“Back to School for Planners”; “Why Johnny Can’t Walk to School”; “The Cost Effectiveness of Small Schools”

As the fate of Bridge Street School–the most “downtown” of all Northampton’s elementary schools–hangs in the balance, it’s a good time to review “Back to School for Planners”, an article from the Fall 2004 issue of Planning Commissioners Journal. The author is Tim Torma, a policy analyst in the EPA’s Smart Growth Program.

From “Back to School for Planners”

…school facilities often drive land development patterns…

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of public schools in the United States decreased from 238,000 in 1930 to 93,000 in 2001. At the same time, student population rose from 28 to 53.5 million…

Explanations for this trend towards larger school size include the ability to offer more courses and purchase more advanced equipment, and lower costs per student per year…

…the trend towards mega schools continues despite widespread agreement among researchers that the size of most U.S. schools is too large. A growing body of research has shown that “student achievement in small schools is at least equal and often superior to achievement in large schools.” A higher percentage of students, across all socio-economic levels, are successful when they are part of smaller, more intimate learning communities… Security improves and violence decreases, as does student alcohol and drug abuse.

The assumption that larger schools are most cost-effective has also been questioned. In a 1998 review of research literature, Mary Anne Raywid of Hofstra University concluded, “When viewed on a cost-per-student-enrolled basis, they [small schools] are somewhat more expensive. But when examined on the basis of the number of students they graduate, they are less expensive than either medium-sized or large high schools.”

…Cities are combining school revitalization funding with other municipal investments, using schools as a key component in efforts to stabilize entire neighborhoods…

Since travel to school can represent 10-15 percent of morning rush hour motor vehicle trips in many areas, the choice of school location and design affects traffic congestion and air quality as well as having implications for school transportation budgets. And, as concern mounts about the amount of physical activity school children get, many school districts, planners, and parents want to provide as many children as possible with the option to walk safely to school.

Sidebar: Neighborhood Schools

…proponents of “New Urbanism” and “Smart Growth” advocate for higher density residential areas, permitting reclamation of the walk-in local elementary school… The growing number of “safe routes to school” programs also highlight a renewed interest in enabling young people to walk or bike to school. These programs are not only designed to provide health and safety benefits, but to better connect children with their communities and with the natural environment.

Sidebar: School Planning in Orange County, Florida

…Orange County has also sought to foster the location of elementary schools within walking distance of residential areas. In west Orange County, the Horizon West Sector Plan covers a 38,000-acre master planned area that was previously in rural and agricultural use. School planning for Horizon West’s six villages and Town Center includes the requirement that all housing in the villages’ neighborhoods be no more than one-half mile walking distance from an elementary school….

Sidebar: When School Doors Close

Schools contribute to the economic life and vitality of their neighborhoods. When a community lacks a school, fewer new residents move there and property values decline. The buying power of the school district and its employees, and the purchases students, parents, and community members make in businesses located around the school, can be substantial…

Schools located at a distance from the community’s center force people to use buses and automobiles, increasing air pollution and dependence on fossil fuels… schools are “the advance scouts for sprawl”…

Schools bring together people from all ages in a wide range of activities and function as centers of the community. When schools close, this connection is severed. Residents of eight small towns in North Dakota that had lost their school rated their quality of life significantly lower than residents of towns that had retained their school. A case study of Lund, Nevada, found that one-third of all community activities took place at the school, and that these activities diminished when the school closed…

Since 1930, the number of people serving on school boards has fallen from one million to fewer than 200,000. Participation in the democratic process is reduced when a school closes because fewer people contribute to decisions about local education “making public schools less public.”

…Planners need to recognize the importance of small neighborhood schools as engines of sustainability, and seek to secure their place in the community.

