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HometownSource.com: Shared school/community facilities are a winning combination

Joe Nathan talks about two school districts that worked with their communities to build new shared facilities.FROM HOMETOWNSOURCE.COM

HOMETOWNSOURCE.COM 

As education and civic leaders struggle with challenging budgets, the Minnesota communities of Perham and Northfield leaders may have valuable lessons to share. In these communities, education, city, community and corporate leaders create a cooperative facility. In both communities, and dozens of other places around the country, something has been built via collaboration, that no one group could have done by itself. Their efforts are relevant for every type of community: suburban, rural or urban.

In Perham, a northwestern Minnesota town, the school district had a big problem. Their gym had deteriorated badly after 45 years of use. Townspeople were not at all certain they wanted to give the school district money to create a new one.

Fortunately, visionary educators reached out to the city and several small businesspeople. Both city and business leaders were trying to find a way to improve peoples’ health and fitness, and do something that would make Perham a more attractive place to live and work.

The result is the Perham Area Community Center (PACC). Built right next to (and connected with) Perham’s secondary school, PACC features a swimming pool, roller-skating rink, state of the art physical fitness facilities and equipment, dancing studio, walking/running track, whirlpool, wading pool, racquet ball courts and several large gyms. It’s open seven days a week, early in the morning to late at night. Various health programs give discounts to their members who use PACC regularly. You can learn more at www.346pacc.com.

A few hundred miles south, in Northfield, community groups, including senior citizens, early childhood advocates and the school system, had been eager to construct new facilities. But none of them were able to put together enough money to do it by themselves.

Dr. Charlie Kyte, Northfield Public Schools superintendent at the time and other leaders spent more than a year planning, seeking various local allies, including a local developer. Not everyone who was contacted agreed to participate (this is the real world, after all).

But five major groups, including the city and school district, DID agree to cooperate. The result is what the Northfield Senior Citizens Center director has called “a dream come true.” It’s a beautiful $5.5 million dollar, “state of the art” facility housing programs for all ages of Northfield residents.

The Northfield and Perham facilities are featured in a new report, “Smaller, Safer, Saner Successful Schools,” that Sheena Thao and I wrote. It’s at www.centerforschoolchange.org. We’ve also sent a copy to every Minnesota public library. A federal grant and Minnesota Department of Education contract helped us.

We cite a Coalition for Community Schools report, that found shared school/community facilities produce many benefits for students, families and other residents: “increased access to physical and mental health services, positive academic developments, and improvements in personal/family situations.”

Shared facilities also make much better use of tax dollars. Bringing together a community partner, whether a nursery school, Head Start Center or other service agency inside a school, can be an alternative to higher taxes, closing schools, or cutting services.

Joe Nathan, a former public school teacher and administrator, directs the Center for School Change, Humphrey Institute, University of Minnesota