Open-Door Policy

High schools have gradually morphed into community fitness, recreation and wellness hubs, providing space for everything from public nature trails to private kayaking lessons.

Alaska Kayak SchoolAlaska Kayak School The opening this fall of Vancouver, Wash.'s Eisenhower Elementary School, complete with a public park on its grounds, will mark the complete transformation of one school district's community presence. The ambitious campaign, which began in 1990 by overhauling some of the oldest, post-World War II school buildings in the state, has created public swimming pools at elementary and middle schools, nature trails that connect schools with public parks, intricate partnerships with area YMCAs and Boys & Girls Clubs, and sports fields shared with private and public organizations. This evolution - Tom Hagley, director of partnerships and public involvement for the Vancouver School District, might even call it a revolution - has provided a national model for schools to become full-scale fitness, recreation and wellness hubs in their communities.

"I see the schools here making up much of the fabric that holds this community together," Hagley says about the 30 elementary, middle and high schools that have been built or renovated in Vancouver with $400 million in voter-approved bond measures during the past 15 years, plus millions more in private donations. "For each one of those projects, we had a community engagement process that involved people envisioning what a school for the 21st century would look like. One of the elements involved a lot of community use. Just having schools open six hours a day seems like a waste."

A University of North Carolina study of 20,000 teenagers published in February by Pediatrics, the official journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics, reveals that poorer neighborhoods have fewer parks and recreation facilities - indicating that schools might be able to fill the gap. "This study provides strong evidence that it is not enough just to encourage our children to be physically active," James Hill, co-founder of America on the Move, a national initiative that encourages people to live healthier, more active lives, told USA Today. "Our best hope of reducing childhood obesity is to create healthy communities, and many places across the country want to do that."

What began as a trend of charging residents fees to use a school's fitness center in the evenings has morphed into a way for schools - particularly ones wanting to show off new fitness and athletic facilities - to generate all-day, two-way exchanges of goodwill.

"The theory is that the more we have the community in our schools, and they see how their tax dollars are being used, the more receptive they are going to be to our requests for support," says John Armato, director of community relations for the Pottstown (Pa.) School District, which is experimenting with a variety of ways to complement existing partnerships with local police athletic leagues, private tennis and wrestling groups, and the city's parks and recreation department. "Plus, we become a healthier community."

When administrators at Lincoln-Sudbury High School in Sudbury, Mass., opened its new student fitness center to the public back in the mid-1990s, they were among the first in the area to do so. "It was totally unusual," says Nancy O'Neil, the school's director of athletics and wellness. "But we were very fortunate in that it was a curriculum-driven initiative. We had an exceptional physical fitness curriculum, and we wanted to make sure every youngster was exposed to it. In order for that to happen, we needed a facility. That's how it all started. When you're using tax dollars, you want the community to be able to reap the benefits."

Fast-forward a decade, and Lincoln-Sudbury High has settled into a two-year-old building on a $72 million campus that includes a 2,500-square-foot fitness center and an outdoor synthetic turf field. During the day, the fitness center hosts introductory classes in strength and cardiovascular fitness for students. It is open to all students, faculty and staff members from 3 to 5 p.m. on weekdays, and then residents, via an adult-education program, pay a fee to work out between 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. four nights a week and on Saturday mornings. The school's wellness instructors serve as trainers.

"When you have people in the same department who are filling those roles, there's just more consistency, more pride and better communication," O'Neil says. "It works so much better than having outside people who might not be as connected to the community or have the same passion."

The school's wellness staff, however, isn't the only group of employees working longer hours these days. Lincoln-Sudbury also opens its gymnasium, group meeting rooms and fields to more than a dozen youth and adult organizations for yoga classes, youth sports and other activities - which means that custodians rack up a lot of overtime.

"For every group that comes in here, we have to have a maintenance person on hand," O'Neil says. "We didn't do that in the old building. I might have said to my coaches, `As long as you're going to be here, you can handle it.' Now we have more and better things to access. When you have a synthetic turf field that can be used regardless of the weather, people are knocking down your door to get at it. It's a much busier school now."

Homer (Alaska) High School, built in the mid-1980s, also is a busy place - thanks in large part to the fact that there is not a single parks and recreation facility in the small Kachemak Bay city. Instead, the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District's Community Schools program charges user fees for activities that range from independent fencing practice in the school's commons area to privately operated kayaking classes in the 25-meter swimming pool to group sessions on a 50-foot climbing wall in the wrestling room. Part of that money (along with city funding) pays the salary of Mike Illg, the full-time coordinator who works at the school from early in the afternoon to late at night overseeing all activities. Homer's Community Schools program also provides a drop-in fitness center and open-gym hours, as well as nonrecreational activities for children and adults. It operates in the black, Illg says, and manages to attract a majority of the local population.

"We open the door at 6:30 in the morning and close it at 10 at night," adds athletic director Chris Perk. "The big thing for us is whether the facilities are used improperly. If there's a clog in the pool or something's broken in the gym or weights are missing, we have to deal with that. And those kinds of things occur all the time. We're constantly putting out fires. But overall, I think it's a benefit for everyone. I grew up here in Homer, and this is a very important aspect of the city."

