Tag Archives: community schools

Beyond skate parks – transforming communities with teens

There is no doubt that the teen years are ones of dramatic change for young people and those around them. It is perhaps for this reason that teens are often seen as awkward accessories to our communities – ones who must to be occupied with skateparks or part-time jobs until they mature. However, the innovative and energetic nature of teenagers is often exactly what needs to be at the centre of our communities.

Photo by Peter Pearson

Columnist Jack Knox recently spoke to this point in an article about Earth Day. He challenged his own assumptions about ‘misspent youth’ by citing the students at Reynolds Secondary School who grow Swiss Chard (who would have thought that teens eat chard!?); run an organic salad bar; and raised $84,000 for cancer. This is just one local example, but the positive potential of teenage energy is more broadly recognized as well. Brain science supports the notion that teens are innovative and creative people with the potential to bring fresh perspectives to building ideal communities. David Suzuki explores this in a fascinating discussion on Surviving the Teenage Brain.

So how do we harness this brainpower of teens in our communities? Here are five ways to get started…

1. Be welcoming and positive
See teens as key players in your neighourhood, community and school. Talk to them about their ideas and ambitions, keeping an open mind. If they do something that seems risky or a little incomprehensible, seek to understand their thinking. As adults, our knowledge of risk and critical thought can limit our thinking. Teenagers allow us to see things in new, entrepreneurial ways.

 2. Include teens in community planning
Community planning processes can benefit immensely from the fresh perspectives and energy that teens have to offer. In turn, this kind of hands-on experience is ideal for the way that teens learn – in social, experiential settings where risk taking is a must. Teens may gain lifelong leadership and planning skills. Acting as partners, teens can be put in the position of using their skills to teach adults, who may be limited by their more cautious thinking. Two resources to check out are the Youthscape Guidebook and Co-Management: A Practical Guide.

3. Connect schools to communities
Connecting schools to communities allows teens the opportunity to step beyond the confined walls of the classroom. It often allows more room to put teens in positions of leadership and to learn in a hands-on manner. It provides experience that may help them find employment. In return, it allows older community members to be inclusive and develop a deeper understanding of this age group of citizens. Explore ways that this can happen through my previous post Breaking out of the Ivory Tower: Schools and Universities building bridges to local communities.

4. Support youth friendly transit
In many settings, youth are limited by their lack of mobility. Concerns over lack of public transit routes, infrequency of public transit, cost or safety concerns may leave them isolated and unable to fully engage in our communities. The website kidsonthemove.ca contains the results of a research project that created a set of guidelines for land use planners to help overcome some of these obstacles.

5. Support recreation
Despite the title of this post, skate parks are great. Other contexts for connecting teens with their community include libraries, swimming pools, drop-in centres, community centres, climbing walls, music and dance venues, art studios, sports fields, community gardens, and parks. These spaces provide physical exercise, opportunities for safe risk-taking, and contexts for social learning. The Ontario Partnership for Active and Engaged Youth has recognized the importance of this by introducing the Playworks Youth Friendly Community Awards.

How is your community putting teens in a central role?

Breaking out of the Ivory Tower: Schools and Universities building bridges to local communities

My last post focused on reaching across borders on a global scale. I now turn to look at another set of barriers that exist in many communities worldwide – those between schools and their broader communities.

Conversations abound about how schools and universities can create communities within their institutions. However, these learning institutions are also often central to their local communities, and thus have a role that extends beyond serving their ‘internal’ constituents. How can schools and universities push down the barriers that may exist between themselves, local citizens and potential civic partners?

Here are three ways in which learning institutions are taking leadership in reaching beyond their own borders to create community:

1. The Community Schools approach
Community schools seem to be enjoying a renewed popularity in many parts of the world. In broad terms, this approach advocates for schools that act as both centres for formal schooling, as well as places where meaningful connections are made between people in the broader community. Doors remain open ‘after hours’ and many community services may be located within the same building.

While each local context varies, there is a wealth of resources that discuss defining, starting, and sustaining such an initiative. The Coalition for Community Schools provides a list of such resources and the Federation for Community Schools provides a guide for starting a community school. Those on the west coast of Canada may wish to check out the British Columbia Neighbourhood Learning Centre initiative. The Council of Europe has also published on school-community-university partnerships.

Of course, to many people from smaller towns, hamlets and villages, the community schools concept is just common sense. Early settlers in rural North America would build school houses as a community, for the benefit of the entire community. In reciting the history of her town in Wisconsin, Montgomery explains that the building of the Evansville schoolhouse in 1840 “was in itself a community event. …Each family was asked to bring timber that was already hewn and ‘good solid oak shingles’ for the roof. …The new school was intended for community use.  The building served as a town hall, singing school, writing school, public hall for community events, and a church.”   (A few examples from Canada’s early days can also be found here). As is often the case with great ideas, it seems that the ‘new’ idea of community schools actually has a long history behind it.

2. Civic partnerships
Many schools, universities and colleges have taken leadership in their communities by engaging in specific civic partnerships. This can be more manageable than a more generalized community school approach. It may also help to service a particular need identified by a broader community. Here are a few examples:

In 2003, the City of San Jose and San Jose State University created a joint library for all to enjoy. The result has increased access to information resources for the public. In addition, the collaboration has also created a new gathering place in downtown San Jose. A comprehensive overview of this project is provided in this video.

Fitchberg Arts Academy is a publicly funded middle school with a particularly innovative approach to collaboration. The school is located on the campus of Fitchberg State University, and acts as the university’s teacher education centre. Further, the school is also partnered with the Fitchberg art museum, and acts as a ‘museum school.’

Many schools embrace a multiple-use approach, particularly when it comes to arts and sport. Here is an example of just such a proposed centre in my own home area – The Emily Carr Westshore Perfoming Arts and Education Centre is a partnership between the school district, chamber of commerce, the municipality, two local colleges, and local First Nations communities.

3. Embracing the outdoors
Another approach to community collaboration is simple: look out the window, and think about starting with the green space that makes up part of your campus. This can be a relatively easy way to get started in building bridges between a formal educational institution and the broader community. There are many examples from around the world of this type of approach, but I will share just a few from my area:

The University of British Columbia operates UBC Farm that allows visitors to learn about the connections between land, food and community.

The University of Victoria also maintains public gardens, and even provides a downloadable guide for anyone wishing to visit.

I often see signs on school playgrounds that prohibit public use after school hours. So I was happy to see this sign at a local community school:

With a 550-acre campus that includes an old growth forest and a bird sanctuary, anyone can freely explore the grounds of Royal Roads University. A highlight of the year is the Royal Roads Mother’s Day Paint-In – a free event that allows artists and residents to come together on this beautiful campus, and encourages the local community to visit the campus.

Lester B. Pearson United World College also maintains well-used public walking trails in an old growth forest. In addition, the College has taken an innovative approach to sharing Race Rocks, a small group of islands – with a lighthouse – that they maintain just off shore. Instead of encouraging visitors to come to the island, which would potentially disturb fragile ecosystems, the College has been committed to maintaining live webcams that provides the public with remote control viewing of the island and surrounding area.

As with many other places, the public school grounds in my local area are often populated with sports teams ‘after hours’. For those hoping to open up their grounds, but not sure where to start, Planning for Healthy Places has a very useful online toolkit entitled Opening School Grounds to the Community After Hours.

And in your community…?
These examples are, by no means, the limit of possible collaborations between educational institutions and their local communities.  I’d love to hear from you – how have schools, colleges or  universities helped the build bridges with the people and places around them?