Mankato and the Death of Neighborhood Schools

We need an entirely different approach to where we locate schools and how we build them. Our current model – notably in small and mid-sized towns – is that of the destruction of our neighborhood schools in favor of the suburban campus model.

The campus model is a burden on our system: built on an inhuman scale, unwalkable by design, with a disregard to long-term operational costs and devaluing our existing neighborhoods.

An example is happening in my hometown of Mankato, MN. If the school district decides to go through with their new plans, they should immediately start applying for a Safe Routes to School grant. They’re going to need it.

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The blue square on the bottom left is Mankato’s new school; right on the corner of US Highway 22 and County Road 83. The yellow squares are soybeans that may become Mankato’s newest low-density residential neighborhood. This should be cause for concern, beyond that of its speculative nature, and I can speak from experience.

After years of walking to and from Roosevelt Elementary, a classic neighborhood school, I was suddenly relegated to catching the bus or begging my parents to zip me off to the new middle school at the edge of town. It didn’t help that the school’s architecture doubled as a minimum security prison. I remember hating this.

Teenage years are awkward, and being shuttled off to a low-slung building surrounded by soybeans doesn’t help. It took away one of the few freedoms young teenagers have:transportation. I went from walking to school to being reliant upon others, specifically my parents. But, it was mostly a burden on my parents. For elementary, if I needed a ride on a cold day, it was a nice short drive – not miles across town.

The large campus model standard is built on such a large-scale that it’s hard to put into perspective how inefficient they are as a land use. Mankato’s new middle school covers 65 acres. So, I created some maps to help visualize.

original

Here’s how Mankato’s two existing high schools fit:

two schools

Both fit comfortably, along with four parking lots, two football fields, full-sized tracks, and a baseball and softball field. Let’s take it a step further:

college

Over 85 percent of the entire campus of Minnesota State University, with an enrollment of 15,000 plus students, can fit into the site (with room to spare).

The campus model size is unnecessary and wasteful considering Mankato has plenty of available space in existing neighborhoods nearby the former middle school. Site constraints were apparently so tough, this far-out parcel was the only option. Good to know, just in case Mankato wants to comfortably fit four Target Fields (with a capacity 158,016 people) onto the site one day.

It’s widely accepted that many schools built-in the last 20 years were deliberately designed to discourage walking. What’s puzzling is that more people weren’t concerned about this? The freedom to roam was one of the most rewarding experiences of growing up. It teaches us not only navigational skills, but personal responsibility. Children need to experience this.

It might be forgivable if student walkers were overlooked, or just an afterthought. That’s not the case. They were specifically considered and the general consensus was to ignore them. It was aconscious decision to save money on initial land costs.

Being smart with limited resources can go a long way. What do you think it’ll cost the district now that it’ll have to provide a bus option for every single middle-school kid on the sprawling east side? Imagine the cost reductions of having 25% to 50% of students within walking distance. Not to mention the savings of having our children share outdoor faculty or our faculty sharing parking lots; both of which are currently over-supplied (If you’re interested in reading more, I recommend checking out: “Subsidizing Inefficiency”).

We must consider alternatives because not even the most fearless 13 year old boy would trek thissidewalk-less highway intersection (the new site has an impressively low “2″ Walk Score).

Let’s stop and reevaluate. Let’s assess what’s really important in our community. Building an over-sized school on over-sized road on an over-sized parcel strikes me as irresponsible. We need to return to a neighborhood model. We need to find the locations that don’t need a Safe Routes to School grants and build there. The places we are collectively building are places that our children hate. They’re inhuman, disregard our existing neighborhoods, cost us more money and unnecessarily burden parents.

Let’s make a change.

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23 Responses to Mankato and the Death of Neighborhood Schools

  1. Lynne Bly June 11, 2014 at 12:17 pm #

    As you can see from the article linked below, these types of school campuses are not required in MN
    http://www.smartgrowthamerica.org/2009/06/09/chalk-up-a-victory-for-minnesota-and-neighborhood-schools/

    • Matt Steele
      Matt Steele June 11, 2014 at 12:36 pm #

      I was just going to post that link. Unfortunately it seems school boards and the expansion consultants/builders they hire are unaware of this. And they are in complete disregard of the human scale, the immediate toll on children for their poor planning decisions, and the long-term financial impact on their district.

      Sounds like Mankato needs a new school board, fast.

