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From The Old School



The National Trust for Historic Preservation is quickly becoming a key player in the childhood obesity movement, as it is leading efforts to ensure kids can walk to school each day.
Wait a minute — the National Trust for Historic Preservation? Don’t those guys just worry about old buildings and stuff?
Well, yes. While organizations working on childhood obesity are mostly of the health and wellness variety, the Trust is finding its own role in the movement by fighting to protect historic neighborhood schools. Across the country, these campuses are being torn down in favor of newly-built schools, which are flashy but often located miles away from the students they serve.
“We see these policies as a problem because we like to sustain older communities, because we would like to continue with what we already have built,” says Renee Kuhlman, director of special projects at the Trust. “The health community is seeing this as, ‘Hey, if you put this school out [miles away], who is going to walk there?”
Kuhlman is among the speakers scheduled to appear on an Oct. 11 webinar looking at the tools and resources that help communities build and maintain schools in sustainable ways. The first in a four-part webinar series, "Location, Location, Location: New Guidance for Locating Schools in a Healthy, Sustainble Way" will begin at 1 p.m. and also feature speakers from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Arizona Department of Transportation and National Policy and Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity (NPLAN).
The Trust first entered this area during the real estate boom of the 1990s, when cities across the country built new, sprawling neighborhoods. New schools also were built, but all that sprawl meant the campuses usually were not located within walking distance of the new neighborhoods.
School districts began shuttering and tearing down older campuses, even when many could have been renovated for less than it cost to build new ones.  That caught the eye of the Trust, which in 2000 released a report studying the issue titled, “Why Johnny Can’t Walk to School in the
Age of Sprawl.” Historic Neighborhood Schools also were added to the Trust’s annual list of “Most Endangered Historic Places.”
When neighborhood schools close, it doesn’t just mean that students have to get a bus to go to class, Kuhlman points out. Closures also can cause a whole neighborhood to go into decline, as a school can serve as the center point of a community. Schools often play host for community meetings, and neighbors use athletic facilities such as the pool or the track on the weekend to get some exercise.
When a school closes, those benefits disappear. “It sort of has all these unintended effects,” Kuhlman says.
As the years went on, it became evident more action was needed. So in 2008, the Trust officially launched the “Helping Johnny Walk to School” project. The EPA signed on, as renovation also leaves a smaller carbon footprint than starting from scratch.
Saving neighborhood schools is hard work, Kuhlman says, and advocates often have to fight public perception that a new school is better than a revitalized old one.
It’s understandable why such a perception exists. Parents want their want their kids to go to the best school. Often, they think that means the newest school. So when policymakers must decide between renovating and building new, community pressure often pushes them to break out their shovels rather than their paint brush.
Then there’s cost. While renovating older campuses is typically cheaper than building new, many jurisdictions have guidelines stating a new campus must be built if renovation costs are more than a set percentage of the cost of the new school, Kuhlman explains.
For example, if renovation is estimated to be 75 percent of the cost of building new, regulations could dictate a new school will be built – even though renovation is still cheaper. And usually, it’s even cheaper than policymakers might realize.
“A lot of times, it’s not including the cost of the new road, and it’s not including the cost of the new sewer,” Kuhlman explains, adding
transportation often isn’t included in cost estimates, either.  “Now the state is having to pay for more buses, more gas, more drivers.”
Other times, schools are torn down because of a lack of coordination. In many parts of the country, municipalities plan where neighborhoods will be located, while school districts decide on the locations of schools, Kuhlman says. If the two entities aren’t coordinating their building efforts, schools wind up miles away from the neighborhoods they serve.
“We’re trying to get that cooperative planning piece in place,” she says.
There have been successes. A more cooperative community planning process has been put in place in New Hampshire, for example, while California is working with the Department of Education to push renovation. “They figure by encouraging more renovation, they’re going to help meet air quality standards,” Kuhlman says.
And while the economic downturn halted construction of many new schools, it also led some districts to close campuses. Often, smaller neighborhood schools are shuttered and students transferred to bigger, newer schools, something the Trust has been working to prevent.
“I don’t think they’re making the choices based on all the costs,” Kuhlman says. “Kids can’t walk or ride a bike. They’re in a bigger school, but now we’ve got more crowded classes.”