HMFH Architects

Schools as Community Centers

“Nothing has the potential to bring people together more effectively than schools,” Scott Doyon from the urban planning firm PlaceMakers, states in his blog post, 7 Keys to a Strong Community. “One of the largest resources schools have at their disposal is the sense of emotional ownership taken by the surrounding community.” We know that communities benefit from strong schools and students benefit from strong communities. And to make sure that they do, we’re always looking for ways that design can support and enhance this relationship.

We have seen the positive impact of a dynamic school and community relationship, and in the best cases it starts during the design process.

When you get community members involved during the design process they take ownership and stay involved. At the Dover High School and Career Technical Center in Dover, NH, parents and other community member were actively involved during early visioning sessions where they articulated goals for the future of the school. Dover residents spoke of the opportunity for the new high school to foster relationships between students and adult community members.  They talked about community events such as art shows and flower shows, for adult education classes that might find a home in the new high school, and for other ways to make the school a center for the entire community.

Tina Stanislaski, Principal, HMFH Architects

By the end of the visioning sessions the outcome was clear to HMFH and to the participants:  the new school would have at its core a “Town Square” where community members as well as students would feel engaged and welcome. The participants saw the new school not only as an educational opportunity for students but also as a way to strengthen connections across the entire community.

Today, that Town Square is becoming an active part of community life.

Residents already regularly attend athletic events in the gym and performances in the theater after only a year of operation. Lunch for community members will be served starting this fall in the dining area run by the Career Tech Culinary Arts program, hairdressing is provided by the Cosmetology program, and blood pressure checks will soon be available in the Health Sciences program, all of which are accessible directly from the Town Square. Meanwhile students study, eat, socialize and engage in intramurals in the Town Square.

Alan Pemstein, HMFH Architects

The adjacent outdoor courtyard is an attraction for everyone. Eighth graders view presentations in the Town Square as they prepare for high school and adults pass through in the evening on their way to classes. Residents of all ages interact with one another, learn from one another, and are appreciative of what their community has accomplished. They’re beginning to see the school as a resource for residents, a crossroads for meeting others and as an enhancement of their community.

Educators at Bridge Boston Charter School in Boston also described a clear vision for their school to HMFH when they started planning for a new facility.  Bridge Boston serves many of the neediest elementary school students from across the City; 100% are low income. A substantial percentage are homeless or face challenges such as alcoholism or addiction at home, so Bridge Boston is the center of community for these families. Many of the students have limited access to doctors or dentists or social workers and don’t always have ready access to nutritional meals. In addition to education, Bridge supports the whole child, providing health and mental wellness services, nutritional meals, as well as many services for students’ families. The new school had to be a place where entire families felt safe and welcomed.

HMFH was inspired by Bridge Boston’s mission and was eager to design a facility that supported it. The existing building chosen to be the new home to the school presented challenges.  A former community health center, the brick and concrete box of a building was divided up internally into small offices. The one potentially redeeming feature was a large atrium space.

The building was hardly an ideal starting point for a school that focused on the most underserved children in Boston but having an atrium at the core with catwalks running through the space sparked our approach from our first visit. The school’s mission was to be a bridge to these students’ future; this space and its catwalks would be a metaphorical bridge connecting the different aspects of a student’s learning.

James Liebman, Associate, HMFH Architects

We gutted the interior of the existing building to create classrooms, administrative space, and meeting rooms. A new gym, small classroom addition, and a playground helped bring the school to life, but it was the atrium and the adjoining open dining area that are proving to be the heart and soul of the school and its community. The atrium officially serves as the school library, but this light-filled space is much more than that. Catwalks shoot across to upper floor classrooms passing over the library and bridging different parts of the school literally and figuratively, allowing students to see and be seen by those below. Those catwalks also provide a place to watch the musical performances that regularly take place in the library. The space is used constantly for student drop-off and pick-up, for meetings, and simply for family fellowship.

All of us are really focused on the families' strengths. That we can all gather in a well-lit space filled with books is just like ice cream on a Sunday.

Jennifer DalyPrincipal, Bridge Boston Charter School

Now, many schools are being designed with security as a design imperative. They focus on barriers and limited entry, often out of fear. To counter that, both Dover High School and Bridge Boston Charter School decided to create a different approach for their interactions with their respective communities. While securities measures are in place, the schools have focused on fostering connections with their communities as a means for both strengthening the learning experience and fostering a more vibrant community.

Having buildings with space where the community is welcome and where interactions among all community members is natural is a clear model for the future. In an age when we are frequently focusing on barriers to learning, these schools have found bridges.