    • Nathaniel M Hood
      Nathaniel June 11, 2014 at 12:57 pm #

      Thanks Lynne. This is a great resource!

  2. Kyle June 11, 2014 at 12:37 pm #

    Perhaps you simply need more area for the architectural security measures demanded of new schools like blast door front entrances, secured windows, and wide open spaces for staging armored cars and fire trucks, etc. (Only partially facetious)

  3. David Levinson
    David Levinson June 11, 2014 at 1:57 pm #

    Obviously schools can get too large. When looking at schools for my son, who was in a special program, the City of Minneapolis Public Schools assigned him to an elementary school with 1200 students. The children were uniformed and unhappy. The building had the feel of prison. Granted it was probably a better education than the students would have received in their parents homeland. The social worker for the school did not know where the Kindergarten classes were.

    Needless to say, we went to a Public Charter School instead for him and his younger siblings. This of course requires busing, as do most aspects of having any choice in schools. A monopoly school system minimizing transportation is not preferred to choice in schools with extra travel costs.

  4. Nicole June 11, 2014 at 2:12 pm #

    The Public Health Law Center at William Mitchell is currently working on a health impact assessment on the MDE School Construction and Siting Guidelines that they hope will inform the guide’s next update: http://www.healthimpactproject.org/hia/us/minnesota-school-location-and-design.

    • Nathaniel M Hood
      Nathaniel June 11, 2014 at 4:31 pm #

      I’ll make sure to keep an eye on this

  5. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke June 11, 2014 at 3:48 pm #

    Pine City sees your sprawl school, and raises you a sprawl courthouse: http://tcsidewalks.blogspot.com/2014/06/small-town-sprawl-in-pine-city.html

    • Matt Steele
      Matt Steele June 11, 2014 at 4:03 pm #

      Don’t forget Sandstone which replaced this…
      http://www.mprnews.org/story/2013/06/27/ground-level-reviving-minnesota-relics-struggle

      with this…
      http://goo.gl/maps/85Er6

      • Bill Lindeke
        Bill Lindeke June 12, 2014 at 9:05 am #

        I feel like there must be some sort of Phil Hartman-esque school sprawl campus salesman going from small town to small town hawking these things.

        “Let me tell you friends, a town with money is like a mule with a spinning wheel… What you need is a massive high school campus on the edge of town! Like North Haverbrook and Ogdenville.”

    • Nathaniel M Hood
      Nathaniel June 11, 2014 at 4:32 pm #

      Wow. I’m speechless. The size of the high school campus is nearly the SAME SIZE as the entire town.

      • Matt Steele
        Matt Steele June 11, 2014 at 4:45 pm #

        Indeed. It’s also in the middle of nowhere. And there’s no sidewalk connecting it to anywhere else. It’s rather remarkable how similar modern schools and prisons look from a satellite view.

  6. Monte Castleman
    Monte June 11, 2014 at 4:00 pm #

    It wasn’t mentioned in the article, but looking online the old junior high school is being reused as an elementary school. If you build a new middle school on the same grounds, you’d loose a lot of the athletic fields, so what then? Build some in the soybean fields on the other side of MN 22 and bus the kids there for sports? The lot to the right of the map is privately owned by the “Thro Company”. Since they run nursing homes I assume they bought it for that purpose, so they may not want to sell it and I don’t see the use of eminent domain as reasonable when there’s plenty of land not too far away.

  7. Walker Angell
    Walker Angell June 11, 2014 at 4:32 pm #

    What impact does it have on kids to be far from home rather than knowing that they’re only a short distance? That they’re not alone a long way away but in their local neighborhood?

    What impact does a larger student body have? Does it encourage bullying? Cliquishness in to monolithic groups? Are students in a smaller school/campus more accepting and supportive of one another?

    One argument for these things is that they allow for better specialized instruction, particularly in science, drama, athletics, and other areas that need special facilities that may not be cost justified in a smaller campus. Do these programs really matter? At least prior to high school or even university?

    Oh yeah, transportation and health… Like that students who ride a bicycle to school are about half a year ahead in concentration as those who come by car or bus.

