School Climate & Safety

National Trust Urges Saving Historic Schools

By Alan Richard — November 22, 2000 4 min read
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The report, “Historic Neighborhood Schools in the Age of Sprawl: Why Johnny Can’t Walk to School,” (requires Adobe’s Acrobat Reader), is available from the National Trust or by calling (202) 588- 6000.

Historic neighborhood schools should be renovated and savored, not closed or replaced by edge-of-town schools that have little character, members of the National Trust for Historic Preservation said last week.The nonprofit group is beginning a campaign for policies to preserve older schools and hopes to persuade districts, cities, states, and the federal government to create incentives to save historic schools.

“For decades, the neighborhood school has been a strong and much-loved symbol of American community life,” said Richard Moe, the president of the Washington-based organization. “But instead of being cherished, these schools are being abandoned,demolished, and replaced with factory-like mega-schools in isolated locations.”

1] Hoffman Public School (1922) in Cincinnati needs extensive renovations because of deferred maintenance.
— Juanita Stork/Courtesy of Cincinnati Preservation Association

In a report based on more than 100 interviews, the trust highlights success stories in which older schools have been renovated in Detroit, Evansville, Ind., and Boise, Idaho. Only one-eighth of American children live within walking distance of their schools, according to the report.

“We are realists. We don’t think every school can be or should be saved, but many can be,” said Constance E. Beaumont, the director of state and local policy for the national trust and a co-author of the report.

Communities can better preserve historic schools by repealing policies that favor new construction, the report recommends.

Bias Toward New?

Requiring a minimum number of acres for school sites, for example, prohibits renovations of many older schools, Ms. Beaumont said. Maryland has dropped such a policy, she noted.

2] Broadwater Elementary School (1909) in Billings, Mont., is scheduled to be closed, while a new school would be built outside of town.
—Scott Atwood

Funding limits, such as Ohio’s rule that a new school must be built if renovations will exceed 60 percent of the price of new construction, also favor new schools.

Maintaining aging buildings should be part of school budgets, Ms. Beaumont said, and can save money in the long run.

When communities weigh the costs of renovation against building new schools, they should consult architects familiar with restoration work, the national trust says. In addition, they should consider the cost of transportation, the need for new roads and sewers, and an empty school’s effects on the neighborhood, according to the report.

With the library of the 71-year-old Ben W. Murch Elementary School here as a backdrop, trust officials invited guests to tell their own stories about historic schools. Some of the buildings are alive and well. Some sit empty and blighted. Others are fighting for their lives.

3] Santa Barbara Junior High School (1932) in Santa Barbara, Calif., is in a neighborhood where children can walk to school
—Constance Beaumont, National Trust

The Stevens School, also in the District of Columbia, faces the threat of being moved from the site it has occupied since 1886, when it was opened to serve the children of former slaves and other free blacks.

Ann Clancy of Billings, Mont., is fighting to keep her 10-year-old daughter’s neighborhood school open by opposing construction of a school on the outskirts of town.

“There’s not one child at my daughter’s school that needs to be bused,” said the PTA president at Broadwater Elementary, one of the schools placed on the national trust’s list of the 11 most endangered public buildings this year.

Modern schools often are designed without much personality, which sends a harmful message for students who lack a sense of community and identity, said Lakis Polycarpou, a 1990 graduate of Columbine High School in Jefferson County, Colo., and now a New York writer.

Mr. Polycarpou, who enrolled at Columbine High as a 10th grader, said his new school looked exactly the same as his previous one: “physically indistinguishable from a prison or malls.”

The fatal shootings at the school in April 1999 helped focus national attention on issues of school size and environment.

Historic schools “define neighborhoods and they give residents—not just students—a sense of place,” said Tom Hylton, a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorialist who fought to keep one open in his town of Pottstown, Pa. Local officials are considering closing another, however.

4] Bosse High School (1924) in Evansville, Ind., was recently renovated.
—Constance Beaumont, National Trust

Washington’s Murch School, a red-brick building on a quiet, leafy street with a little white tower atop the roof, illustrates what older schools can offer. Beyond its thick red wooden doors, tall archways lead its 480 students from the lobby. Corridor walls are layered with mustard-hued tile.

A chalkboard, framed in carved dark oak, can be seen in the library—no marker boards here. Photographs of children now graduated, raised, and gone away adorn the walls. On display is a golden shovel used in the school’s groundbreaking in 1929.

“Passing our society’s soul to a new generation of citizens is too important to be driven by budgetary concerns alone or to be governed by arbitrary regulations,” Mr. Moe said. “It ought to be about preserving our heritage, not wasting it.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 22, 2000 edition of Education Week as National Trust Urges Saving Historic Schools

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