Components of a Good Neighborhood School

As originally posted to the as a guest writer ...


This is the second column in this series by Stephen Oliver, AIA | LEED AP - Principal at OPA Design Studio and 2009 AIA Austin President. Stephen has been a key figure in understanding of the City’s design ordinances. He participated in multiple stages of architecture or planning for six of Austin’s nine Commuter Rail Stations and is currently working on urban infill planning projects and LEED developments throughout Texas.

Components of a Good Neighborhood School

When I came moved back to Austin with my wife and son nearly 10 years ago, I quickly realized that picking my dream house was going to be wrapped up in the big question I never had to deal with before: “Where are the good schools?” As a UT Architecture student, this was outside my small community awareness bubble. As a single architectural intern, I could pick from nearly anywhere in the city that met my criteria: near services (grocery), near parks for my dog, and near fun things to do.

At the beginning of the home search my net was pretty big. I began to add more requirements: close to downtown (with fewer condos back then), close to my job (near campus). My net got smaller. I added relatively affordable housing and choices were getting slim. Then came the needs of my family including a quality education for our school-age child. In Austin, requirements such as “relatively affordable” and “good schools” don’t create abundant options. In fact, in wanting to stay north of Lady Bird Lake but close to my job and the creative core of Austin, I had exactly five highly-rated elementary schools in AISD to choose from (and today not much has changed). Adding the question “Which elementary schools feed into highly-rated high schools?” left just two schools and very few neighborhoods to consider. (This made my realtor’s job very easy.) I should not have been surprised to find that these areas were more expensive. Apparently finding a public school with the strongest academic ratings is important to many of us.




Having worked on both elementary as well as community college campus designs and having two kids in AISD schools, I struggle to find peace with the places surrounding our children’s educational environment. Finding a school that you can trust with your children is hard enough for a parent. Believing that the physical environment they are sitting and playing in for 8+ hours is of a standard equal to the teachers who instruct them is a leap of faith.

Schools used to be at the heart of our communities. They were smaller with fewer portable buildings. They also used to take up a lot less land and people could live closer to schools within their neighborhoods. Now most school districts desire sites occupying 10-15 acres, which disconnects them from the surrounding areas. What happened? Well, we can safely assume the following without too much investigation:

• Bigger schools fit more kids and are cheaper to administer, maintain and educate.
• Certain security measures, such as controlled access, fencing, visibility, etc.
• Expanded needs for surface parking since schools are larger and further away from many homes.
• Lots of green space to play - though kids had no trouble exercising and playing before.
• Single-story schools are less expensive to build and maintain, especially if the land is inexpensive.
• Extra green space allows for room for expansion.

These changes, combined with a whole host of others over the last 60+ years, have altered the fabric of community environment for the worse. It is going to take strong partnerships to make modest steps towards a better solution. My daughter goes to a great school off Duval - kids, parents, teachers and administration could not be better. However, if the kids want to go somewhere for a field trip to a place of educational/cultural value, they better get a bunch of buses with full tanks of gas. There is a fire station next door which is always a hit for both the young and old, but the options end right there. Why is that? Why isn’t the school at the heart of the neighborhood structure, close to a museum, library or art gallery?

Maybe the better question would be, “What is the neighborhood structure?” Most areas outside of downtown lack this centrality or focus which could add so much value to our clusters of neighborhoods. And since I chose my neighborhood based on school criteria first, affordability second, the physical setting became an unfortunate sacrifice - for now.

Perhaps in the Comprehensive Planning efforts for Austin, we can put renewed focus on the value of place around institutions. Perhaps we can ask for dialogue with achievable outcomes between our city planners and the AISD administration. Perhaps we can think more creatively about how we use our existing campuses to fill the gaps. What community planning and service opportunities are available when a campus needs a major expansion or upgrades? How can these facilities truly become sustainable institutions for the future? Can we provide more affordable housing in our community through strategic partnerships between schools and private development and bring affordable housing for teachers directly to or adjacent to the campus? Can we envision new forms of play space for children that engage them physically and mentally but use space more efficiently? Can we envision the urban AISD campus that we will need when sufficient land is no longer available for today’s 10-15 acre campus?

The following is excerpted from the Texas Education Agency’s Public Education Mission, Objectives, and Goals. Subtitle A, Chapter 4, Sec. 4.001:

OBJECTIVE 8: School campuses will maintain a safe and disciplined environment conducive to student learning.

This is the only objective that specifically references the place of learning. I think it is time we recognize that the implications of the physical place of schools in our community. We can and should do more to empower AISD and other school districts with the support necessary to make lasting changes that will benefit all of us, whether we have children in a school or not. Better facilities, great places, more choices, greater affordability and inspired learning are all interconnected.

Resources for continued exploration: