When crowded classrooms pushed Swampscott, Mass., to consider building a new high school, some innovative thinkers saw another opportunity.
The town’s senior center was ailing, and the only handicap accessible area was in the basement. But because there’s limited land available in Swampscott, building a new, standalone senior center was a tough sell.
Still, community leaders recognized the need. The town’s elderly population was growing, matching (and expected to eventually surpass) the number of school-age children. Now, more than 15 years later, the town has both the high school and senior center it long needed, with the two located together on a single plot of land.
“It’s a great opportunity to have them really close and to be able to collaborate in really fun, unique ways,” said Swampscott High School Principal Dennis Kohut. “They love to collaborate and so do I, so it’s just a no-brainer—why would you not?”
Swampscott, a town of 15,000 north of Boston, could be a model to follow as more communities are tasked with balancing students’ needs with the needs of an aging population.
Swampscott’s project was a $54.5 million investment, which has been more than worthwhile, Kohut said.
While the high school and senior center, which opened in 2007, are located in the same building, each is concentrated in its own area, with separate entrances. The high school does, however, sometimes share its communal spaces—like the cafeteria, gym, fitness center, dance studio, computer labs, and lecture halls—with the senior center, and students and seniors often intermix.
Sometimes seniors who are war veterans speak to a high school history class, and students known as “Tech Ninjas” volunteer to teach seniors how to work technology. Students can drop by the senior center to learn how to knit or cook.
“Some of that slowed down during the pandemic because it just wasn’t safe, but we’re seeing it pick back up again, and it’s opportunities the kids never would have thought they’d have, so it’s really cool to see,” Kohut said.
The nation’s post-World War II baby boom between 1946 and 1964 led to a sudden influx of school-age children that strained districts across the country as they fought to keep pace with quickly increasing enrollments in schools that were often already crowded or in poor shape.
Now, those boomers are mostly in their 60s and 70s, and the country’s birthrate and public school enrollment are declining, prompting researchers and policy experts to question how shifting demographics could affect how future schools are built and operated.
Swampscott has been no exception to those trends.
The town’s high school’s student population has dropped by more than 90 in the past decade, according to state enrollment data. The high school this year enrolls 641 students.
It’s a great opportunity to have them really close and to be able to collaborate in really fun, unique ways. They love to collaborate and so do I, so it’s just a no-brainer—why would you not?
“My feeling is that public schools of the future will be more mixed-use,” said Jeff Vincent, the director of public infrastructure initiatives at the Center for Cities and Schools at the University of California, Berkeley. “Given the changing dynamics of enrollment and pressures on school systems to do more, to serve communities outside of school hours, in the future we’ll have more of these examples of sharing campus space with other government offices or nonprofits to serve more of the community.”
Opportunities for innovation
Schools—where children go to learn, people gather for events and meetings, and organizations offer services like free meal distributions—are the epicenters of their communities.
That’s especially true in small, rural communities, where there are fewer nearby resources and service providers.
But rural communities are at special risk of losing their schools as they feel the impact of declining enrollments and make moves to close or consolidate campuses, a national trend picking up pace in the wake of the pandemic. With school buildings closed, large swaths of the country could effectively be left without access to a community facility.
“We often close and consolidate schools in poor and underserved neighborhoods, so they lose that last public institution,” said Mildred Warner, a professor in the department of city and regional planning at Cornell University who specializes in restructuring government services. “There are opportunities to think more expansively about schools. I think we can do better, and I think we need to do better.”
Districts don’t have to go to the same lengths as Swampscott, but they could put more effort into making schools a community resource, Warner said. And it doesn’t always require tearing down and rebuilding a school.
Unused classrooms could be used for child care, Warner said. The school could be the congregate meal site for older adults. Seniors could come read to young children (providing important socialization opportunities for both groups). Schools could grant more access to gyms, libraries, and playgrounds.
If the benefits of expanding access to community services aren’t enough, there could be financial incentives for districts, too.
School funding is generally based, at least in part, on enrollment. So fewer students means a smaller financial investment from state governments, even as schools must address historic lapses in learning and increased social and mental health needs.
But providing resources and opportunities that appeal to a broader swath of the population could be just the incentive lawmakers need to earmark extra dollars, Warner said.
And other city agencies would be more likely to put money from their budgets toward mutually beneficial projects.
In addition, community members are still often willing to contribute more in taxes to fund their local schools, Warner said.
“More people will vote yes, because they’re still connected to the school, even though their kids have long since graduated,” Warner said.
Those added dollars could go toward facility upgrades and upkeep, Warner said.
There are, however, many valid concerns about mixing school and community operations.
Granting more people access to school facilities could lead to more opportunities for vandalism, for example. More casually intermixing community members with the school could lead to safety concerns, especially in the age of school shootings and other threats.
School districts could be sued for accidents or injuries that occur on their properties. And, logistically, staff must be available to lock and unlock facilities, and not all districts have somebody on call to unlock the gym for public use at 6 a.m.
Researchers, however, believe most, if not all, of the concerns could be addressed through intentional building design and school district partnerships with other organizations.
If a new school is being built with public use in mind, designers could limit shared areas to particular wings of the school that could be configured to block access to the school’s main sections, Vincent suggested.
Schools and other agencies that use the space could share the cost of additional security measures, like metal detectors or security staff, and additional insurance.
Joint use agreements detailing what each agency is responsible for in terms of costs and staffing could also be useful, Vincent said.
“I think that’s an important, proactive approach,” he said. “I know schools are under a lot of pressure, and they’re sometimes frustrated because they’re being asked to do so much, but I don’t think we’re asking them to take this all on themselves. We’re asking that they step out of silos a bit and bring in partnerships.”
There are already some examples of communities offering services in schools.
Districts across the country have invested in school-based health centers in partnership with local health departments or other health-care providers, where students, and sometimes their families, can receive basic health care like vaccinations and check-ups.
Some schools have planted community gardens or serve as distribution sites for free meals for families in poverty.
“You mostly see schools being sort of reconfigured or just using the space they already have for those kinds of things because not every place has the luxury of rebuilding or redesigning the school for those kinds of community uses,” Vincent said. “It’s whatever’s opportunistic with what’s happening locally.”
In Swampscott, where school and senior center leaders have spent the past decade and a half refining their partnership, Kohut, the school’s principal, said their experience has been overwhelmingly positive.
“As communities change and evolve,” he said, “I think the model that we’ve seen so much success in is something for other schools to at least really consider.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 22, 2023 edition of Education Week as A School Model for an Aging Nation