Visioning Quarter Schools
In 2010, as inner-city living increased in density, a large and successful ‘inner school’ decided to divide its existing campus into four dispersed ‘quarter campuses’ approximately 4 km apart.
These campuses still operate as one school, with the teachers each having one campus as their ‘base’, and each quarter taking students only from within its 2 km radius.
Students from all quarters meet several times a week for communal activities, and expensive or large equipment and facilities are each located at one of the quarter schools with time-tabled access for all students. Classrooms are ‘virtually extended’ to other classrooms at another campus, and operate like a double-length room with one end-wall projecting the ‘other half’ of the physically separated room.
At the turn of the Century primary and secondary schools in Melbourne were caught up in some key issues with significant (conflicting) implications:
1. School size, curricula range, teacher numbers, facilities
There had been a progressive rationalisation of the numbers of schools and a corresponding increase in school size, principally to maintain standards for students. Smaller local schools were merged into larger schools that serviced a larger catchment area.
Up-side: a larger student body with greater social and cultural diversity; larger pool of total teaching staff, better resourced equipment and specialised labs, and so on, allowing for greater range of subjects taught across all year levels.
Down-side: students came from homes spread over a greater area. This meant (on average) more travel time to school. In school, students spent less time with others from their home neighbourhood (there was a lower chance of meeting local friends in school classes). Thus student friendship networks became more spread out, increasing travelling time for play and other socialising activities. Concern about travelling distances and security lead to a big increase in car travel by parents delivering and picking up children (for school and play). Some schools became known for the traffic jams around the school entrance. (In the early part of the Century this was compounded by a ’status’ phenomenon which saw parents using large petrol hungry four-wheel-drive vehicles to collect their children ‘in safety’. This symbol – which actually had little to do with real safety – was one of those ‘tipping point’ changes when it rapidly became ‘cool’ to be seen as a ‘green’ parent with SUV’s being swapped in status terms for hybrid vehicles. Low fuel consumption, low pollution vehicles became the driving preference, although this did nothing for congestion.)
2. Nutrition, health, obesity and food intake; school lunches and fast food
At the turn of the century there were a number of nutritionally based illnesses (particularly obesity and diabetes) that had grown to disturbing levels within the Australian community. The greatest alarm about these illnesses focused on obesity amongst school age children. There was talk in Australia, as in the UK and the USA, of creating a generation of unhealthy obese adults from eating and exercise habits picked up as children. Healthy eating programs returned to schools as a way to install habits and practices form an early stage of life. Schools policies saw that ‘junk food’ such as soft drinks, pies and chips were prohibited in canteens, and replaced by healthier alternatives. This health eating agenda was further encouraged with the rise of media and practical programmes introduced by famous chefs, such as the UK’s Jamie Oliver, with his School Dinners project and, in Australia, Stephanie Alexander, who established Kitchen Gardens, a programme initiated in Victoria that developed edible gardens within primary schools. Kitchen Gardens was both a physical and a cultural program; it increased the physical activity of children through gardening and helped inculcate life-long knowledge on how to grow, cook and share healthy food. Whilst this shift of healthier eating started initially in primary schools, its reach soon spread throughout the school and then out into the neighbouring community.
In 2010, as the birth rate in Victoria had started to climb and inner-city living increased in density, a large and successful ‘inner school’ made a decision to progressively divide its existing school campus into four dispersed ‘quarter campuses’. These campuses still operate as one school, with the same complement of teachers, covering the same spread of curriculum offerings. However the teachers are divided physically between each of the quarter schools; each has one of the campuses as their ‘base’.
Each quarter school, approx 4 k apart, now takes students only from its 2 k radius. Students from all campuses meet several times a week, as a school, for communal activities such as sport and performing arts. Expensive or large equipment and facilities (such as a theatre or a gymnasium or senior year science laboratories) are located only at one quarter schools, with time-tabled access for all students. Small electric buses move students around for these events; the sites of the quarter schools were carefully selected to make such movement efficient and effective.
At the start, each quarter school (QS) had at least two classrooms which were ‘virtually extended’ to another classroom at another QS. Each of these classrooms can operate like a single double-length room with one end-wall showing a high band-width projection of the ‘other half’ of the physically separated room. (The students call them ‘windows’ on to the other classroom.)Thus a single teacher can teach a double class of students, with half physically located where he/she is based and the other half class of students joining virtually. Teachers aids and parent volunteers support the group without the physically-located teacher. To all students in such a virtually extended class the experience is close to that of a normal double sized, divided room. Even those students not physically present (but still visible as if they were) are familiar to the others, because of the joint exercises and full school activities that happen several times a week. The school is now embarking on the construction of a new set of buildings which allow the whole school to be physically/virtually present at the same time (for larger classes and assemblies).
Most students walk to their QS or come with others in a ‘walking school bus’ further increasing their physical activity. Traffic congestion around QS entrances has been eliminated. The overall result is that there is much greater integration of the QS into the local neighbourhood.
The idea of the Edible School Garden has continued within the quarter schools and spread beyond the schools and into the surrounding community. Many of the new quarter schools were located on small grounds, so some schools started utilising the enlarged road reserves for the cultivation of fruit and vegetables.
A number of parents offered the school use of some of their residential garden space to construct edible gardens and this process quickly spread. Members of the community worked with the students to harvest and utilise the existing crops. Where it was appropriate the school helped install rainwater tanks in the houses with these new community gardens. The school-based community education program about water (re)use, the latest technologies and services grew from these initiatives.
This was particularly valuable for connecting generational groups, as gardening and food production remains a popular activity for retirees, semi retirees and also amongst pre-emptive downshifters. Having children involved has allowed for a transfer of inter-generational knowledge along with physical assistance, for those who are becoming less able.
Thus the integrated community activity has seen a change in the nature of front and rear gardens, with many lawns giving over to food cultivation. The communal activities happening in gardens and the intermeshed nature of the neighbourhood has blurred the distinction between public and private.
The school activity that started with local food production has broadened out to a stewardship role in relation to the environmental and social health of the community, through mapping, monitoring (observing and noting changes), sharing information and best practices. Communities are now openly sharing and communicating sustainable practices, with a wider program of community education centred around the schools.
The building of resilient local systems and maintaining a low carbon and low water consumption lifestyle has demanded an increase in lifelong learning amongst community members. The idea of life-long learning is now widespread and facilities previously inhabited only between 9 and 3 on weekdays are now utilised around the clock. In response, the quarter nodes have developed as local, vibrant, community hubs and a valuable community resource. Not only do the quarter schools function as a meeting place for the purchase and exchange of local produce they also monitor and provide feedback on the health of the surrounding community and ecology.
The nature of these monitoring and feedback systems will be the subject of a coming report on this site.
The ‘Quarter Schools’ vision was developed as part of the VEIL 2007 Workshops by Kirsty Fletcher, Michael Trudgeon & Chris Ryan.