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Plan Melds Schools, Neighborhoods

By Javier Erik Olvera

The Fresno Bee

May 03, 2002

Several top administrators have begun laying the groundwork to possibly transform Fresno Unified's future elementary schools into neighborhood gathering points.

Under the idea, the 10 new campuses planned over the next dozen years would be built with amenities such as playing fields and gymnasiums that could be used by the neighborhood for recreation.

The campuses could also meet neighborhood needs by extending government and health services to residents, officials suggested during a forum Thursday at California State University, Fresno.

The forum -- attended by nearly 100 community leaders -- initiated conversations on how merging education and government services could revitalize neighborhoods and the city.

Fresno Unified Superintendent Santiago Wood said the change would also add to district efforts to bolster student achievement in the state's fourth-largest district, which has 80,000 students and 95 schools.

"Schools are the heart of our community," Wood said.

The discussions come during a time when Fresno Unified is mapping out locations for 10 new elementary schools, which will be paid for under the $199 million Measure K bond approved by voters last year.

District leaders have found all the areas where they'd like to build campuses to meet enrollment demands, but almost all the sites are in inner-city residential and commercial areas.

New Schools Better Neighborhoods is a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that is pushing the movement. Chairman David Abel said the strategy has worked in other areas, such as in San Diego, where a blighted neighborhood has been transformed over the last seven years.

In a nine-block chunk of downtown San Diego, he said, a school, park, library, recreation center, police substation, multipurpose theater and community college annex have gone up.

"I think this is critical to both education and economic vitality of each neighborhood," said Abel, who moderated the discussions.

The panel included Wood, Fresno Redevelopment Agency Executive Director Daniel Fitzpatrick, Fresno City Council Member Henry Perea and Fresno County Human Services Director David Dent.

The four-hour forum was organized by the Fresno Business Council, the California Policy Forum and Fresno State's Kenneth L. Maddy Institute of Public Affairs. The forum also included results from focus group studies, done last month to determine quality of life concerns of Fresnans.

Perea believes the idea to turn schools into neighborhood centers can reap positive effects for the city. He, like other community leaders, said it would need to begin with communication with leaders of all local agencies.

"This is very important," he said. "Years and years ago, schools were the center of their communities. Anything that can be done to strengthen campuses is a win-win for everyone."

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