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EDUCATION

If You Want to Build a Better Community, It Takes a School

January 25, 2004|David Abel and Jonathan Fielding | Jonathan Fielding is director of public health for the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services and a professor of public health and pediatrics at UCLA. David Abel is an attorney and founder and Chairman of New Schools/ Better Neighborhoods (www.nsbn.org). He is a former member of LAUSD's Citizens School Bond Oversight Committee.

We are in the middle of an unprecedented -- and necessary -- wave of public spending on school facilities.

Over the last five years, L.A. voters have approved local school bonds totaling more than $5.5 billion, while voters statewide have approved another $22 billion in school bonds. The March 2 ballot will include a $3.8-billion Los Angeles Unified School District bond and a $12-billion state school facilities bond. This money -- and more -- is needed after years of neglect to relieve intense overcrowding and educate the future workforce of our region and state. In the Los Angeles school district alone, an indisputable need exists for 200,000 new classroom seats and 200 new public schools.

It will be an overwhelming task in our increasingly dense inner-city and inner-suburban neighborhoods to find sites for, design and build these schools. Still, it's important that we spend this money right. We expect, as we should, community-based schools that will enable children to learn in uncrowded environments near their homes. We expect to have schools that are well-integrated into our neighborhoods. But we should expect more from this vast new public works project as well.

Los Angeles Unified and the 26 cities it serves have a unique opportunity to improve communities. By combining school bonds with government and philanthropic funds for parks, libraries, health, housing and other related services, the district and its government and philanthropic partners can create an overdue and entirely new approach to both schools and neighborhoods.

We've seen this work already on a small scale. Now comes an opportunity, through community participation in the planning process, to create a network of mixed-use, neighborhood-centered, new and remodeled community schools that could offer an efficient array of much needed, neighborhood-based health and human services -- enhancing the learning and human potential not just of students but of all members of the community.

Schools should not simply be imposed on a neighborhood: A collaborative planning process is essential to revitalizing communities. Each neighborhood knows its strengths and needs better than outsiders. We do know, however, that the neighborhoods most in need of more school seats are also the neighborhoods most in need of access to family health care, recreational spaces, affordable housing, and early childhood and adult education. We also know that the social and physical environments of neighborhoods contribute to the ultimate success of students and their families.

Think for a moment about the biggest epidemic in Los Angeles -- not flu or tuberculosis but obesity. It influences a child's attendance at school, since obese children are more prone to a variety of ailments, and it also affects lifelong career opportunities, quality of life and life expectancy. Being overweight or obese can translate into serious health consequences such as heart disease and diabetes, and high-fat diets and poor physical fitness can increase the risk of some cancers.

One antidote to the obesity epidemic is safe, convenient spaces for children and their families to walk, run, participate in sports and otherwise enjoy being outdoors. Joint-use schools with adequate play space for both physical education and community recreation can improve overall health in densely populated communities.

And that's just the beginning. Well-sited and designed school facilities can include opportunities for lifelong learning, from pre-kindergarten to elder care. They can become convenient places to receive social services, sign up for Medi-Cal, Healthy Families or Healthy Kids benefits and even see a nurse or doctor in a community clinic.

It's easy to see why Los Angeles Unified might find the building of such schools a daunting process. The need is great for places to put students, and the pressure to provide them quickly is intense. The first step will be for the district to actively embrace the idea that its central educational mission encompasses siting and building facilities that contribute to physical fitness and improved neighborhoods. Then, the school district needs to engage community members in planning. In a few cases, this may slow down the process of getting schools built. But it has the potential for great long-term benefits for the whole region.

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