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What's a Community School?

There is an enterprise that needs to happen for the future of our communities. It involves building the capacity of people, including planners and local leaders, to recognize that public schools can be re-interpreted to align with new age community development.

Since their earliest formation, public schools have been linked with community development through land use zoning and subsidiary facility uses. School buildings continue to be associated with community needs as they relate to recreation and after school meeting spaces.

In recent decades, changing family and social conditions have been met with attempts to integrate public schools more closely with social services through the concept of community hubs. This has led to the location of childcare and health and wellness programs in schools deemed to have sufficient space and/or through facility upgrades. While helpful and necessary, this concept of community hub has not generally deviated from traditional interpretations of what schools are. They support an industrial-era construct of schools as buildings of classrooms that organize students by age and program.

Re-interpreting What Schools Are

With a sense of hope for the remainder of this decade and beyond, we can expect an increasing call for community development that accounts for a new interpretation of what schools can be. The following quote from Zachary Stein, author of Education in a Time Between Worlds, offers a view to the post-industrial education system thinking espoused by an increasing number of educators, parents, students, healthcare and community leaders:

“Our great school systems need to be repurposed and redesigned, transformed into unprecedented institutions that are a combination of public libraries, museums, co-working centers, computer labs, and daycares. Funded to the hilt, staffed by citizen-teacher-scientists, these public and privately supported educational hubs would be the local centers of regionally decentralized pop-up classrooms, special interest groups, apprenticeship networks, and college and work preparation counseling. Giant schools built on the model of the factory at the turn of the last century can be gutted, remodeled, and reborn metaphorically and literally, to create the meta-industrial one-room schoolhouses of the future. In these places technologies will enable the formation of peer-to-peer networks of students and teachers, of all ages, from all across the local region (or the world through video), and without coercion or compromise. What enables these safe, efficient, hubs of self-organizing educational configurations are fundamentally new kinds of educational technologies, which put almost unlimited knowledge in the palm of every person’s hand.”

Education In The Anthropocene: Re-Imagining Schools In The Midst of Planetary Transformation - Dr. Zachary Stein (

The Challenge and Opportunity Before Us

There is a significant divide between current interpretations of what schools are and what “school as community hub” needs to be. A seamless alignment of community services with schools is difficult for a variety of reasons as they relate to available space, staffing, operational challenges and funding. For example, efforts initiated by the Ontario Provincial government in the mid 2010’s resulted in the current arrangement of Early Years Centres and Youth Wellness Hubs that, while useful and necessary, fall short of a wider vision many sought to achieve.

Our industrial era school structures are not organized in a manner that can easily optimize these working relationships. Community services usually operate as separate entities in support of school operations. The challenge and opportunity before us involves aligning personalized school operations with local community support services.

Every community is unique. Can our schools be organized differently to support the capacity and relational opportunities of students and adults across the unique spectra of local communities? To what extent can opportunities for community hub alignment be promoted in keeping with, and means for advancement of, the jurisdictional legislations that define school operations? Ontario schools, for example, operate in compliance with the Education Act of Ontario.

A New Reality

The pandemic has demonstrated that our communities require a new interpretation of what schools can be. With families and school staff required to adopt alternatives to traditional in-classroom instruction, terms such as online learning, e-learning, virtual learning, and distance learning have been used interchangeably without meaningful definition. As a result, there is a common misperception that the socialization needs of students can only be addressed through a return to traditional school structures. We are missing this moment to address the real issue; namely, how to help our schools best meet the personalized needs of students, parents and communities at large.

The call for a return to traditional school structures is happening in the absence of a comprehensive assessment of what should have been referred to during the pandemic as Emergency Remote Education. Symptomatic of a larger issue, as it relates to the need for a massive digital transformation of schools, there is a lack of information available to understand who the remote learners are at this critical point in the longstanding history of public schools. There is also a distinct likelihood that additional pandemic responses will be necessary in the near and longer term future.

Our new reality requires that communities be provided the means to improve the alignment of local people and services with schools. Current system structures are a barrier to advancement. It is difficult to engage public interpretations about what schools can be. The advantages of a change to personalized service delivery, through a newly accountable hub model of operations, must be seen as valuable by our communities. People need to see to believe.

