Sign In, Renew, Sign Up

Search AIA

Search AIA Go

Practicing ArchitectureKnowledge Communities

Page Tools

Reed Insight and Community



Trend: Designing for partnerships that reflect unique local interests, needs and resources

Trend: Designing schools to be centers of community life

Some schools are not what schools used to be: just schools. They are what schools really used to be: centers of community. They hark back to the time when the schoolhouse was the hub of the community, its gathering place, a place for meetings, socials and perhaps even church.

A number of the 2007 and 2008 submissions combined a school, usually a public elementary or secondary school, with other community uses and services, from performing arts to medical clinics.

There is no formula. These projects can be found in inner cities, or in cornfields. They end up in different places, but they start in the same place, with a local solution to local needs, using local resources. Critical among those resources are leadership and partnership.

Leadership, Innovation, Persistence

These projects are bigger than a school district; they are community solutions. They require leadership on the part of some, and willingness on the part of many. That leadership may come from the school superintendent, the mayor, the CEO of a philanthropic organization or of a corporation—or a group of people who come together and say, “What we’re doing isn't working. How can we make it better?”

And it can come from the architects. Design has the power to bring people together, and the process of design—of dreaming, of problem solving, of looking ahead—can transform thinking.

It can be the school reaching out to the community, or the community reaching into the school. In either case, it works best when there is the diversity and commitment to develop innovative solutions.

One aspect of leadership in these ventures is persistence. “The way we’ve always done it” will always look like the shortest, flattest path. It takes patience to help people see the value of taking another one.

Partnerships, Challenges, Rewards

Designing a community school is all about context: a rich—and often complex—social and political context. Partnership involves complicated matters: money, governance, insurance, who mows the lawn, whose room this is at night, whose room this is during the day and what happened to my best scissors. It does complicate an already complicated undertaking.

Partnerships present challenges, but the rewards appear to be tremendous for the communities that do it right. These partnerships have the power to leverage resources to meet student, family and community needs.

A 2003 Coalition for Community Schools study of 20 community schools found improved academic achievement in 75 percent of them, underscoring their belief that “academic achievement is intertwined with physical, social and emotional well-being; the development of personal competencies in many areas of life; and the engagement of a strong family and community.”

Partnerships bring critical services into neighborhoods, helping adults to be better providers and better parents, providing medical and social services to students and families and giving students a safe and productive place to be after school. Some people argue that simply bringing intergenerational activities into a school strengthens the sense of community and enriches the lives of students.

School and community partnerships can have profound impacts on communities, contributing to the revitalization of neighborhoods and town centers, economic redevelopment and even the rebuilding following natural disasters.

Partnerships enhance community life and strengthen the relationship between a school system and its community by creating shared facilities, such as libraries, theaters, swimming pools, senior centers and adult education programs.

School and community partnerships appear to be motivated by social values rather than fiscal benefits, but there are potential savings for all partners in sharing the costs of facilities and their operations and maintenance. For school districts, and other entities dependent on public funding, there is the added benefit of community goodwill in partnerships that offer community members access to valued facilities and programs.

Design Implications

The concept of schools as centers of community has been around for some time. Indeed, it is an essential element of our iconic one-room schoolhouse. It received renewed attention through the efforts of Richard Riley, Secretary of Education under President Clinton, and has been widely embraced by educational leaders and organizations. In 2004, the American Architectural Foundation and the KnowledgeWorks Foundation launched its annual Richard Riley Award, honoring excellence in schools as centers of community.

However, in practice the modern school as a center of community is still emerging, and people are still exploring the design implications. It is clear that a community school is not the same building. It has many of the elements a public school has, but it is fundamentally different. It is not a matter of simply creating a public door and calling it a community school.

Examples of Schools as Centers of Community

Rosa Parks School at New Columbia Community Campus, Portland, OR
Photo Courtesy of Dull Olson Weekes Architects

    The American Architectural Foundation awarded its 2007 Richard Riley Award to the Rosa Parks School at New Columbia Community Campus. Partners in this project included the Housing Authority of Portland (Oregon), Portland Public Schools, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Portland and the City of Portland Department of Parks and Recreation. The school also supports community and educational services (Head Start, an educational program for income-qualified preschool children and their families; SMART, a volunteer tutoring program; and Loaves and Fishes, a food-delivery program for isolated seniors). Rosa Parks has a parent and community room that provides [personal and employment development services] for adults, as well as access to computers and a place to gather and wait for children.

Little Village High School, Chicago, IL

Photo Courtesy of Little Village High School

The Little Village High School, a partnership between the City of Chicago and Chicago Public Schools, is the result of a planning process that involved numerous community groups. The 1,400-student community high school incorporates four 350-student schools, each with an identity representing one of four elements drawn from Aztec mythology (fire, earth, water and wind). A solar calendar in the commons commemorates the community’s successful 19-day hunger strike to secure new school facilities.

Resources for Architects

The American Architecture Foundation: Schools as Centers of Community case study video ( and discussion guide (

Making the Difference: Research and Practice in Community Schools, Coalition for Community Schools, March 2003 (

The KnowledgeWorks Foundation: Communities and Schools Initiatives (


The AIA and the Committee on Architecture for Education would like to thank the following individuals for contributing their time and expertise to developing these papers through the interview and review process: Jeanne Jackson, AIA, LEED (Partner, VCBO Architecture); Gerald (Butch) Reifert, AIA (Partner, Mahlum Architects); Ronald E. Bogle, Hon. AIA (President & CEO, American Architectural Foundation); John Weekes, AIA (Partner, Dull Olson Weekes Architects); Amy Yurko, AIA (BrainSpaces); Dr. W. Bryan Bowles (Superintendent, Davis School District, UT.

Making the Difference: Research and Practice in Community Schools, Coalition for Community Schools, March 2003 (page 40)


Footer Navigation

Copyright & Privacy

  • © The American Institute of Architects
  • Privacy