More than 150 politicians, community leaders and education activists converged on a Getty Center lecture hall Thursday to consider how public schools can become neighborhood centers for young and old.
“What should education be like in the 21st century? How should it relate to community, to business, to cultural institutions?” Ken Robinson, a J. Paul Getty Trust senior advisor for education, asked at the opening of the symposium.
The all-day event was a chance to brainstorm answers to such questions -- to “connect the dots” between schools and their communities, said David Abel, chairman of New Schools/Better Neighborhoods, the civic advocacy organization based in Los Angeles that sponsored the conference.
Participants suggested that more schools could lose their reputations as impenetrable fortresses by, among other things, offering arts classes to senior citizens in the afternoons and evenings, opening up athletic fields for public use on weekends and building health clinics for everyone. While addressing security concerns, panelists also suggested that schools open earlier and remain open later, allowing working parents a safe haven for children.
Former U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, the event’s keynote speaker, said budget problems in many states should encourage partnerships of schools, other social services and businesses to avoid duplication. Schools could be opened in shopping malls, hospitals or other commercial sites, he said, reducing the cost of building schools from scratch.
“We need to design new public schools as community learning centers, to be open longer and for the community to be involved,” said Riley, who served in the Clinton administration. Schools, he said, should “become the hub of the neighborhood.”
Other conference speakers offered examples of new Los Angeles schools. Ana Ponce, principal of Camino Nuevo Charter Academy in MacArthur Park and the Mid-Wilshire district, said one of her three campuses occupies a former mini-mall and all offer health-care clinics, including vaccinations for children and primary care for adults in partnership with a hospital.
The Los Angeles Unified School District is trying to follow that philosophy in its building program, said Guy Mehula, the district’s deputy chief of facilities.
“And the community really is looking to make sure we perform,” he said.
One of the district’s planned projects is expected to transform a block in Westlake into a multi-use facility incorporating affordable housing, open space and two new schools. A common grassy paseo will link all the buildings, play areas will be for both students and residents, and the schools will each contain community centers.