The pandemic made it clear that K-12 campuses play a vital role in communities. Now we are examining what we’ve learned and how to apply that knowledge to develop better schools.
In the span of a few days in March, Menchaca Elementary School Principal Eliza Loyola went from planning for district meetings and a track and field meet to serving as a social worker and resource center for the community. Her days were spent reaching out to families in the school’s South Austin neighborhood, making sure students were getting meals, families had access to the Internet and that parents knew about programs available to help them through the lockdown.
“They’re my families,” Loyola says. “I have a huge responsibility and commitment to my students and their parents.”
Like millions of educators and administrators around the country, Loyola has been tackling new roles and learning more about her community. Instead of test scores, she has been focused on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, ensuring that students are safe, sheltered and receiving proper care.
“I think that a school, even via distance learning, can anchor students and actually the entire family to a sense of belonging,” Loyola says. “I felt like that was the priority at the time.”
The pandemic highlighted the importance of welcoming spaces that can connect the community and students.
When the pandemic hit, communities quickly realized that schools are “essential.” Campuses played a key role in the eco-system of neighborhoods, providing resources and support to families that went well beyond the basic educational needs of students including food and wellness checks. Schools responded in unprecedented ways to an unprecedented crisis, changing the model for the campus in the community.
As districts prepare for an uncertain future, the events of the pandemic are prompting educators and administrators to re-examine every aspect of education, including the connections to the community. Change is creating opportunities. Ideas old and new are on the table. For the first time in a long while, administrators can ask: “What if…?” What if we incorporate wellness centers and clinics into more campuses? What about support spaces for parents? Are there ways to share learning and recreational facilities to maximize community resources and collectively build a culture of health and wellness across generations?
“As districts examine the post-COVID-19 future of schools, we shouldn’t forget what we’ve learned from these experiences,” says LPA Design Director Kate Mraw. “Instead of closing off schools to the community forever, what if we reimagined schools to realize the benefits of the relationship between the two?”
“We cannot allow this public health crisis to become a generational education crisis.” - Texas Education Agency (TEA)
Looking for Opportunities
Many districts view the idea of expanding the role of campuses in the community as a growing priority. A survey of education leaders conducted early in the lockdown by LPA’s in-house research team, LPAred, found that 84.6 percent of district administrators rated community health and wellness as their top priority, above pedagogy and facility use, finance and operations and extracurricular activities.
The concept of a “community school” is not new. But the response to COVID-19 has brought new urgency to the discussion of how campuses can be designed to marshal community resources, provide needed services and expand learning opportunities for students. More than ever, communities are recognizing the importance of addressing the full range of student needs, beyond simply learning.
“In some ways COVID gave more educators and administrators permission to reach out to students and families on a social and emotional basis,” says Julie Zoellin Cramer, founder of Wayfind Education and consultant to LPA.
After an initial flurry of conflicting reports, the pandemic re-enforced that most students need to be in school, at least part of the day. Remote learning didn’t work for large groups of learners. Some districts reported absenteeism as high as 30 percent. Vulnerable groups—low income families, language barriers, learning challenged students—are in real danger of being left behind. Only 56 percent of households with incomes under $30,000 have access to broadband Internet, according to a study by the Pew Research Center.
As schools look for ways to prepare their campuses for new roles, any design changes should be rooted in a deep understanding of the different drivers shaping the community’s perceptions and decision-making process, says Jim Kisel, LPA’s Director of K-12.
New facilities and programs should be responsive to the community’s unique needs, not a template or government guidance. Similar to a master planning process, the outreach must work hard to find under-represented groups and recognize that people communicate differently.
“Talking to stakeholders means talking to everybody,” Kisel says. “It’s crucial to not only understand what’s driving stakeholder perceptions of reopening, but what’s driving their ability to positively view your work.”
Reconfigured activity centers can help support meetings between community mentors and advocates.
The Power of Learning Spaces that Welcome Community
Integrating the community into schools can produce real benefits for learners, Cramer says. When the student experience is better integrated with the community, learners develop a greater sense of empathy and understanding of the world around them, she says. Research on existing community schools has identified a wide range of benefits, including better attendance, healthier students and higher acceptance rates at universities.
Grounding spatial design in the context of local culture, community and place “invites students to bring their full self, connect schooling to lived experience and grow their identity as a valued learner in an academic environment,” Cramer says. “The more a school is a welcoming environment or a community hub, the more it makes students feel respected, empowered and ready to learn.”
On a fundamental level, involving community groups and providing more family activities on campus can help learners feel more connected to the school. “Imagine the impact of a student who knows that their parent is going to their school on the weekend to learn something?” Cramer says. “That in itself creates a sense of belonging and positions them for better academic learning.”
