[10 on Tuesday] How to Save Your Historic Neighborhood School
Historic neighborhood schools are anchors within our communities. They offer students distinctive and unique places to learn. They provide constant and subtle lessons about the history of their town and respect for the past. And, as they are often within walking distance, local schools encourage students to walk or bike, promoting healthy activity and a chance to experience and engage with their surroundings.
Yet, in recent years, America’s older and historic neighborhood schools are being increasingly demolished or deserted in favor of newer and bigger buildings located farther away. As preservationists, we know there is a better solution for our local historic schools. It’s up to us to take a stand when one of these community landmarks is at risk. Here are 10 steps you can take to help save a threatened historic school in your neighborhood.
[10 on Tuesday] How to Save Your Historic Neighborhood School
Photo courtesy National Trust for Historic PreservationSaving Historic Schools10 Steps You Can Take to Help Save a ThreatenedHistoric School in Your Neighborhood
Make sure your preservation campaigndemonstrates how students will benefit from therenovation of a historic school. Forexample, how could money be spent to improvestudents’ academic achievement by renovatingthe existing school or creating a new addition?Remember that new buildings can often hostnew activities (e.g., new science labs). In somecases, this allows the historic spaces to onceagain be used for classroom, gymnasium, orauditorium purposes.1. Focus on the needs ofschoolchildren.Photo courtesy Joe Romeo/Perkins Eastman
Show how the renovation and modernizationof the existing historic structure could becomea first-class educational facility. One way todo this is to hire an architect, who can serveas an expert advocate for preservation whenmaking your case.(Check out this previous blog post on how tofind National Trust funding for expert support.)2. Develop a feasible, cost-effective alternate strategy.Photo courtesy Bay City Central High School
Create drawings of how the school would look, and showphotographs of successfully rehabilitated and modernized schools.Distribute these throughout the community. If possible, host fieldtrips to nearby historic schools that have been rehabbed.3. Provide compelling images to help decisionmakers visualize the renovated school.Photo courtesy Doug Scott 2002
These groups will likely be the most critical stakeholders and persuasivevoices. Also reach out to neighbors, elected officials, alumni, retiredteachers, school employees, Parent Teacher Associations, neighborhoodassociations, and local preservation groups.4. Involve teachers, parents, andstudents in your preservation campaign.Photo courtesy photographer Wayne Soverns, Jr./HMFH Architects, Inc.
Isolate and answer each of the district’s keyissues that are perceived as barriers torenovation. These could include costs, structuralinstability, code problems, firesafety, accessibility, parking, and technology.Gather as much factual, objective information aspossible to offer solutions to these concerns.The architect can help address these issues aswell.Contact your state historic preservation office foradditional resources.5. Analyze the schooldistrict’s proposal.Photo courtesy ttarasiuk, Flickr
For example, some states will notreimburse a local school district’s costs ofrenovation. If so, challenge the policy.Seek a variance, which is an exception ordeviation from the rule or law, or a moreliberal application of the policy.6. Look into state-leveladministration policies thatcould preclude thepreservation of yourneighborhood school.Photo courtesy Carroll Van West
Compare the costs of new construction versus rehabilitation. Put a price tagon the school district’s proposal and on your alternative approach.Preservation may appeal to certain taxpayers if you can argue thatrenovating the historic school would improve the building while avoiding theextra cost of starting from scratch.7. Focus on the “frugality argument.”Photo courtesy Bastrop Main Street
Abandoning a historic school may lead tovandalism and a decline in propertyvalues. If a historic school isdemolished, it may remain a vacant lot foryears or be replaced with an undesirablenew use. Moreover, consolidating historicneighborhood schools into a largeanonymous “sprawl” school on theoutskirts of town may strain the sense ofcommunity and add to transportationcosts that can put financial strain onfamilies and governments alike.8. Help your neighborsunderstand the communityimpacts of the schooldistrict’s plan.Photo courtesy TexasExplorer98, Flickr
Historic neighborhood schools often allow students to walk to school; enjoy asmaller, more intimate setting with friends from their neighborhood; and growup immersed in the historic school’s tradition and architecture. And, there’sconsiderable evidence that smaller schools improve academic achievementand enrich students’ learning experiences.9. Publicize the benefits of preserving the school.Photo courtesy Elizabeth/Table4Five, Flickr
Develop a clear succinct message. Generate letters to the editor. Borrowmailing lists and send out flyers. Post yard signs. Place radio ads. Hosttown meetings. Go door to door. Circulate a petition. Create a website topresent your case and provide up-to-date information. Don’t hesitate to askfor donations to support the cause.10. Use every grassroots strategy in thebook.Photo courtesy BaynardBailey, Flickr
Please note: Renovating or closing historic school facilities can becomplicated, expensive, and potentially divisive issues within thecommunity, so make every effort to establish a relationship with theschool district and involve all stakeholders, such asneighbors, students, teachers, owners of local businesses, regionalplanners, and local government officials in the decision-makingprocess.For additional resources and case studies, read about the NationalTrust’s work protecting older and historic schools, as well as ourHelping Johnny Walk to School campaign.
Ten on Tuesday features ten preservationtips each week. For more tips, visitblog.PreservationNation.org.