Planning Commissioners Journal also recommends these additional articles on school size and location:

“Why Johnny Can’t Walk to School: Historic Neighborhood Schools in the Age of Sprawl”
(National Trust for Historic Preservation, 2nd edition, 2002, PDF)

…Wilson is a small, community-centered school that anchors an older neighborhood [in Spokane, Washington]. It’s exactly the kind of school that many educators and parents across the country are calling for today. But if you tried to build a school like Wilson, you could not do so in many places. In some areas you couldn’t even renovate or add on to such a school. That’s because Wilson sits on only 1.9 acres of land, a small site that would be considered “substandard” under many state policies, which typically require at least ten acres of land–plus one acre for every 100 students–for a new elementary school. Much larger sites are recommended for middle and high schools…

…the continued presence of a school–old or new–is often key to an older neighborhood’s economic viability…

We found that while some educators believe that large schools are better because they provide economies of scale, offer students more subject offerings, and permit more competitive sports teams who can practice on more ball fields, many others prefer smaller, community-centered schools. It is not necessary to settle the debate over whether big or small schools are better in order to recognize that across the country, many parents, teachers, and education experts are saying that smaller schools are better for kids, better for learning, and better for communities.

“We need to find ways to create small, supportive learning environments that give students a sense of connection,” former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley told the National Press Club in his 1999 Back-to-School Address. “That’s hard to do when we are building high schools the size of shopping malls,” he added. “Size matters…”

Smaller, human-scaled institutions are easier to fit into existing neighborhoods. They are also easier for community residents to relate to than behemoth-sized institutions…

Like the movement of post offices and other public buildings from downtowns to outlying commercial strips, the migration of schools from settled neighborhoods to middle-of-nowhere locations is one more factor weakening the ties that once brought people together. And like residential or commercial sprawl, “school sprawl” is contributing to the dismemberment of communities across the country…

Older, in-town neighborhoods whose viability is enhanced or even sustained by the presence of a school fear losing the “glue” that holds them together…

…Steven Bingler, president of Concordia,
Inc., a New Orleans-based education planning firm…observes that the market for inner-city housing for families often depends on the quality of inner-city schools: “Many residents fleeing the inner city for the suburbs are leaving in search of more stable and dependable schools…”

Students may never have heard of “school sprawl,” but they feel its consequences. “There is no activity bus at my school,” writes a Northern Virginia teen in a letter-to-the-editor. “If students do any sort of after-school activity,” she continues, “they must drive themselves home, bum rides or wait to be picked up. The inconvenience on parents is immense… My parents are sick of chauffeuring me, and I am sick of begging rides in order to go anywhere… distances are almost always too far to be easily walked or biked.”

…spontaneous play among children is becoming obsolete. Children must be driven miles to play with friends…

The percentage of overweight children has increased by 63% over the past 30 years, according to the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta]…

National guidelines recommended to states by the Council of Educational Facility Planners International (CEFPI) call for the following:

Elementary School: At least 10 acres of land plus one acre for every 100 students

Middle School: At least 20 acres of land plus one acre for every 100 students

High School: At least 30 acres of land plus one acre for every 100 students…

Since sites that large can generally be found only in outlying areas, which are too remote for students to walk to or reach by public transit, schools often require a vast expanse of asphalt for parking… In Charleston, S.C., schools serving 3,000 students are being built with nearly ten acres of parking…

Like acreage standards, state reimbursement policies can also tip the scales in favor of building new schools and against the upgrading of existing schools…

A Massachusetts report found that state funding sources for school maintenance and repair have the “unintentional side effect of rewarding schools that allow their facilities to deteriorate with new school buildings.”

…it is worth noting that whereas private corporations receive state and federal tax incentives for rehabilitating historic buildings, public agencies such as school districts receive no such incentives for renovating historic schools…

Research into local planning and development activities in Lincoln, Neb., prompted W. Cecil Steward, dean emeritus of the College of Architecture at the University of Nebraska, to conclude that “the public school system…is the most influential planning entity, either public or private, promoting the prototypical sprawl pattern of American cities.”