Many of the fundamental shifts in education that were occurring before the pandemic are even more relevant now, educators say. Personalization, project- and place-based learning, and a focus on health and well-being will grow more important as schools accept that not all learning will happen in classrooms. Designing flexible, effective, small-group collaboration and outdoor spaces for experiential activities is now a priority for many administrators.
Instead of a one-size-fits-all approach, spaces can be designed to support different activities reflecting the specific needs of the community. The value can be seen on campuses such as Eastvale STEM Academy in the Corona-Norco Unified School District, where local universities and business helped shape the curriculum and the design of the learning labs. On the Eastwood Elementary School campus in Irvine, California, co-labs surround classrooms and outdoor spaces serve as learning environments, providing the flexibility that will be essential as schools move forward.
Educators are finding new value in activating outdoor spaces as they look for ways to create different types of learning environments in the post-COVID-19 world.
“Districts are starting to see outdoor spaces as more than simply a playground or quad,” says LPA Director of Landscape Architecture Kari Kikuta. “The conversation has changed now that it is so important to have more opportunities to spread students out.”
Existing campuses can develop environments that support a wide variety of activities, even in temperate zones. Shade structures, varied seating opportunities, work surfaces and available wi-fi can help turn an underutilized exterior into a useful space.
Usable outdoor spaces don’t have to be high-maintenance, Kikuta says. For Eastwood Elementary, a traditional finger-style campus in Irvine, California, the spaces between the classrooms were developed for both small groups and an entire classroom to work outdoors. In Texas, where heat is often a concern, campuses have been developed with fresh-air spaces for learning and play, many with direct connections to the indoor spaces, by accommodating shade through tree canopies and physical structures.
“The more spaces you develop, the more your campus has the opportunity to grow,” Kikuta says. “You are essentially building usable learning space beyond the four walls of your classroom.”
“It’s crucial to not only understand what’s driving stakeholder perceptions of reopening, but what’s driving their ability to positively view your work.” -Jim Kisel, Director of K-12
In activity-based centers, spaces can be easily reconfigured to support different activities, such as sessions for community mentors and advocates. “These breakout spaces offer flexibility and agility, allowing learning to move beyond the four walls of the classroom,” says LPA Project Designer Lindsay Hayward. The challenge will be to introduce more collaborative spaces and community connections on existing campuses. “How can we be more creative between outdoor and indoor space to make that happen?” Hayward asks.
Effective, small group collaboration spaces are a growing priority for administrators.
Many of the elements of the LPA-designed Menchaca campus, which opened in January, are proving useful as the campus prepares for future steps, Loyola says. The campus was designed with four separate wings, which will make it easier to separate groups and prepare targeted activities. Outdoor learning spaces will give teachers the option to move groups into the fresh air. Embedded technology and flexible conference rooms will allow for remote parent conferences. A community room, primarily used by the PTA, is separate from the main entrance. “We can still have parents on-site working or supporting the school or filling out paperwork, without their ever having to cross over into where kids are,” she says.
In Loyola’s view, the pandemic has put the spotlight on many of the school’s existing values. “I feel like it has reaffirmed so much of what we were doing at the campus daily to create a really strong sense of community at our school,” she says.
On the Menchaca Elementary campus, which opened in January, many of the existing design elements will help the transition into the new era.
Planning for the Future
The pandemic made it clear that schools serve families and the broader needs of the community in many ways. As districts examine the future of campuses, it makes sense to explore opportunities to co-locate libraries and community services on campuses. Embedded health services can address the physical and mental health of students and parents, recognizing that schools will need to create closer ties to families to help students progress.
Communities can start the process by conducting detailed assessments of what resources exist in the community, what resources are needed and where there are overlaps, Cramer says. From food banks to counseling programs, locating activities on campus and partnering with local organizations can create efficiencies and opportunities for better learning experiences, she says. “It’s all about asset mapping and looking at where it might be possible to bring those assets into the school environment,” Cramer says.
Last year, as part of a Forward Thinking exercise, a team of LPA designers explored how an urban campus in the San Francisco Bay Area could integrate with a transportation hub and community services to create a center to support parents and families. The ground floor was a combination of co-work spaces, collaborative spaces and specialized learning environments, where parents could work in close proximity to their children. The campus was programmed around learning within the local context, including exploration labs and incubator team rooms.
“It was eye-opening to explore how many ways a campus could expand learning and make connections to the community, as well as improve a family’s daily experience,” Mraw says.
LPA’s survey of Texas superintendents found that 64 percent strongly agree that today’s challenges will permanently change educational delivery. Whereas some responses will be temporary, others will have a lasting effect on learning and campuses. Connections to the community and the growing civic role of the campus provide long-term opportunities for administrators.
“There is an understanding at a really gut level of the central importance of the school as a community center,” Cramer says. “People are quite clear on that now.”