts are operated jointly. 

Private companies are also located at the complex. For example, a bank on school property provides convenient access to teachers and students. It also provides internships to give high school students real-world experience.

The local hospital also partnered with the school district to provide a weight room, locker rooms, restrooms, a concession stand and a ticket window for the football stadium. The hospital has its own space as well. Not only is it used for medical rehabilitation, it also affords shadowing, mentoring and apprenticeship opportunities for students within the medical, therapy, nursing and sports medicine fields. 

Kevin Bright, superintendent of the Mason City School District, has been an integral part of the ommunity school initiative and has witnessed both the highs and the lows.

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“These projects are not without their challenges, but the benefits far outweigh the effort involved,” Bright says. “It has defined the quality of life in our community.”

It is time for more cities and school districts to work together to develop joint athletic and recreational facilities. When districts and their communities collectively agree upon goals and decide how to reach them together, everyone benefits.

Schools benefit from increased community support and volunteerism, and the community benefits by partaking in social opportunities while saving tax money.

William S. DeJong, Ph.D., REFP, is CEO of DeJong, an educational facility planning firm based in Dublin, Ohio.