…School superintendents and school boards “have regularly ignored or bypassed local master plans, capital improvement plans, and even zoning in the siting and operations of their facilities,” writes a Massachusetts planner. “It is as if they were above planning.”

…The costs of busing children longer distances as a result of building schools in remote locations are sometimes ignored, even though these costs can be substantial. In Maine, for example, between 1970 and 1995, the number of students statewide declined by 27,000. During this same period, however, school busing costs rose from $8.7 million to over $54 million…

Parents are sometimes afraid to speak out against a school board’s plans to close or demolish the school lest reprisals be taken against their children. Whether or not such fears are well grounded, they can be very real. As one parent said, “Going up against the school board was a gut-wrenching, stressful experience. My daughter attends the school. Here I was going up against the principal…” Speaking out can be particularly difficult in a small town in which everyone knows everyone else and no one wants to create division…

Residents of the Trinity Park area [in Durham, North Carolina] had already seen what the loss of a school could do to a neighborhood. “Our school system had a lot of empty buildings sitting all over the place,” recalls Linda Wilson, a neighborhood resident. “They were boarded up all over the city. Two schools had even burned down. So we worried that closing Watts would create a blight in our neighborhood.”

…”When you think about it, the school is the only structure that really pulls us together and gives us a sense of ownership over the neighborhood,” says [Dr. Curtis Eshelman, a member of the Durham City School Board]. “It’s the most cohesive element we have as a community. And the ability of children to walk to school is fantastic, especially for the little ones. They don’t have to get on a big, intimidating bus and go to some strange place…”

…Ann Clancy, former president of the Broadwater School PTA [in Montana], pointed out that city residents have already seen first-hand the ill effects that a school’s closing can have on a neighborhood. After an older school in Billings’ North Park area closed several years ago, the surrounding area declined…

Boise, Idaho… Orndorff [a local school board member] reports that when the local school board adopted a policy on school closings, it included a requirement that the board consider the historic significance of a school: “We agreed that you can’t just look at raw numbers in deciding whether to keep a school building open or not. Former and future students–and an entire community–may see value in a historical structure. If we lose that piece of social fabric, then we jeopardize our whole culture. And the preservation of our culture is important to a child’s well-rounded education…”

St. Louis… “Our philosophy is to retain our school buildings because they were built to last,” says Peter Bailey, planning director for St. Louis Public Schools. “Whenever possible, we try to invest in bringing neighborhoods back to life. We really believe that schools are community anchors.”

…If a school’s huge size and auto-orientation dictate an edge-of-town location, the school is more likely to be surrounded by a large parking lot than by a human-scaled neighborhood…

By reducing the number of students who have to drive–or be driven–to school, preserving schools in walkable neighborhoods avoids the water and air pollution (a major cause of childhood asthma) to which “school sprawl” contributes…

Schools are part of the glue that holds communities together. As Darrell Rud, recent president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals put it, “You take out the school, and that’s the beginning of the decline of the neighborhood. You’ve got to have a school to have a neighborhood.” The school introduces people who would otherwise remain strangers to each other. In so doing, it helps build a sense of community, which is central to solving society’s bigger challenges, education included.

Conversely, the removal of a longstanding, community-centered school can dishearten an older neighborhood. It is precisely because they have seen first-hand the effects of boarded-up schools on other older neighborhoods that citizens in many places raise an uproar over the closing of historic neighborhood schools…

Work to ensure that a minimum of 50% of the students can walk or bike to school in cities, towns, and suburbs…

“Dollars & Sense: The Cost Effectiveness of Small Schools”
(KnowledgeWorks Foundation, 2002)

…Existing policies, and the
administrators interpreting them, have tended to dismiss
concerns for historic, aesthetic, social, and community
values as irrelevant sentimentality; but they are far from
that. Community identity in and with the local school
has, for instance, been shown to be a strong influence on
early school achievement (Bickel & Eagle, 2001)…

Elementary schools are, on average, already about half
the size of high schools. They should be even smaller…

The smallest schools should exist in the poorest

…ideal upper limits of “small size”
for schools with conventionally wide grade spans are as

  • High schools (9-12): 75 students per grade level
    (300 total enrollment)
  • Middle schools (5-8): 50 students per grade level
    (200 total enrollment)
  • Elementary schools (1-8): 25 students per grade level
    (200 total enrollment)
  • Elementary schools (1-6): 25 students per grade level
    (150 total enrollment).