An Infrastructure Approach

Schools are much more than the physical building alone. But it is also true that people tend to equate schools with physical infrastructure and find value in school facility upgrades. School infrastructure is a powerful common denominator. It can help people to reimagine how schools can make a deeper connection with new age community development. Through school infrastructure, an updated vision of community hubs in school buildings can be brought to life.

A recent report entitled "Schools as Community Infrastructure" from the (American) Siegal Family Endowment, September 2022, is one example of a useful framework in this respect. It presents a vision for school infrastructure from three following interconnected parts as follows:

1. Physical infrastructure that accounts for the built environment,

“[R]edefining the school’s physical infrastructure challenges us to expand our ideas of what might be possible, and brings more stakeholders to the decision-making table.” p.9

2. Digital infrastructure that accounts for all aspects of technology, data, and systems that are used by in school systems,

“[W]hen we tie digital infrastructure to the other dimensions, we can reconsider the practices, relationships, and spaces that are most essential to improving teaching and learning, especially for those that have been historically marginalized.” p.10

3. Social infrastructure that accounts for the relationships and connections between people who are directly and indirectly part of the school community.

“When we employ a multidimensional view that includes social infrastructure, we can begin to reimagine the inclusive governance structures that can propel our communities forward.” p.12

The following graphic provides a visual overview of the concept at large.

From page 7 of “Schools as Community Infrastructure”, Siegal Family Endowment, September 2022

This type of multidimensional approach for school infrastructure can be used to clarify and promote the concept of school as community hub. With infrastructure as a process for engagement, local understanding and support for a reinterpretation of what schools can be can happen for the benefit of the larger community.

“Considering ways to redesign and integrate physical, digital, and social infrastructure for the benefit of the entire community can be the first step in co-creating solutions and funding models that can’t be accessed alone. By focusing attention on the intersections between the three dimensions, schools and their larger communities can derive the most benefit.” p.12

Additional Context; Public Infrastructure is Aging

The Canadian Infrastructure Report Card provides updates on the state of Canada’s public infrastructure defined as roads and bridges; culture, recreation and sports facilities; potable water; wastewater; stormwater; public transit; and solid waste. The most recent (2019) report offers a sobering view of the state of Canadian infrastructure:

“A concerning amount of municipal infrastructure is in poor or very poor condition. Infrastructure in this condition represents an immediate need for action, as the rehabilitation or replacement of these assets is required in the next 5-10 years to ensure that the services it provides continue to meet the community’s expectations. Furthermore, “[A]n even larger proportion of municipal infrastructure is in fair condition. Infrastructure in this condition represents a view of things to come in the medium to long term. This infrastructure will continue to deteriorate over the next decade, falling into poor and very poor condition if rehabilitation or replacement actions are not taken.” Canadian Infrastructure Report Card, 2019, p.9.

Indicative of the need for a deeper connection between schools and community, the Canadian Infrastructure Report Card does not include public school buildings. However, a 2009 report commissioned by Statistics Canada on the age of education infrastructure indicated that the majority of school buildings 14 years ago were in need of upgrades. “On average, the service life of education buildings is estimated at about 40 years. The average of 20.1 years in 2008 means that education physical infrastructure have passed 51% of their useful service life.”

Valérie Gaudreault, Donald Overton and John Trstenjak, "Age of Education Infrastructure: Recent Trends,"Analysis in Brief, no. 81, September 2009, Statistics Canada catalogue no. 11-621-M, /pub/11-621-m/11-621-m2009081-eng.htm, Ottawa.

It is worth noting that the lifespan information presented in the Statistics Canada report accounts for largescale investments in new public schools that occurred from 1980-2000 to address the influx of echo boom (children of the baby boom) students. Enrolment decline caused by the eventual departure of the echo boom precipitated school closures throughout in the 2000’s. These closures were deemed necessary based upon a traditional operational linkage between school infrastructure and in person enrolments.

As alternatives to traditional in-classroom instruction become increasingly necessary, so too will the need for operational benchmarks that promote new interpretations of school infrastructure in our communities to avoid future school closures. The imminent and far reaching task of addressing aging municipal infrastructure can benefit from a new interpretation of multi-dimensional school buildings.

