June 25, 2013

How to Save Your Historic Neighborhood School

Historic neighborhood schools are anchors within our communities. They offer students distinctive and unique places to learn. They provide constant and subtle lessons about the history of their town and respect for the past. And, as they are often within walking distance, local schools encourage students to walk or bike, promoting healthy activity and a chance to experience and engage with their surroundings.

Yet, in recent years, America’s older and historic neighborhood schools are being increasingly demolished or deserted in favor of newer and bigger buildings located farther away.

The National Trust first brought national attention to this issue in 2000, when we named Historic Neighborhood Schools to the America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list. We continue to advocate for these special places through our National Treasures work preserving Rosenwald Schools.

blog_photo_Montana historic school
Musselshell School in Musselshell County, Montana. Historic Rural Schoolhouses of Montana were named to the 2013 America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places list.

As preservationists, we know there is a better solution for our local historic schools. It’s up to us to take a stand when one of these community landmarks is at risk. Here are 10 steps you can take to help save a threatened historic school in your neighborhood:

1. Focus on the needs of schoolchildren. Make sure your preservation campaign demonstrates how students will benefit from the renovation of a historic school. For example, how could money be spent to improve students’ academic achievement by renovating the existing school or creating a new addition?

Remember that new buildings can often host new activities (e.g., new science labs). In some cases, this allows the historic spaces to once again be used for classroom, gymnasium, or auditorium purposes.

2. Develop a feasible, cost-effective alternate strategy. Show how the renovation and modernization of the existing historic structure could become a first-class educational facility. One way to do this is to hire an architect, who can serve as an expert advocate for preservation when you are making your case.

3. Provide compelling images to help decision makers visualize the renovated, modernized historic school. Create drawings of how the school would look and show photographs of successfully rehabilitated schools. Distribute these throughout the community. If possible, host field trips to nearby historic schools that have been renovated.

blog_photo_West Seattle Library
The library of West Seattle High School

4. Involve teachers, parents, and students in your preservation campaign. They will likely be the most critical stakeholders and persuasive voices. Also reach out to neighbors, elected officials, alumni, retired teachers, school employees, Parent Teacher Associations, neighborhood associations, and local preservation groups.

5. Analyze the school district’s proposal. Isolate and answer each of the district’s key issues that are perceived as barriers to renovation. These could include cost, structural instability, code problems, fire safety, accessibility, parking, and technology. Gather as much factual, objective information as possible to offer solutions for these concerns. The architect can help address these issues as well. Contact your state historic preservation office for additional resources.

6. Look into state-level administration policies that could preclude the preservation of your historic neighborhood school. For example, some states will not reimburse a local school district’s costs of historic renovation. If so, challenge the policy. Seek a variance, which is an exception or deviation from the rule or law, or a more liberal application of the policy.

7. Focus on the “frugality argument.” Compare the costs of new construction versus rehabilitation. Put a price tag on the school district’s proposal and on your alternative approach. Preservation may appeal to certain taxpayers if you can argue that renovating the historic school would improve the building while avoiding the extra cost of starting from scratch.

8. Help your neighbors understand the community impacts of the school district’s plan. Abandonment of a historic school may lead to vandalism and a decline in neighboring property values. If a historic school is demolished, it may remain a vacant lot for years or be replaced with an undesirable new use. Moreover, consolidating historic neighborhood schools into a large anonymous “sprawl school” on the outskirts of town may strain the sense of community and add to transportation costs that can put financial pressures on families and governments alike.

blog_photo_Save our School
Rally to support keeping the Arthur S. May School, in Poughkeepsie, NY, open, as well as all the schools in the Arlington District of New York state.

9. Publicize the benefits of preserving the historic school. Historic neighborhood schools often allow students to walk to school; enjoy a smaller, more intimate setting with friends from their neighborhood; and grow up immersed in the historic school’s tradition and architecture. And, there’s considerable evidence that smaller schools improve academic achievement and enrich students’ learning experiences.

10. Use every grassroots strategy in the book. Develop a clear, succinct message. Generate letters to the editor. Borrow mailings lists and send out flyers. Post yard signs. Place radio ads. Host town meetings. Go door to door. Circulate a petition. Create a website to present your case and provide up-to-date information. Don’t hesitate to ask for donations to support the cause.

Please note: Renovating or closing historic school facilities can be complicated, expensive, and potentially divisive issues within the community, so make every effort to establish a relationship with the school district and involve all stakeholders -- such as neighbors, students, teachers, owners of local businesses, regional planners, and local government officials -- in the decision-making process.

Now accepting nominations for the 2024 list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places! Letters of Intent are due September 29, 2023.

Learn More