…The research about the value of smaller schools shows that
small schools are safer schools and better places for
students to work with adults who know them and whom
they trust (Barker & Gump, 1964; Wasley, 2000; Cotton,
2001). Small schools graduate a higher percentage of
students. Students drop out of small schools at lower rates
than they do from large schools, and more students who
graduate from small schools go on to post-secondary
education than do their counterparts who graduate from large schools. There is less violence in small schools, less
vandalism, a heightened sense of belonging, and better
attendance. Students earn higher grade point averages,
and more participate in extracurricular activities. There is
greater teacher satisfaction in small schools than there is
in large schools. Members
of the community
including parents and
other relatives are more
involved with the life of
small schools than are
their counterparts in large
schools–for the same
reasons as their children
(Cotton, 2001)…

School size is arguably more important than either racial
makeup or class size, according to at least one analysis. The Report Card on American Education (2001) noted that
higher outcomes on standardized tests, such as the SAT
and the ACT, as well as higher rates of graduation, may
be connected more with school size than with race
(LeFevre & Hederman, 2001, p. 3). The study also found
that school size, not classroom size, was the key to
student performance. Children performed better in
schools where the principal knew their names. Schools
with fewer than 300 students showed the best performance,
even though class size in these schools was higher
than the national average (RCAE, 1994). Similarly,
Bickel and Howley show that the effects of class size and
school size are different and to some extent separate. It is
true that smaller schools tend to have smaller class sizes.
But even when the influence of class size is included in
studies, the influence of school size remains strong.
District size also generally exerts a distinct influence
(Bickel & Howley, 2000)…

At least one study spotlights the mechanisms by which
small schools become more effective than large schools.
Lee and Smith (1994) used data from the National
Educational Longitudinal Study (1994) to show that
small schools increased teacher collaboration and team
teaching. Lee and Smith report that “large size and fragmented
human contact complicate the management of
[large] schools, which elevates the importance of formal
rules to regulate behavior. The environment in comprehensive
high schools is therefore less human” (p. 2)…

Adding up the costs and weighing them
against the benefits shows that small schools not only are
better places in which to educate children, but that large
schools themselves actually create significant diseconomies…

[Funk & Bailey, 1999 research report:]
By two important measures of student outcome, smaller
schools in Nebraska generally perform better than larger
ones. The additional input cost of supporting students in
smaller schools needs to be weighed against their more
positive educational outcomes. The so-called inefficiencies
of small schools are greatly reduced when calculated
on the basis of cost per graduate, and virtually disappear
when the substantial social costs of non-graduates and
the societal impact of college-educated citizens are considered
(p. 3).

Both the Nebraska study and its counterpart
in New York show that, measuring by the cost of
a graduate, small schools are good financial and educational

While it may be true that in small schools some costs
increase because they are spread out over fewer students,
research suggests that large schools require added tiers of
administration, more security people, and additional
maintenance and operations personnel. The reason for
this may be that in large schools more students feel alienated
from the life of the school and some vent their anger
in inappropriate or violent behavior. Therefore, it takes
more paid professionals per student to deal with the negative
effects of alienation in a large school than in a small
one, where people know each other better…

A trained guidance
counselor who has responsibility for 250 or more students
cannot hope to know them as well as an advisor who
works with a small number of the same students every
day, sometimes throughout the student’s years at the
school. An advisor may suggest specialized intervention
if the student seems to need extra help with a medical,
psychological, or family problem, but his or her primary
function is as a student’s guide, mentor, and ombudsman.
The advisor system is not only more efficient, but also,
most importantly, it is more proactive and helpful to students
and their families than a system in which many
students get to know their guidance counselor only when
they get into trouble and too many get lost in the impersonal
culture of a large institution (Ellis, 1990; Lawrence,
1998, p. 261)…

