Repurposing Your Schools

By Joseph F. Ortiz/School Administrator, May 2015
The Roosevelt School District in Phoenix, Ariz., was faced with the need to shut down two longstanding schools a few years ago because of declining and shifting enrollment patterns.
    Our district, which serves 9,500 students in K-8 in Phoenix, Ariz., has since transformed the two closed sites into popular and useful community assets. How we accomplished that without great public anguish is a story worth sharing.
    Is it really possible to keep school-closing decisions from becoming an issue of unrest among parents, staff and community?
Easing Anxieties
What’s most important is how you communicate the proposed closure. When our school district was faced with shutting down two school locations in 2012, we followed these steps to ease the anxieties of our stakeholders.

  • Communicate early in the process.

    Before a final decision is made by the administration and the school board about a school closure, reach out to parents, teachers, support staff and community members. Keep them informed and involved.
    Gather input from all stakeholders. Hold meetings to ask members of the public what they would like to see at the site. Prepare ideas in advance to show that district leaders have given thought to options for the property. Promote meetings through social media, district and school websites, letters sent home to parents, robocalls, direct mailers and district and school newsletters.
    Remember to provide an e-mail address and phone number where people can submit their ideas throughout the entire process.

  • Talk about options and reasons.

    Be upfront about what is reasonable and what is not. As a public education institution, school districts want to maintain these facilities as places of learning. Therefore, proposals for converting the property into condominiums, office space or a water park might not be appropriate.
    If these guidelines are communicated to the public in advance, it may dissuade ideas that come out of left field.

  • Realize you will encounter some pushback.

    If the school has existed for many generations, expect sentimentality among those who previously attended over the years. You must share as clearly as possible the reasons for the closing.
    For example: Has enrollment declined to where the cost of keeping the school open cannot be justified? Has enrollment increased to the extent that a new, larger school on a bigger plot of land is the only practical solution? Are badly needed but costly repairs necessitating the closure?
    No matter how valid the reason you put forward, some parents, students and community members will fight tooth and nail to keep the school open. Be honest and upfront with them. They need to know that no number of bake sales or car washes is going to raise enough funds to keep the school financially viable.

  • Maintain the school’s legacy.

    Whatever the new facility becomes, retain the name of the school to recognize the site’s history. In our district, the two buildings targeted for closing in the same year were both elementary schools with long ties to the community.
    One building, the former Sierra Vista Elementary School, was repurposed as a districtwide resource facility. It is now the Sierra Vista Parent Education and Staff Resource Center. The second school, the George B. Brooks Academy, now is a community school site, housing various programs and agencies that help area residents. Children no longer attend. It has been renamed the George B. Brooks Community School.
Second Lives
The Roosevelt School District successfully gave two schools a new life. Here are two examples.
    The Sierra Vista Elementary School was a K-8 facility that closed to consolidate the student population with the rebuilt and refurbished T.G. Barr School. The Sierra Vista Parent and Staff Education Resource Center offers these services: computer labs where Spanish-speaking parents can learn English through Rosetta Stone-licensed courses; a lending library where parents can check out books for their children to read; and parenting classes and workshops that offer support for families.
    The center also provides student uniforms for families that can’t afford them, free school supplies and backpacks to families in need.
    The district’s second repurposed facility, the George B. Brooks Academy, was closed due to declining enrollment. The student population was consolidated with a newly rebuilt school on the campus of P.L. Julian Elementary.
    At the community school, several organizations provide services, including a not-for-profit organization that runs high-school equivalency classes; a local Girl Scout Council’s STEM and financial planning classes; a community food bank that distributes canned goods and fresh produce with the assistance of community volunteers; and a greenhouse to foster seedlings for community gardens and to teach children about sustainability, hydroponics and aquaponics.
    The two repurposed schools are welcome additions to our district and community. But this transformation would not have gone smoothly had the district not done its due diligence and communicated with its parents, faculty, students and community members in advance of any final decisions.

Joseph Ortiz is director of public and community relations in the Roosevelt School District in Phoenix, Ariz. E-mail: Twitter: @ortzman