Climate Change, a Just Transition and Liberatory Education

Climate change is increasing the urgency, magnitude and scope of necessary upgrades to municipal infrastructure. “Preparing for the unavoidable impacts of climate change requires a drastic shift in the way we build our communities, and requires immediate and committed action at every level of government, society, and across all sectors.” Canadian Institute of Planners, 2022

Beyond infrastructure, our communities also require a Just Transition - through progressive policy and action to minimize the impact of climate change on the most vulnerable people. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) continues to advocate for a Just Transition that optimizes the capacity of communities to address climate change through skills development, innovation and cooperation in support of sustainability, adaptation and mitigation of fossil fuels.

“Inequalities in the distribution of emissions and in the impacts of mitigation policies within countries affect social cohesion and the acceptability of mitigation and other environmental policies. Equity and just transitions can enable deeper ambitions for accelerated mitigation. Applying just transition principles and implementing them through collective and participatory decision-making processes is an effective way of integrating equity principles into policies at all scales.”

Working Group III Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Section D.3.3, April 2022

Similar to other municipal infrastructure, schools need to be upgraded to address climate change. Operationally, this involves facility upgrades to adapt to extreme weather, heating/cooling and air quality improvements, and reduced student transportation through electrified school buses and alternative means, including walking and cycling.

Schools can also play a leading role in a Just Transition. At a basic level, they can provide safe spaces for people to meet and work together. However, schools can also be re-purposed to engage young people through personalized learning that aligns with their local communities. System concepts such as Libertory Education provide a framework for community leaders to move beyond simply improving “equity” in industrial-era schools to providing students and community members a meaningful role in how schools operate.

“Liberatory education would value many ways of knowing and being while preparing students to participate in and shape the current and future economy and civil society. Learning experiences would encourage high levels of agency for both learners and educators. Learning environments and curricula would be able to adapt easily to be relevant to the changing times.”

Katherine Prince, Knowledgeworks, March 2022.

A hub/multi-dimensional approach to school infrastructure can assist the community effort necessary to adapt to and mitigate climate change. An investment in hub/multi-dimensional school infrastructure is an investment in the future of our communities.

The Indigenous Connection

Municipalities require new approaches to integrate Indigenous peoples and traditions into community development. This is particularly true given the realities of climate change and the impending need for sustainability as a driving force. The Ontario Professional Planners Institute (OPPI), a leading voice of community development in the Province of Ontario, has endorsed this new interpretation Indigenous participation in community development.

“[T]here is a strong conviction that the planning profession can and needs to learn from Indigenous Peoples. This is especially so as we face global environmental changes, such as biodiversity loss, climate change, extreme weather events, and more. There should and must be a two-way exchange in the public interest — for all of us.” Indigenous Perspectives in Planning: Report of the Indigenous Planning Perspectives Task Force, June 2019, P 13

A “two-way exchange” means more than dialogue. It is a call for the principles of Indigenous history and culture to be equally exchanged and balanced in the advancement of new system structures. It will demand time, focus, trust and a level of commitment that crosses generations. Our children need to move this forward.

Indigenous culture does not align with traditional land use planning. Nor does it align with traditional industrial-era school structures. Accordingly, recognizing a new Indigenous role in community development must include a new indigenous role in the future of community schools. A hub/multi-dimensional approach to school infrastructure can engage community awareness and participation with Indigenous values and practices.

In what ways can local school infrastructure be updated to create culturally safe spaces that promote holistic education through sharing, storytelling and the spiritual, emotional, and decision-making capacity of students with participation from the wider community? What would this conversation look like in your local schools and community at large?

In Summary

Families need more integrated social services in schools. Students need personalized support to learn, engage, socialize, and embrace their overall wellness. Community social services, business and volunteers are willing and able to participate more effectively with all students.

Climate change is increasing the need for immediate attention to municipal infrastructure. Community development through a Just Transition, including Indigenous cultures and practices, is also required due to climate change. The working relationship between public schools and community development needs to be expanded. This is difficult due to longstanding traditions and interpretations about what schools are.

A multi-dimensional/hub approach to school infrastructure offers a timely and sensible approach for our communities to re-imagine schools. Helping communities to reimagine schools that are interconnected with local services and people is akin to new age community development.

Phil Dawes, November 1, 2022

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