School Choice & Charters Opinion

Sharing Facilities Can Help Students and Schools

By Joe Nathan — February 24, 2015 7 min read
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Joe Nathan begins today’s exchange with Deborah Meier:

Good morning, Deborah. Today we agreed to discuss how students can benefit when schools share space. Though details matter, this can be done in three ways: Two or more schools can share space in a building, or share space with other organizations. Or they can do both. It takes lots of work to do well. Sharing space also can be done badly. But skillful sharing has many benefits for students, families and educators.

The Coalition for Community Schools explains, “Community schools always start with a set of results they want to achieve (e.g. decreasing early chronic absenteeism, improving graduation rates, and improving student achievement. Using a results framework... they then organize the community around agreed-upon results and identify the resources to achieve them. Together with their partners, community schools are seeing results.”

Here are a few great examples from our Center’s report, “Smaller, Safer, Saner, Successful Schools.”

  • Julia Richman Education Complex, a large district building in Manhattan that houses six different small public schools. The complex also has a health clinic and day care center. It’s frequently cited as one of the nation’s best examples of a combined facility that houses both various public schools and agencies serving the students and community.
  • Codman Academy Charter School, a great charter in Boston that shares space with a medical clinic.
  • Boston Arts Academy and Fenway High School, two award-winning Boston district Pilot Schools, share a building located immediately behind the Boston Red Sox stadium. They’ve also shared space with the Boston Symphony Teacher Resource Center. This collaboration allows the library to be open longer hours in the evening and on Saturday mornings.
  • Perham Area Community Center, a terrific center located in one side of the Perham, Minn., Secondary School. Working together, the city, school district and community members have been able to create a terrific facility for the students, families and community, which none of them would have been able to create by themselves.
  • Arizona Agribusiness and Equine Center, one of several charter public school located on the campus of Phoenix area community colleges. Students can take both high school and college level classes.
  • The Met, an innovative public school in Providence, R.I. Several small schools share great facilities that they would not have been able to afford by themselves. This is the first of a group of schools around the country that use a advisor/advisee system, personalized curriculum and other features to help youngsters succeed.
  • A complex in Vieuten, Netherlands in which the first floor is an elementary school. The second and third floors are apartments, many for senior citizens. (See page 21 of Smaller, Safer.)

These shared facilities have been created in rural, urban and suburban communities. They can be helpful in every community. Two of the best resources are the National Center for Community Schools, and the Coalition for Community Schools. Both publish research, case studies, and “how to do it” materials.

Sharing space can be done badly. Some schools can receive “the shorter stick” in a sharing arrangement. Sometimes people already in a facility resent another school being placed in the building. I’ve seen this happen with district/district school sharing space, as well as district/charter sharing. Sometimes educators and social service agencies have different expectations of families and students. These arrangements can create as many, or more problems as they solve.

A North Carolina report on sharing space is realistic. After praising the benefits, the authors note: “when conflicts arise, and they will, each agency (and school) must be willing to work together...to solve problems.”

So no guarantees. But in many places, very positive results.

Deborah Meier responds:

Dear Joe,

Like many topics we’ve discussed, context matters. Even under the best circumstances—like Julia Richman—it takes trust and a plan ensuring that all are being well-served and will be a party to all plans that affect them.

Julia Richman had advantages. It was never a neighborhood school, no one moved in until most of those in the old school had moved out, the existing faculty could apply for jobs in the new schools and to start ones of their own. In fact, the largest “small school” in the building, Talent Unlimited, was the creation of the existing faculty. Also we had support from the local union, who were part of our hiring committees to insure that hiring was fair. Both labor and management promised the existing faculty that they would have comparable jobs. It helped also that one of the schools (Urban Academy) had been around for may years in other sites and took the lead in developing a plan that worked for everyone.

Of course, Joe, this is not likely to be so easy when these ingredients aren’t there. Hardest of all is when some of the old staff will be out of a job! Or when the new schools’ serve a different and “easier” population. Next hardest of all is when the newcomers crowd-out existing schools whose failure is that they don’t have the same political clout.

In short, the charters have moved into this always complicated picture without any of the advantages that Julia Richman had—or that most of the other big high schools in NYC had that were turned into multi-school settings, or shared spaces with other organization prior to the Bloomberg regime. District 4 in the 70s, the alternative high schools in the 80s, and a number of other secondary schools in the 80s and early 90s. What has been appalling is when the new charters crowd the old ones (as is now the case at the old Jackie Robinson Complex where CPE I has been happily sharing space for the past 30 years). Too many of the new charters, guaranteed free space by a governor who wants to break up the public school monopoly as well as support his generous friends, come into schools with money to renovate “their” space, are pickier about the students they take and keep, and treat their building partners with disrespect.

Yes, shared space can be natural, efficient and effective. All the horrifying fears needn’t be. Much can be shared to enhance all the schools involved, a mixture of age groups or services can create a kinder and gentler tone, and kids and faculty can work in human scale settings where their voice and vote is taken seriously.

But the current context augurs ill for how this will play out as the city’s and state’s most powerful moneyed interests hope to displace the status quo with a competitive market place system of schools.

Joe Nathan responds:

Deb, sounds like we agree that sharing space can be valuable, or it can be a problem. I won’t restate the research cited above about the potential benefits of sharing.

But in preparing a brief response, I re-read Sy Fliegel and James Macguire’s terrific book, Miracle in East Harlem. You are praised as a key partner in that creative, courageous effort to create new, smaller schools of choice in a low-income section of Manhattan.

The authors make clear that battles over building space predate the charter movement. They refer to the second year of Central Park East (CPE) the school you founded, which shared space in a building. Fliegel and Macguire recall that “the new principal of P.S. 171, which housed CPE (Central Park East) waged a series of time-consuming turf wars over who had what prerogatives within the school building.” They offer other examples of educators challenging each other over space issues. The authors also explain how many such conflicts can be resolved.

Key to resolution seems to be a willingness to recognize the value of different approaches, the ability to invest in each of the schools sharing space, not just the new ones, and one or more district officials with the skills and resources to enhance each school’s program.

I’ve seen similar situations all over the country when schools share space with other schools or organizations. In thinking about this response, I talked with Harvey Newman, one of your East Harlem colleagues. He now works with Fliegel. Newman told me that in East Harlem twenty years ago, and in the majority of New York City cases today where district and charters are sharing space, “people learn to live and let live.”

Of course sharing space can be done badly. But when done well, it offers many benefits to students, families and educators.

Joe Nathan has been an urban public school teacher, administrator, PTA president, researcher, and advocate. He directs the St. Paul, Minn.-based Center for School Change, which works at the school, community, and policy levels to help improve public schools

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.