Can This School Be Saved?

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This June, the National Trust for Historic Preservation included the category of "historic neighborhood schools" on its list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, an annual report of landmarks in danger of disappearing. Below are four historic schools the National Trust uses as examples, along with Teacher Magazine's summaries of their struggles to survive. Many more schools across the country face the wrecking ball, as deferred maintenance and policies promoting the construction of mega-schools conspire to make old schools history. "This is not just tragic," says National Trust President Richard Moe, "it is completely unnecessary."


Historic Neighborhood Schools
Broadwater School, Billings, Montana
--Scott Atwood

Location: Billings, Montana, in a mixed-income, historic, residential area.

School community: 360 students from low-income families in grades K-6.

Threat: Enrollment is declining, and the school board says one of Billings' four historic schools may be closed. Broadwater is the likely candidate.

Shut it down: The school needs extensive renovations. The PTA claims it can raise private funds to cover costs, but state law caps spending on urban schools so as to maintain equity between city and rural schools.

Save it: "My daughter walks to school, and she has so many wonderful memories," says Ann Clancy, PTA vice president. "Research shows that when kids feel a part of a community, they are more successful."

Outcome: Uncertain. The PTA is working with the National Trust for Historic Preservation to raise funds for a physical assessment of the building. And, next year, a state legislator may propose rewriting the law to remove the cap on expenditures for historic schools.


Historic Neighborhood Schools
Corning Free Academy, Corning, New York
--Market Street Restoration Agency

Location: Corning, New York, in the middle of a 650-building district listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

School community: 700 students in grades K-5. To commemorate the fact that CFA has educated generations of families employed by glass and fiber-optics manufacturer Corning Inc. (currently, 30 percent of the students' parents work there), the school offers a course on the history and design of glass.

Threat: In August 1999, the Corning board of education announced plans to close CFA and send the kids to a 1,600-student school that would be built on 60 acres in the town of Erwin, five miles away.

Shut it down: The board claims it's too expensive to renovate and expand CFA, a Romanesque Revival structure that is overcrowded and needs to be rewired to accommodate new technology. Preservationists say state policy is to blame: New York's education department doesn't provide funds for routine repair and maintenance and only supports renovation projects at schools where acreage and classroom sizes exceed those at most older schools.

Save it: "There is a predisposition that a first-class education has to occur in a new building. It's not true," says Tania Werbizky of the Preservation League of New York State. "Older buildings can be equipped to suit the needs of students."

Outcome: Promising. The school board's new plans call for some of CFA's students to join students from another historic school and move to an existing building in town. Some grades will remain at CFA, where they'll have new neighbors: The board is moving its offices into one floor of the historic building. A 2,000-student high school will be built on the Erwin site.

(1868; rebuilt in 1896)

Location: Washington, D.C.

School community: 330 students in grades K-6. One of D.C.'s oldest "free schools," Stevens originally educated the children of indigent former slaves alongside the children of prosperous African Americans. Famous former pupils include Roberta Flack and Amy Carter.

Threat: Stevens, one of the last historic buildings in an urban neighborhood, sits on prime real estate, which a commercial developer has offered to buy. A recent shake-up in D.C. public schools' leadership worries Stevens supporters; until the district is stable, they say, the school's future is questionable.

Save it: Stevens offers an "amazing family atmosphere," says Wayne Proctor, outgoing president of the PTA. Many parents work nearby and often visit the school and take their children out to lunch. Principal Gloria Henderson says students are proud of Stevens' legacy.

Outcome: In a holding pattern. D.C. Preservation, a local citizens' group, is working to protect the school. The D.C. schools' chief facilities officer, Kifah Jayyousi, denies the Stevens building is in peril, but he doesn't offer any guarantees for its preservation as a school. "We are in the throes of constructing a master plan facility list," he says, "and we will absolutely try to preserve the historic nature of the Stevens' building. The community owns the facility lock, stock, and barrel."


Location: Terre Haute, Indiana.

School community: 200 students in grades K-5, most of whom walk to the school, which is a three-story, neoclassical-style, brick structure with limestone detailing.

Threat: Educators want to move out. They complain of small classrooms, faulty plumbing and heating, too few bathrooms, and inadequate wiring for computers.

Shut it down: "Our goal is for students to get an equitable education, and the type of facility a student learns in has a lot to do with it," says Dave Danner, director of facilities support for Vigo County schools.

Save it: Mark Dollase of the Historic Landmarks Foundation of Indiana worries that residents will leave town: "People have built houses in the area to send their children to [Warren]. It's a proven cycle: Once the school is taken from the community, people will follow it."

Outcome: Say goodbye. Starting this fall, students will be bused to one of two elementary schools several miles outside the town. The schools scored higher than Warren on standardized tests, but the classes are larger. The future of the abandoned school building is unclear.

—Mesha Williams

Vol. 12, Issue 1, Page 18

Published in Print: August 1, 2000, as Can This School Be Saved?
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Web Resources
  • The National Trust for Historic Preservation plans to issue "Old and Historic Schools in the Age of Sprawl: Why Johnny Can't Walk To School," a report on the threat to historic schools, on September 7, 2000. The organization has posted a release announcing the report. See also their list of America's 11 most endangered historic places, including historic schools.
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