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?

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

  1. Thanks for highlighting the important role of institute of higher education in educating the whole child. The community schools across the nation are embracing the university-assisted model of community school implementation. To learn more about scaling up this work, register for free webinars at:

    Shital C. Shah
    Manager of Policy & Partnerships
    Coalition for Community Schools

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