When was the last time you attended a City Council meeting or a community planning session, or walked down to your local YMCA to swim laps in the pool? For the majority of us who call the vast and sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles home, I would venture to say it probably escapes our immediate memory. That may soon change because of the passage of Measure Q.
Whether the 68.9 percent of Los Angeles voters who approved the $7 billion bond for Los Angeles Unified School District knew it or not, they sent a powerful message to the rest of the country that extended far beyond the obvious refrain: "We value education and the future of our children." As the nation's second-largest public school system, LAUSD has carved out a path for a new breed of American schools that not only serve the diverse needs of their diverse students, but also the local community at large.
Some taxpayers may not be thrilled with the prospect of adding $7 billion to the district's existing $19.3 billion school construction bond program which is the largest school modernization program in U.S. history but they shouldn't view Measure Q as "just another school bond." Measure Q may be L.A.'s long-awaited answer to the nickname it can never live down: "The Sultan of Sprawl."
Thanks to the passage of four local bonds since 1997, LAUSD administrators continue to work closely with local contracting and architecture firms to design and build K-12 schools that serve as modern-day "community centers." New schools are not just district assets; they are community assets.
Today we are designing schools that offer public use of facilities such as community rooms, libraries, auditoriums, gyms, swimming pools, parks and ball fields, which can be accessed after-hours through distinct public entrances. (Student safety always remains a top priority; and as such, new schools are designed to keep designated student-only areas secured behind gates.)
Point of connection
These learning centers double as local town halls, neighborhood parks, libraries and YMCAs. They serve as a point of connection for this increasingly multifaceted, multiethnic, multigenerational, multilingual and multieconomic city, which is home to more than 1,001 neighborhoods and the largest minority population in the country.
As a first-generation immigrant from Argentina, I know too well how L.A.'s sprawling geography and cultural diversity can lead to feelings of disconnection and isolation. The latest breed of LAUSD schools, however, provides both new and native Angelenos with a physical link to their local communities they never had before.
For the 71 percent of minorities who live in Los Angeles County and the 10.5 percent of Angelenos who rely on public transportation, this is especially significant. The same is true for the many low-income families who can't afford the simple things like gasoline or a gym membership. We may be a city divided by geography, language, culture, religion or economic class, but those differences may all but disappear when we step foot on our children's campuses.
The LAUSD construction bond program has opened the door to more community involvement than ever before. New schools aren't planned and designed in isolated silos by an elite few. Prior to beginning the design phase, LAUSD officials now hold a series of meetings between the architect and neighboring businesses and residents. Typically, these meetings are conducted in both English and Spanish to ensure against any misinterpretation of wishes, especially in areas with large immigrant populations.
Often what emerges from these "community building sessions" is a concern for the safety and security of students. As a result, new schools are designed around a landmark fa & #231;ade that acts as a "front door" to welcome students and filter visitors, while also orienting the entrances away from busy streets with heavy traffic. Buildings are organized around quads to create a sense of place, but also keep students in a controlled environment that can be easily monitored. Facilities like parks and multipurpose rooms are added for the community to enjoy.
It is rare to see community collaboration on such a grand scale in Los Angeles. Angelenos don't simply vote "yes" on a school bond measure and turn it over to a few chosen decision-makers anymore; citizens are taking a more active role in their local communities.
We may not remember the last time we talked to our neighbor, but we'll remember the first time we walk inside our children's new classrooms with Wi-Fi, check out a book in the school library or jog on the track all within a mile of our houses.
Adrian Cohen is managing partner of Wwcot Architects, a Santa Monica-based architecture and design firm that has designed seven K-12 Los Angeles schools.
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