|Many building codes require large sites for public schools. Flickr: Valarie Renee|
The obvious question: why a twenty acre minimum? Where did we get this fortress mentality that requires all schools to be set apart on a separate campus?
This brings me to some personal anecdotes about two schools:
Hellgate High School occupies a site very close to the center of Missoula, Montana. It was built in 1908 and somehow managed to not be destroyed in the intervening century. The school is nicely woven into the urban fabric of Missoula, and on any given school day the extensive row of bike racks in the back are filled to the brim. There is very limited motor vehicle parking.
Students are allowed to leave the school for lunchtime, and many of them walk to the local shops and restaurants across the street. I'm sure there are some who worry that the students will engage in the practice of shenanigans while let loose, but, as a nearby worker in downtown, I never saw a problem. What they did get was a half hour to explore the real world everyday in a relatively safe environment, even those who did not yet have their own drivers licence.
Newark High School in Delaware is where I attended school. The school abandoned its urban site in 1954 for a more spacious modern building further out of town. Although it is still relatively close to downtown Newark (we're talking 1950's after all), the site is designed for driving only. It's set back from the street, fenced off on two sides, and accompanied by a large parking lot.
When I was there, school administrators were not willing to risk the liability of letting students out for lunch, but many of us did anyway. Because teachers took turns patrolling the borders, we literally had to run out the door, cross a four-lane divided highway, and trek through a strip mall parking lot just to get to an Auntie Anne's fast food joint. I look back wondering why we were will willing to exert so much effort for a pretzel. I don't think we were being deviants for the sake of deviancy; I think we just wanted to act like adults.
The one student in our class who did die during school hours perished when his automobile rammed into a tree. He was running late for school in the morning. The self-contained fortress school design may be able to keep students sheltered while they are on its premises (that is, while the school district is legally liable for their safety), but all of those cars in the parking lot have to arrive from somewhere. In reality, all other threats of accidental harm are negligible in the shadow of teenage driving fatalities.
It turns out that Newark High School may have to move further yet out of town. Delaware has updated the school building codes, now requiring a minimum of 25 acres for the school site. Newark is in non-compliance, and some are starting to complain about the lack of parking.
Again, what is the reasoning behind requiring larger and larger lots?