Preserving Schools for a Modern Education

Preserving Schools for a Modern Education

Home to the nation’s first public school system, Boston’s schools highlight the city’s long history of commitment to public education, but the buildings themselves offer an insight into the city’s history and teaching styles of the time. Boston is faced with the question, how do we modernize our educational spaces while maintaining the historic insight they provide?

Mayor Martin Walsh and Superintendent Tommy Chang recently released BuildBPS , a 10-year investment plan in the Boston Public Schools that includes $1 billion in new school buildings and capital improvements to existing buildings.  The majority of Boston’s school buildings were constructed from 1900-1939 and these pre-World War Two buildings need to be upgraded to support modern education.  They frequently lack common spaces such as cafeterias and gymnasiums, and most are not handicap accessible. Classrooms were designed to support “teacher-focused” learning, with desks/chairs bolted to the floor and one blackboard.

BuildBPS presents an opportunity to sensitively transform existing buildings into modern, accessible learning spaces with more commons spaces, open classrooms, increased natural light, and better ventilation.  The Boston Public Schools have clearly stated that modernization should be sensitive to the historic nature of existing buildings, preserving exterior features and being sensitive to existing buildings when considering expansion.

Boston also has a long history of deaccessioning historic schools for new purposes.  Consider the Quincy School, home today to the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, the condominiums at the former Jamaica Plain High School and many other residential and commercial uses now housed in former schools.  After assessing long term needs, if Boston must build new, the City should continue the preservation of historic school structures by renewing and re-using them.  The new Community Preservation Act (CPA) provides a valuable new tool to developers for preservation that could be applied to private re-use of historic schools.

As the nation’s oldest public school system, Boston now has the unique opportunity to not only teach history, but also preserve it by modernizing and restoring their existing buildings.