    I could go on so long…

  8. Nathan Kellar-Long June 11, 2014 at 8:34 pm #

    I remember showing up for my first day of work at an elementary school in a medium sized town in Costa Rica on a teaching grant. The school was in the center of town. There was a teachers meeting and they just turned the students loose for an hour. Some students went home, others played soccer on the playground went to the store to buy candy or just hung around in an already crowded square. After an hour they rang a bell and school resumed. I realize this could not happen in the US for many reasons; but it did make me wonder. Why do we build schools on the edge of nowhere?

    • jacobus June 12, 2014 at 8:20 am #

      “Why do we build schools on the edge of nowhere?”

      That’s where we build everything.

      Except things that belong on the edge of nowhere, like football stadia.

  9. Janne Flisrand
    Janne June 13, 2014 at 9:20 am #

    I was talking to someone about this post, and heard the question, “Yes, but what are the solutions?” It may be obvious to the writer, but I’d love to have a specific suggestion.

    What problem is Mankato trying to solve, and how would you suggest solving it?

    • Matt Steele June 13, 2014 at 9:52 am #

      True, we need to do a much better job of defining problem statements. Officials are guilty of this just as much as anyone else. They’ll say “we need a shiny new 300,000 square foot school on 30 acres” but not connect that back to the need in a way that allows for alternative solutions. The “preferred solution” of building a giant unwalkable greenfield school should be held to the same standard as well as any hypothetical alternatives. Excellent point!

  10. JohnH June 13, 2014 at 12:54 pm #

    I know this Sandstone area well. The town is struggling for a new identify, yet has all these wonderful natural resources surrounding it. I never understood why they built that new area high school so far away from, well, anything.

    It seems all the towns from White Bear to Two Harbors are slowly degrading their infrastructure. Whereas, the Twin Cities took the same approach 20-30 years ago and have since re-appreciated and protected the infrastructure still standing, it seems these exurban areas would prefer something new that may last 30 years. That said, all these areas have glorious high schools and hospitals.

    • Monte Castleman
      Monte June 13, 2014 at 5:11 pm #

      That’s a good point that a lot of hospitals are doing it- Shakopee, Cannon Falls, Northfield, Grand Rapids. It’s hard to retrofit a decades old structure in town that has shared rooms and was built before MRIs and a slew of advances in modern medicine, so a lot of cities have decided to start from scratch in a cornfield near town. It’s not just patient desires that are leading the switch to private rooms- patients in the hospital are sicker now than years past, and sharing a room is a good way to spread germs.

    • Al Davison
      Al Davison June 14, 2014 at 4:01 am #

      My family has a cabin near there, and I was actually in Sandstone last weekend on my way back from Hibbing as I had to stop by the cabin. I saw the old high school and did wish it was used for something, but I can understand why they built a new facility outside of the town. I think some of the reasons for putting these schools in the middle of nowhere is because of the rural districts like Sandstone serve a couple other small towns along Highway 23 like Askov: (http://www.mngeo.state.mn.us/maps/SchoolDistricts2014/sd2580.pdf).

      In comparison to where I live, it’s a little different where the district covers a fully developed area and is smaller in physical size:(http://www.mngeo.state.mn.us/maps/SchoolDistricts2014/sd623.pdf)

      Though at the same time, they could probably redistrict a bit so rural districts are so oddly shaped. Bruno could have been served through Willow River’s high school, but I’m guessing being in Sandstone’s district is easier to access via Hwy 23.

  11. Betsey Buckheit
    Betsey Buckheit June 14, 2014 at 6:16 pm #

    Until 2009, MN had minimum acreage requirements (40 acres for a middle school of 1000 students http://www.smartgrowthamerica.org/2009/06/09/chalk-up-a-victory-for-minnesota-and-neighborhood-schools/) which all but guaranteed the edge of town locations. Five years later, I suspect the school facilities planning culture has not yet shifted, aided by the land cost incentives.

    When Northfield built its new middle school in 2004 (at the edge of town with the required acreage), the space was the big selling point for relocating from the center of town, land-locked location, but always framed in terms of the school considered alone and not how anyone would get to it. Thinking within the edges of the site plan, there was widespread and overwhelming support for the brand new building surrounded by ample playing fields.

    In practice, the location on a state highway means the school district buses students who live just across the “street” from the school because there is no way to cross safely and school starting times had to be staggered to prevent gridlock at the intersection of the only contiguous routes to the three schools at the south edge of town.

    Yes, it seems like common sense not to do it this way, but the discussion is too often focused too narrowly on the facility alone and not its context. Thanks for exposing the issue again, Nate

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