A list of examples in which the lines between school districts, municipalities and private organizations have been blurred to varying degrees could go on and on. But few on that list would likely compare to what's happened in southwestern Washington since the early '90s.

Masterminded by former superintendent of schools Jim Parsley, the Vancouver School District's transformation stemmed from the realization that simply improving schools in a city where more than 50 percent of all students qualify for subsidized meals wasn't going to be sufficient to equip children with the means to lead healthy and productive lives. That's why Parsley vigorously pursued hundreds of partnerships to meet a wide range of family and community needs - from recreational outlets to child-care facilities to mental-health counseling. Parsley retired in 2002 after 22 years of service, but his legacy lives on, particularly in the facility that bears his name.

The Jim Parsley Center shares space with the Vancouver-Clark Parks & Recreation Department, a physical education center for home-schooled children and a free medical clinic staffed by volunteer physicians who serve 15,000 uninsured individuals every year. Amenities include a district-operated climbing wall, plus a gymnasium, swimming pool, fitness center and group-exercise rooms overseen by the city. Daily, monthly and annual memberships are available based on the parks and recreation department's fee structure. Unlike Vancouver's new and renovated schools, the Parsley Center was funded by more than $6 million in private donations. It opened in 2001 and quickly emerged as the centerpiece of the district's facility renewal efforts.

"Our task is to finish the work that was initiated by Jim Parsley," says Hagley, who also manages the Parsley Center and the district-owned, two-pool Propstra Aquatic Center adjacent to McLaughlin Middle School and George C. Marshall Elementary School. So far, so good.

The district's four high schools - one new and three renovated - each boast public fitness centers. But it is at the elementary and middle school levels where most of the district's open-door policies have taken shape. Hough Elementary School has its own indoor community pool, and joint ventures with the Boys & Girls Clubs of Southwest Washington in the former Hazel Dell Elementary School (located next to that school's new building) and the Clark County Family YMCA in Salmon Creek Elementary School offer plenty of after-school learning opportunities. Plans also call for expanding program offerings into the recreation realm using the facilities' gymnasiums and fields.

Water slideWater slide Two-day "Invent the Future" design symposiums were held at the Parsley Center for each of the 30 new or renovated schools, during which up to 80 students, parents, teachers, business leaders, architects, city planners, landscape designers and education consultants gathered to discuss educational and extracurricular program elements. "Those really helped us, because we would come out of those symposiums with 80 people who were just jazzed about the project," Hagley says. "They would be the ambassadors who helped us with neighborhood meetings and other forms of outreach."

Outreach, however, only extends so far. "We have some communities near us where this idea would fail," Hagley admits. He cites Portland, Ore., located across the Columbia River, where he says school district administrators continue to struggle with budget deficits. "The community there hasn't coalesced around a strong vision for education and how it can be an integral part of the community."

Indeed, for every Vancouver, there are countless Portlands - and Pottstowns. After the middle and high schools in that southeastern Pennsylvania city underwent $40 million worth of renovations and additions through bond issues five years ago, the school board made a conscious effort to generate more community traffic within its facilities. Part of that initiative included a plan to open the high school fitness center and all-weather outdoor track to the public. To make the center a self-sustaining entity - with the only major expense going toward a trained instructor to supervise the facility in the evenings and on Saturdays - district officials hoped to sell about 100 annual memberships at $225 each. "It was not met with smiling faces," says Armato, former athletic director for the district. "It was more like, `Why is there a fee attached to equipment that our tax dollars already bought?' "

The district, located in one of the state's wealthiest counties, even offered group discounts to local businesses and retirees. But those attempts were met with more frowns from the chamber of commerce, which claimed for-profit facilities in the area already provided the same amenities - and more of them. "We knew going in that they would not be happy if they saw us as competition," Armato admits, adding that the community fitness center idea is in limbo. "But the original philosophy was, and still is, to provide our facilities to the community whenever possible. Unfortunately, in order to do that, there's always some type of cost involved."

Administrators at Lincoln-Sudbury High, despite success in other parts of the building, are facing similar financial challenges with their community fitness center. "To be perfectly honest, we operate that particular aspect of the adult-education program just to pay expenses," O'Neil says. "We're not looking to make money. Every year, that adult-ed program has either broken even or lost a little bit of money. So it's something that we've gone back and forth about. Does it even make sense to offer? There are so many health clubs and other facilities that can offer amenities we can't - whirlpools, saunas, locker rooms. We were on the fence this year, but people who use it asked us to leave it open. So we did. We're just hoping that we don't lose money."

There are, however, other ways to generate operating funds in lieu of user fees. Armato, who hopes Pottstown's school board hasn't given up on the idea of opening a public fitness center, says he can try to either convince alums or businesses to sponsor the entire facility (or even individual pieces of equipment) or find ways to absorb the center's estimated $20,000 cost into the district's annual budget. "It is a challenge," he says. "But we're going to have to do more of these things in order to survive, and we have to figure out a way to do them so people don't have to pay anything. If the fitness center idea doesn't get off the ground, it doesn't get off the ground. It doesn't mean we'll stop trying."

Lincoln-Sudbury's O'Neil echoes that sentiment. "My hope is that we will continue to keep this community healthy and happy," she says. "That's my vision. And I'll do whatever it takes to make that happen."

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