In Arlington, we’re riding a wave of student enrollment growth that’s projected to continue for the rest of this decade. Enrollment growth has put the squeeze on existing school spaces, and even with recent construction and expansion projects, we’ll still have a seat deficit at all levels elementary through high school.
In recognition of this fact, County Manager Mark Schwartz sent a letter to APS Interim Superintendent Cintia Johnson in November 2019 identifying 25 County-owned sites that could be appropriate for future APS facilities. Schwartz noted that nearly all the sites currently host County-operated programs (like Parks & Recreation classes) so the County and APS would need to figure out how to relocate or co-locate these existing programs by engaging stakeholders and groups like the Joint Facilities Advisory Commission (JFAC).
JFAC’s charge includes “big picture, visionary thinking and providing a forum where fresh and creative ideas can be discussed freely.” In this spirit, I’m offering four snapshots of school districts across the country who have made innovative choices about their school facilities. I believe these are promising examples for APS, the County, and groups like JFAC to consider.
Snapshot #1: A High School Within a Health Center
Twenty-five years ago in Dorchester, MA, leaders of the Codman Square Health Partners clinic decided to launch a bold experiment: they would partner with other community organizations to open a charter high school and co-locate it with the clinic.
Codman Academy Charter Public School is the only public school in the U.S. located within a community health center. Codman’s student population comprises 99% students of color, and 89% live in low-income households. 100% of Codman’s graduates are accepted to college, and 100% of families have met with school staff within the past year.
The health center provides free dental, hearing, and vision screenings for students, individual and family counseling, and teaches the high school’s sex education program. Many students complete internships at the health center that launch careers in medicine and community health.
Leaders of the health center and school have produced a blueprint for other communities (like Arlington?) that want to adopt their model. The partnership is a win-win for the school and the health center, which is able to reach more people in the community through connections that the school creates. It’s also providing the kinds of wrap-around support that its students and their families need: when I visited the school in December 2018, head of school Thabiti Brown told me, “Let’s ensure that we are educating so that we can produce graduates who are able to use their knowledge to change the world. The world is one that isn’t just and fair for low income folks, and it isn’t one that supports Black and Brown students.”
Snapshot #2: The City is the Campus
The Cleveland Metropolitan School District is one of the most economically challenged school districts in the country. In 2011, driven by a graduation rate of only 60% and a recognized need to provide students with an integrated curriculum informed by real-world experiences, the school district partnered with several companies and community organizations to launch the MC2 STEM High School.
The school’s 400 students, all of whom are eligible for free and reduced-price meals, don’t report to a central campus: instead, they take classes all over the city and are “embedded” into local businesses, schools, and nonprofits, including the Great Lakes Science Center, NASA’s Glenn Research Center, Cleveland State University, and the headquarters of GE Lighting.
Snapshot #3: Place-Based Learning
Snapshot #4: World-Class Instruction, Not Construction
'When I visited the Science Leadership Academy in 2015, I was underwhelmed by the SLA campus, which amounted to a few floors in a nondescript office building in Philadelphia’s Center City.
SLA is a public high school magnet program founded as a partnership between The Franklin Institute science museum and The School District of Philadelphia. Until quite recently, the school operated out of leased office space and made do without many of the amenities that other high schools take for granted—so much so that as I spent my day there, I wondered if the furnishings were castoffs from other schools.
First impressions, however, don’t do justice to the amazing teaching and learning that happens within SLA classrooms. SLA is an award-winning, inquiry-driven, project-based school led by Chris Lehmann, truly one of the most visionary and inspiring educators I’ve ever met.
SLA is a great example of leading with instruction instead of construction. Having facilities that win architectural awards and offer every amenity isn’t any guarantee that great teaching and learning is happening at those sites. This is why, in the post I wrote last week, I argued that it is so important for APS to rethink its Instructional Program Pathways initiative.
I believe that Arlington shouldn't--and likely can't--build its way out of its capacity issues by constructing more of the same traditional school buildings, and I believe that innovative solutions to our space problems can actually yield better results for teaching and learning. If you believe that the School Board and APS need to adopt more creative thinking about facilities, I hope you’ll support my campaign.
Photos from Codman Academy Charter Public School and the Science and Math Institute used with permission.