Just because a school is shut down doesn’t mean the building needs to stand lifeless. In Dallas, one program has found a new use for space. Here’s what they did.
One of the biggest side effects of schools being shut down across the U.S. is abandoned buildings—Structures that are perfectly intact. More than 1,900 public schools closed in this country during 2010-2011. Another 1,800-plus closed the school year before.
What’s to become of these shuttered facilities, many of them anchors of their neighborhood? Ted Kollaja and his team from Gensler, a global design firm, came together in Dallas to brainstorm ideas on what to do with these empty schools. Instead of letting these building sit vacant for decades until demographics change and budgets are restored and they’re needed again as schools (which is often the response from school districts and cities), why not reactivate them now as FOR LEASE community assets before they become stewards of urban decay.
Troubled but inspired by the closing of 11 schools in the Dallas Independent School District (ISD), the team developed a process for repurposing closed schools not just in Dallas, but anywhere. Their pilot intervention was the shuttered N.W. Harllee Elementary School in south Dallas, which closed its doors in May 2012. The team reinvented and reopened that school in July 2013—albeit for just six weeks—as the Summer Leadership Academy and saw 50 teenagers graduate from a program that taught them life and career skills.
So what was the process? Grassroots activism. Within a month of the January 2012 announcement that schools would be closed, a small group of architects and designers from Gensler’s Dallas office came together to brainstorm solutions. Architecture is not just about building buildings; it’s about the impact buildings have on the community. This project offered the perfect opportunity to jump in and help re-energize once vibrant city spaces.
Out of the 11 closed schools, Harllee Elementary was chosen for the pilot intervention, because it offered a dynamic trio: political support (Mayor Mike Rawlings is pushing hard for investment in south Dallas); the right facility (Harllee is a historic building); and the right community engagement. The Golden Gate Missionary Baptist Church was an enthusiastic ticket into the community. Not just a church, it’s a pillar of this neighborhood with a long legacy of pastors as community leaders.
The idea of a summer leadership academy was specific to Harllee and its community. It was the outcome of meetings with residents of The Bottoms (as the neighborhood is known), who wanted a program for their 13- to 17-year-old children (kids too young for jobs, too old for summer camp). They wanted a program that would build up their teenagers, teaching them lessons in leadership and developing their creativity, teamwork, and even fitness.