Editor’s note: Cristi Marchetti, teacher at Lehighton Area High School in Pennsylvania, received a Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching Program fellowship to conduct research in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Through her observations and interviews with community leaders, teachers, administrators, government officials, and university professors, she found that Northern Ireland is a world leader in the community use of schools. Today, she shares lessons for U.S. schools.
In Northern Ireland, some schools shuttle students between shared facilities to take advantage of programs, ensuring that money is not overspent in one particular area. As GCSE or ‘A’ Level tests loom, students benefit from enhanced curriculum opportunities including art, physical education, music, and money management. The dynamic of collaborative space and education creates friendships between students who would not otherwise interact.
For instance, students at St Colman’s Primary School, a Catholic school and Fairhill Primary School, a Prodestant school, spoke passionately about the difference in their lives because they have friends from the other school—they don’t see “other;" they see peers. The Centre for Shared Education at Queen’s University Belfast facilitates these types of school partnerships—acting as a sort of mediator between groups where tensions ran high for generations.
Outside the shared education framework, community use of schools typically takes the form of individuals or groups hiring out the facilities for private use, whether sports pitches, school halls or gymnasiums, or classrooms to build stronger links between schools and the community. The Department of Education Northern Ireland (DENI), points out the potential benefits of community use of schools, including:
- Improved learning and achievement
- Improved access to specialist support services
- A more positive attitude to learning
- Partnerships working across local organizations
- Greater parental involvement in children’s learning and development
- Access to parenting programs
- Opportunities for adult education and family learning
- Improved access to sports, arts, and other agreed activities
- Stronger social networks between schools and their communities
- Healthier and fitter communities
- Less vandalism within the community and, in particular, directed at the school
- Potential for reduction in crime rates within the community
- More positive perceptions of schools and their communities because they are seen to be taking more pride in their schools.
After seeing how schools in North Ireland use their space to benefit the community, I returned home to my school district in Pennsylvania to further investigate how we support the community. I found that because there is a limited commercial and industrial base, the school facilities fill a gap by serving as a location for recreational sports, craft shows, dance recitals, adult education classes, a carnival, and meetings. This has all been spearheaded by our Superintendent Jonathan Cleaver because he believes these relationships help students succeed and allow them to “become advocates for the district and community.”
Based on the work we are doing in Lehighton and the lessons I learned in Northern Ireland, I put together guidelines you can use to help facilitate community use of schools in your area. Some potential ways your community could utilize school spaces include before and after school care, winter and summer educational programs, day camps for elderly residents, community gardens, festivals, races, recitals, adult education, evening and weekend mental health groups, driver education, intergenerational intramurals, cooking classes, reunions, and parade set-up sites.
Determine the Areas of Need
Take a look around your community and consider the demographics. Mapping the Nation is a good resource that displays demographic data down to the county level. Using data like this, you can determine the groups in your community most in need of opportunities to establish relationships, make connections, and increase lifelong learning.
Identify Competent Individuals and Locations
School facilities generally have ample parking, handicap accessibility, excellent lighting, and central locations. However, one building in the district may have better specific uses than others. For example, a high school probably has a larger stage than an elementary school. Take stock of the facilities and create a document outlining the best use of each (maybe smaller spaces can host local meetings of Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, or Rotary, for instance).
Schools are staffed by highly qualified educators, community members, coaches, adjunct instructors, and volunteers who are often eager to share their expertise and interests. In Lehighton, the local Rotary Club partners with the high school Interact Club to host a Holiday Craft Show. More than 100 vendors were able to use the gym, borrowing tables from the cafeteria. Music was piped over the sound system. Ample parking was available, as were restroom facilities and a food stand. This event grows each year and wouldn’t be possible without the use of school facilities.
The most important element regarding community use of schools is that it must be bottom-up. Listen to what people want, don’t decide for them. Many school sites in Northern Ireland offer adult technology education classes, but in Lehighton, the most-requested spaces are the largest, like the gym for the annual craft show and the auditorium for dance recitals.
Establish Program Oversight
The entity that oversees community use of schools will be your district’s school board, but it may be the administrative team or athletic personnel who process paperwork like scheduling and rental agreements. Overseeing the Lehighton program is our director of student services and facilities planning because a computer system is already in place for sports and activities and can serve a dual purpose here. The school board authorized decision-making by the director regarding facility usage, and each year expenses are calculated to determine if rental costs need to increase. Community groups are charged based on district costs.
Create a Written Toolkit
If your school hosts community athletic groups, your district already has legal agreements in place that address safety and insurance issues. Amend these to include other facilities that will be used. Then create a toolkit or guide that outlines all information pertinent to community usage. For instance, the toolkit created by DENI includes:
- Ownership and control of school premises
- Operational management
- Health and safety
- Child protection
- Human resources
- Assessment of School Premises and Equipment for Community Use
- Sample of Costs
- Rental Agreement
- Terms and Conditions for Rental
Produce Program Content
Post descriptions of available physical spaces in the district as well as required paperwork, like the rental agreement and proof of insurance, on the district website. If community members want to start an IT or Coding club, this could be a terrific opportunity to collaborate. Students in technology classes may also want to take this on as a project.
Launch the Community of Use Program
Reach out to local media to inform the community about the options to use the spaces, and run pieces throughout the year to remind community members they can start clubs or run events. In Lehighton, the local television stations and the local newspaper cover events at no cost to the district because they see the value of letting the public know about opportunities.
Community use of schools is a key method for engagement, lifelong learning, and collaboration among residents and students.
If you’d like help setting up a program in your area, send Cristi a message on Twitter.
Image created on Pablo.
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