Sunday, October 4, 2009

Why Community Planning Belongs in School

Image of community planning models designed by Philadelphia
public school students, displayed at the 1947 Better Philadelphia Exhibition.

I was recently invited to participate in a Philadelphia public high school class where students engage in planning a community-based project (in this case a community garden, seating area, and food stand just a few blocks from the school). Each time I go to class, it strikes me how engaging this project is for building commitment to community, while using a physical neighborhood space as the means of teaching academic subjects and life skills. As part of the class, students are learning about planning, urban design, market analysis, business planning, and community involvement.

Teaching planning in schools is not a new concept for Philadelphia. During the fall of 1946, an experimental city planning course was introduced into the curriculum at sixteen public schools across the city. Staff of the City Planning Commission and the independent Citizens’ Council on City Planning spent months in the classroom working directly with the students, helping them learn about planning concepts, and ultimately guiding them to create their own plans, models, and drawings of the future of their communities.

The first round of student models, drawings, and plans were put on display at the Better Philadelphia Exhibition – a massive showcase of Philadelphia’s city planning work that attracted 385,000 visitors in 1947. Reports on the show praised Philadelphia’s foresight in preparing the next generation of citizens to plan a bright future for their communities. The program was a huge success and was subsequently permanently added to the Philadelphia schools curriculum. I don’t know when or why this planning course was dropped. However, the class I’m involved with today is not a standard feature for Philadelphia’s public school students.

If planning is such a great framework for teaching basic skills and building community values, why don’t we bring it back as a permanent element of the public school curriculum? A few years ago, I suggested this idea to some of my colleagues in education policy. The feedback was resoundingly negative. Their argument was that most public school students in Philadelphia lack adequate reading and math skills. Who has time for something superfluous like planning?

In a recent article Michael A. Rodriguez, a Bethesda, Maryland-based transportation planner, argued for the importance of teaching planning in school. In his article, Rodriguez notes, “To the nay-sayers who do not think schools have time to teach planning concepts, or worry more about 'core' curricula in math, science, and reading, I say that teaching planning concepts is fun and complimentary to teaching other subjects. They are not mutually exclusive.” He notes that teaching planning involves math, geography, and writing. I have seen this overlap with core subjects in the class I am involved with. The community planning element is a way to teach core subjects through an interesting and engaging subject that directly affects that place where the students live.

Rodriguez also adds another argument to the mix: “Planners often encounter ineffective public participation because of the fact that citizens often are not taught planning skills in school.” In other words, if kids aren’t taught the need for planning their communities, how can they become active community participants down the line when it really matters?

Going back to my previous post, it is clear that in order to build stable and thriving communities, we need to focus on developing engaged, concerned, and committed citizens. By teaching planning in schools, we are giving children the opportunity to understand that they can become engaged in their community, and that this engagement can be truly rewarding.

Some of my education policy friends may disagree with me. But ultimately I hope that these students – the parents of the future – will stay in their Philadelphia community (for some I hope this means returning after college). I hope they will become strongly involved in their community, and provide a better environment for living and learning than existed for them during their formative school years.

Education cannot be viewed as simply a process to get kids to a certain level of preparation in math and reading. It must be viewed as our major avenue for preparing the next generation of committed citizens. Otherwise we are missing a critical element of what school is intended to do. Without this element we may help a handful of students to escape and move on to better lives, but we do nothing to solve the underlying issues that afflict their under-served schools and communities in the long-term.

1 comment:

Dan Pohlig said...

Spot on as usual, Greg. Can't understand how educators don't see how such courses could improve the basics of reading, writing and math. I've been tutoring SAT for a while now and am astounded at how ill prepared many students - especially Philly public school students - have been when it comes to the very fundamentals of math and reading. For a lot of these kids, if they reach high school age and don't already have these basics (we're talking adding and subtracting fractions, simple reading comprehension, etc.) then "that train has sailed."

They're not going to be interested in pure, intensive "math" and "reading" instruction and will likely tune it out. May as well shake it up and start teaching them things with more practical applications - planning, entrepreneurship, civics, economics, etc. At the very least you'll end up with a population who is, as you say, versed in the issues even if they don't have the greatest grammar in the world.

The intensive math and reading should be happening almost from birth, first in the home then early childhood ed then preschool up through elementary school.