Students who spend less time on the
bus are able to spend more time with family and friends, in
community activities, and even on homework. Involvement
with their families and communities is a no-cost benefit of
smaller schools that helps students to live better and richer
lives, and to connect more fully with their school as well
(Beaumont & Pianca, 2000; Howley & Howley, 2001)…

The closure of a school can be particularly hard
on retail stores. Sales
from students and teachers
evaporate, while
parents do more of their
shopping near their children’s
new school…

When schools and other
services move out, downtown commerce invariably suffers
as more of the community’s activity shifts to the fringe.
Residential subdivisions and chain store sprawl soon
follow, eliminating open space and increasing traffic
congestion, and further undermining the community’s
historic center…

Without a local school, both small
towns and urban neighborhoods will be unable to attract
young families. Out-migration will increase. Researchers William Dreier and Willis Goudy (1991) found that a
larger number of Midwestern towns that had lost their
schools to consolidation were losing population and
at a faster rate than those towns that had maintained
their local school. As population falls, home values drop
and businesses struggle. Once this spiral of disinvestment
and decline begins, it can be very difficult to turn around…

Schools anchor and unify communities by bringing
residents of all ages and backgrounds together for a
variety of activities and services. Schools often double
as community and cultural centers…

Perhaps more than any
other institution,
schools are responsible
for a sense of community
and collective
identity. Local schools
educate generations of
friends, family, and
neighbors, providing a
shared experience and continuity from one generation to the next. Local schools
have much to do with a community’s sense of its own

It is not unreasonable
to think that the closure of a local school would
make people more apathetic and less likely to vote in school board elections and to endorse school bonds and
increases in education spending…

Many people know intuitively that small schools
work best for children and teachers, but now
there is research to prove it. Unfortunately,
many communities have already lost their good, small
schools because they could not argue successfully against
educators and policy-makers determined to implement
“economies of scale” through consolidation. Now, it is
clear that there are significant diseconomies in large
facilities, and that they do not create the best schools
in which to nurture or educate children…

Large schools are expensive
to individuals, their
communities, and the
nation because there are
many hidden costs. Most
obvious are expenses
such as increased transportation,
higher administrative
overhead, and expenditures for maintenance and
security. Other costs of large schools are more subtle:
lower graduation rates, higher drop out rates, high rates
of violence and vandalism, higher absenteeism, and lower
teacher satisfaction. Loss of a school has enormous social
and financial impacts on a community…

Sidebar: …Another method of making the best of large facilities is to use them to house truly small schools and make the remaining space
available for use by the community during and after the school day. Facilities that once served as large consolidated high schools can
be leased to community agencies such as day care or senior care centers, health care centers for students, their families, and members
of the community, and to other business and recreational organizations (Lawrence, 2002a). Any district with declining enrollment
and excess space should consider this approach…

See also:

Gazette: “Group sends letter to fight school closing” (4/2/08)

Letter to Gazette: “Don’t rush into a decision on school closure” (3/30/08)

April 12: Garden Clean Up/Community Rally for Bridge Street School (3/26/08)

Mayor Presents Latest Northampton City Budget, Proposed School Budget Reductions (3/24/08)

Closing Bridge Street School Contradicts Smart Growth Goals (3/19/08)
On page 11 of the Sustainable Northampton Plan, Land Use objective number 5 states:

Locate housing within walking distances along safe paths, or with
bicycle access, to and from neighborhood commercial areas, parks and
recreation, schools, and public transportation.

On page 51, one metric of progress is “Percent of children able to walk to school”.

Education World: “Are Smaller Schools Better Schools?” (7/20/00)