Some parents, students, and community members across Philadelphia are seizing upon an opportunity to shape the transformation of deteriorating school buildings into state-of-the-art facilities.
Community meetings are being held at 11 schools where major construction is scheduled, kicking off a new phase in the School District’s strategy to get community input into its ambitious five-year $1.5 billion Capital Improvement Program – which calls for building five high schools, five elementary schools, several additions, and renovating dozens more over the next two years alone.
Turnouts were modest at most schools. The exception was the Fels High School project, which has prompted strong community opposition.
At each school slated for construction, the District’s in-house capital plan managers – known collectively as the Philadelphia School Improvement Team (PSIT) – are convening a series of three meetings at different points in the design process to allow community members to have ongoing input.
One key player on the District team that organized the capital plan public meetings, ACG Associates president Cody Anderson, says lack of internal coordination of the effort to get community input has limited its overall effectiveness.
Under a $25,000 contract to do publicity for the public meetings, ACG Associates distributed thousands of flyers in schools, neighbors mailboxes’, local businesses, churches, and community centers advertising the public meetings in the communities surrounding each the schools in the first round of projects, Anderson said.
“I see room for a lot of improvement,” he commented, emphasizing the need to provide incentives to attract a wider cross-section of community representatives to the meetings.
“We have to use more creative ways to get a greater turnout,” he said.
Real opportunities for input?
Community turnout to public meetings about school building construction is one indicator of whether or not a school district is providing for authentic community involvement in the design planning process, says Steven Bingler, president of the architecture firm Concordia Inc. Bingler has written extensively on community involvement in school design.
“People know if [the process] is authentic,” or if it was created just “so somebody could check off the box that says ‘yes, we did community participation,’ ” Bingler said.
Concordia has developed a process that promotes collaboration between school districts and community stakeholders in carrying out school design, allowing for broad community input early on before narrowing to a smaller planning team. Community members are provided with specialized training to enable them to be informed participants in the process.
“Part of this whole process is not just about getting input,” said Bingler. “The opportunity that’s there is to build stronger leadership capacity within the community.”
The Notebook attended April community meetings at four schools – Bluford, Fels, Mifflin, and Ziegler – that will receive building improvements during this first round of construction projects.
Despite smaller-than-hoped-for turnouts, parents, students, and community members who did attend the recent capital plan meetings readily offered their questions and comments, and they say they will be looking to see that the PSIT staff and project architects factor in their input in the next round of plans presented.
Based on the meeting he attended at Mifflin Elementary in East Falls, neighbor Michael Moulton said he does see avenues for input into the plan at his neighborhood school.
“It sounds like there is a desire,” he said. Other community members interviewed by the Notebook at Bluford and Zeigler Elementary Schools agreed that they felt encouraged to comment.