Schools should be the center and heart of community; places where our future leaders are nurtured through traditional and experiential learning techniques. Schools can and should be healthy, engaging, and promote significant community involvement. In return, schools should play an elemental role in augmenting civic engagement, sponsoring cultural events, and promoting community pride. Recreational facilities, fine arts venues, and the like provide neighborhood spaces for interaction, learning, and community building.

A Community Re-Imagines the School

Communities are re-imagining schools to take advantage of spaces outside the classroom to enrich the learning experience and provide more teaching spaces.

‘Green’ schools are a popular design choice since they serve the community in multiple ways by being built with local, sustainable materials to support the economy, and have an emphasis on longevity with low-maintenance materials, equaling low operational costs. The unintended result of good stewardship of the environment is the attraction to develop magnet curriculum in these well designed, healthy teaching environments.

Byron Center Public Schools (Byron Center, MI) is one small district that has embraced these ideals and as a result has seen much growth amidst competition and recession. From late 1990’s to late 2000’s, BCPS saw a miraculous 30% growth rate. The district recognizes that providing quality and unique neighborhood schools as been a large contributor to this growth.

Honoring the Community’s Past

The newly designed Countryside Elementary School in Byron Center was designed in an agrarian theme, paying homage to the farm and barn structures that once occupied this rural site. More importantly, the school engages students and community by showcasing and promoting environmental awareness. Among other attributes, nature trails connect the classroom to wetlands (the outdoor classroom), photovoltaic displays teach students the power of the sun, and windmills aerate ponds, which educate students on farming. A model train that runs on photovoltaic power is showcased in the main lobby.

Integrating Community Into the School

Providing public access to the common areas during non-school hours can strengthen the bonds with the community. The design of West Middle School is a 250,000 SF facility, had the community in mind from the beginning. A 700-seat gymnasium and running track is used by senior citizen groups and other associations to promote community wellness. The state of the art library and multi-purpose “cafetorium” are used to engage and host a variety of civic organizations. The school was specifically zoned to accommodate a variety of after hours uses.

Preserving Community Resources

Fiscal responsibility was an important part of the planned growth and has resulted in the repurposing of several school facilities for alternative uses. The district recognized that the aged Nickels Intermediate School could no longer support the flexible learning styles necessary for educating today’s students, and repurposed the building into a long needed administrative complex. Subsequently, the existing middle school (replaced by the new state of the art West Middle School) now supports grades 5-6 in a modern, collaborative teaching environment. Structure was altered to create open learning centers in the heart of the school.

Listening to the Needs of the Community

In addition to the standard state prescribed curricula, BCPS offers two regional programs: The Kent Career Technical Center’s Regional Theater Arts Technology program and the Kent Career Technical Center’s Machine Tool program. These programs are housed at the high school, and provide teaching and experience in engineering and manufacturing technology, health careers, aviation technology, hospitality, and diesel and auto mechanics.

By working with public schools, the community can gain value in their property tax and SPLOST investment beyond the teaching of future leaders. Access to shared spaces during non-school hours as well as the increased property value across the community all stem from a well-designed school building, program, and campus, and is a vital to a community’s growth and longevity.

Written By Mark Levine, AIA, –  Education Practice Leader for Pond & Company and previous Senior Design Leader at Tower Pinkster, a west Michigan architectural practice, focusing on elementary and higher education school projects.

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