May 2, 2000 - From the May, 2000 issue

U.S. Secretary of Education Riley To AIA: Why Not Schools As Centers of Neighborhoods?

With the L.A. region ranking as the state's fastest growing, school districts in the Southland face a daunting task--and architects play a key role in helping them meet it. At the annual AIA convention, U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley urged the group to support federal legislation that would provide tax credits to ease school construction and encourage districts to site and design schools as centers of community. TPR is pleased to present his remarks.


Sec. Richard Riley

It's a great pleasure to be here today to personally thank AIA for its many efforts to support school modernization and quality school design. I believe that architects have a unique opportunity and can play a vital role in making a profound difference on behalf of American education in three important areas of concern. Let me explain each and how they fit together.

First, for the first time in three years, there are real and growing signs of bipartisan support in the Congress for school construction and modernization legislation. This has been a long time coming. For the last three years, President Clinton, the AIA, educators and parents all over America have been asking Congress for federal help to modernize our schools.

And it's easy to see why. We have thousands of schools that are either over-crowded or wearing out. We're breaking the national enrollment record year in and year out, and we'll continue to break it in the next six years. Many of you know this from firsthand experience-you work hard to design a new school that is supposed to hold 1,000 students, and on the first day the school opens 1,300 children show up.

Last week, I visited an elementary school in New York City with over 2,700 children. This is a school with no science labs, and portables dot the playground. Despite this overcrowding and the lack of facilities in so many school districts, it's been very difficult-until recently-to get the Congress to understand the urgency of the task at hand.

I find this perplexing and disappointing. Congress is always willing to spend billions of federal dollars every year to build highways, to build immaculate prisons, and even to fight beach erosion. Yet, when it comes to school modernization, the leadership in the Congress has been less than helpful. But today, after three years of effort, we have a real chance to enact meaningful legislation that can make a difference. More and more members of Congress are starting to tune in .

The federal government is not in the business of bricks and mortar; that's a purely local decision. We are in the business of helping local schools districts save billions of dollars on interest payments to free up money that can be better spent improving teaching and learning. This is why I urge the AIA, which has been such a leader in the fight to modernize our schools, to support the school modernization legislation proposed by Democratic Congressman Charles Rangel of New York and Republican Congresswoman Nancy Johnson of Connecticut-HR 4094.

The Administration strongly supports this legislation because it incorporates much of what we have been fighting for during the last three years. This new legislation would provide federal tax credits to pay the interest on $24.8 billion of school construction bonds. There's a very good reason why Congress should see this proposal as a plus for local government. Freeing up these dollars will surely reduce the pressure to raise property taxes to build new schools or renovate old ones, which can be a hardship for senior citizens on fixed incomes.

I also urge you to support a second piece of new legislation that President Clinton has proposed. We're asking Congress to set aside $1.3 billion in an emergency appropriation to help school districts deal with long delayed renovations. I've actually been to a school building that is in such need of renovation that when it rains the cafeteria gets flooded. And last year, I visited a school in Paterson, New Jersey that simply was unable to install all of its new computers. Why? Because the basic infrastructure of the building was so old, according to the principal, that the building simply couldn't handle the new technology. It's a sorry state of affairs that simply has to change.

I now want to turn your attention to a second opportunity where architects can make an immediate and important difference on behalf of American education. Yesterday, I joined President Clinton at the beginning of his two-day education tour across America. At his second stop in Davenport, Iowa, he released an important new guide entitled Schools As Centers Of Community: A Citizens' Guide For Planning And Design.

I'm pleased to say this guide is the work of an architect-one of your own, Steven Bingler-and a high school principal named Linda Quinn, who's in the process of building a new school in Washington State. Linda was the Principal-In-Residence on my staff in 1998.

This guide has been endorsed by the AIA, the Council for Educational Facilities Planners International, the Construction Managers Association of America and the Vice-President's Task Force on Livable Communities. It lays out six important design principles, and is a step-by-step guide for how citizens, educators, architects and facility planners can come together to plan and design new schools.

This design guide is a direct result of the first National Symposium on School Design held in 1998, which I was pleased to sponsor along with Vice-President Gore, a number of other federal agencies, and the AIA. The meetings at this design conference were full of spark and energy. I was most taken by the educators and architects who spoke about the many benefits of bringing the entire community-from students, teachers, parents and community groups-into the school design process. When you involve the community early on, they invest in the school in a very different way. They bring good ideas to the table and often find ways to save money and share resources.

This design guide is also a statement that we are in a new time where we need to see school facilities as "community learning centers." Buildings that are open longer, later and for more members of the community. Schools that become the hub and center of the community. Now this is not a new concept. The community school movement has existed for well over 60 years.

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What's different is the scale of this movement. Many urban mayors are working hard to support full service community schools that link education, health and recreational needs together. And "Smart Growth" advocates increasingly tell us that where we locate and how we design and build new schools has enormous implications in defining the growth patterns of rapidly growing communities.

Another reality is the fact that we're in a new era of lifelong learning. As Joe Perkins, the current President of the American Association of Retired Person so aptly put it: "It makes no sense to lock up costly buildings two-thirds of every day and one-quarter of every year."

Here's a fact to remember: In ten years, families with school age children will account for only one quarter of our entire population-the lowest level in U.S. history. To maintain strong public support for public education, educators need to be reaching out to every part of the community, including our senior citizens.

There are many benefits to be gained by building an intergenerational alliance. Senior citizens-who haven't been in a school in years-may be wary of supporting a school bond issue because their children are grown. And with millions of baby-boomers starting to think about retirement, including some of you, let's think hard about building schools that serve all ages.

The third concept I want to encourage is the need to build smaller schools. As I have said on previous occasions, we are now building schools the size of shopping malls, and I don't think this is very wise. We have high schools in this nation with 5,000 and 6,000 students. We even have an elementary school with over 5,000 children.

Americans love bigness; we're a big country and we think in big terms. And that's not bad. But big is not always better when it comes to the education of our children. Almost all the research we have available now suggests that schools should accommodate no more than 600 students. As one very talented principal told me, "A school is too big when I can't remember the names of all my students." My friends, we don't need another Columbine. Every young person needs to feel a sense of connection when they go to school. And building smaller may also be the only choice for school systems in large urban areas like Los Angeles and New York City that simply do not have large tracts of real estate available. Building smaller schools also has important implications for how residents of neighborhoods see themselves-as true neighbors and part of a community, or as isolated strangers each going their own way.

As architects, you have three immediate and rather unique opportunities to influence and improve American education:

• You can help us pass the bipartisan Rangel-Johnson school construction legislation this year. Now is the time to lean in and make a difference.

• You can reach out to citizens and educators in a new way and involve them in the planning and design of new schools that are open later, longer and for more people in this new era of lifelong learning.

• And you can design and build smaller schools that help us make sure that every student has a strong sense of connection.

My friends, if ever there is a time that should be a Golden Era of School Design, it's now. Instead of building schools for 1950, let's build schools for 2050. Schools designed with the community and for the community. Schools that reflect a dedication to excellence and innovation. And schools that are open to Americans of all ages to reaffirm the democratic spirit of our great country in this new era of lifelong learning.

Let's build these schools in such a way that Americans 50 years from now will look back and say, "Yes-that was a unique time. As America moved into the 21st Century, democracy, citizenship and education were highly valued-and it really shows."

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© 2019 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.