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As we look toward the close of yet another pandemic school year, the true costs of Covid-related school closures is just beginning to emerge.

Remote instruction has significantly slowed student progress. Aside from a clear disruption to the curriculum and lingering mental health challenges for students and staff alike, the effects of school closures have been felt far beyond the classroom.

For example, members from our own communities who relied on school computers to access the internet were suddenly without this critical resource. In other instances, groups that used school buildings for gatherings, like elderly walker groups, had to make other arrangements.

The closures highlighted the vital and multidimensional role that schools play in our neighborhoods. Yes, they educate the next generation, but they also provide key social and digital functions that serve and support entire communities.

That’s why viewing a school and its neighborhood as a singular ecosystem and placing education at the center of that unified community will provide moreaccess and opportunity for all.

Simply put, we cannot build better neighborhoods without also improving our schools — and we cannot build better schools without improving our neighborhoods.

Yet efforts to improve our neighborhoods and schools have long operated on separate and uncoordinated tracks: one set of programs for neighborhood renewal and another, unconnected, strategy for school development.

Far too often, this disjointed approach has resulted in little improvement. In too many cases, it’s made matters worse.

With the hint of historic levels of infrastructure spending now on the horizon — which will include billions of dollars in federal funding earmarked for America’s communities and billions in state and local public funding for school construction — we have a rare chance to simultaneously strengthen our neighborhoods and improve our schools.

Municipalities currently exploring how to commit these federal dollars must do so with a multidimensional approach in mind.

Rather than focusing on single policies and programs aimed at narrow aspects of community renewal, it’s crucial that we start with an understanding of schools — both physically and metaphysically — as a bedrock of community life.

How can we do this? Fortunately, a growing community of thinkers has already begun charting a path to strengthen neighborhoods and the schools located within those neighborhoods.

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The nonprofit Reimagine America’s Schools (RAS) has launched an interdisciplinary brain trust of educators, technologists, designers, innovators and community leaders to develop what it’s calling the “Complete American Neighborhood.”

The ideas being generated include rethinking the concept of having a singular centralized school, and instead place multiple learning centers throughout the community, connected to the central campus in a “hub-and-spoke” system. This could involve creating hyperlocal satellite learning centers within walking distance of every student’s home so they can attend class even if they lack transportation. Each hub would also make the social and digital benefits of school buildings more widely available to the entire neighborhood.

Other initiatives, championed by the Siegel Family Endowment, involve incorporating our neighborhoods with the physical, digital and social infrastructure to withstand the challenges of the 21st century — from the growing digital divide to widening inequality gaps.

This approach would reframe our community and education systems as interdependent and interconnected, creating value for all community stakeholders, not just a select few. School-sponsored ESL programs, for instance, are a tremendous resource not only for first-generation schoolchildren, but also for their families. By expanding these programs across communities, we uplift not only our next generation, but the neighborhood supporting them.

Partners include pioneering organizations like Reimagine America’s Schools, Transcend and Education Reimagined, all of which aim to usher in a new era of education.

It’s an era that will consider all learners, entire schools and their complete communities as crucial participants and design partners.

As a result of this work, teachers and schools around the country are piloting learner-centric education models, exchanging blueprints for success and forming networks of practice.

We cannot build better neighborhoods without also improving our schools — and we cannot build better schools without improving our neighborhoods.

Achieving this means getting around politics, policies and practices that often block collective planning. It means giving community members a meaningful voice at the table and prioritizing their deep engagement.

This was achieved in Austin, Texas, after the city created its Equity Office in 2016. It now offers several grant programs intended to help grassroots and local community organizations access infrastructure funding, including the Equity Mini-Grant Fund, which seeds projects focused on eliminating systemic barriers and addressing quality of life disparities throughout the city.

It also means addressing the crisis in school building infrastructure by designing learning spaces informed by an understanding of technology, not designing dumb rooms and filling them with smart devices.

One example: San Diego’s College Preparatory Middle School opened an entirely new campus two years ago after spending years constructing buildings with improved internet connectivity to support the school’s emerging one-to-one device policy.

From considering how the building’s layout would impact internet access to ensuring that its wiring and servers could handle bandwidth needs, the school is now equipped to properly serve students for years to come — especially as education increasingly moves online.

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For communities to truly flourish, we have to stop viewing neighborhood renewal efforts and school improvement projects as two completely separate realms.

Instead, city and school governments should work together and leverage funding to foster greater school and community improvement.

Civic and education leaders can use this prime opportunity to invest in initiatives that truly push our society forward, one school and one neighborhood at a time. We can’t let this moment go to waste.

Ron Bogle is founder and CEO of the nonprofit National Design Alliance, whose signature project, Reimagine America’s Schools, works in partnership with educators, technologists, communities and architects from across the nation to redesign schools for the 21st century.

Katy Knight is the executive director and president of Siegel Family Endowment, where she draws on her professional experience in education, technology and community-based organizations to help the foundation focus on understanding and shaping the impact of technology on society.

This piece about community schools was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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