Imagine a school zone designed by 7th graders.  What would they change? What kind of new features would they include? Intrigued by the idea of fusing community-generated design with Safe Routes to School concepts, Tiffany Robinson, a planner with the RBA Group, set out to find answers to these very questions. She contacted Citizen Schools, a national nonprofit, and volunteered as an afterschool, community planning teacher


Citizen Schools

Robinson first heard about the Citizen Schools program while witnessing a community mapping exercise being undertaken as part of the New Jersey Safe Routes to School Urban Demonstration program being conducted at the Ivy Hill Elementary School, located in Newark’s Upper West Ward. After seeing what the students did and talking to the Citizen Schools Team Leader that night, Robinson was intrigued by the Citizen Schools program and joined their mailing list. “Engaging the community is so important,” explains Robinson, “so after I kept on getting e-mail updates and invitations to teach, I finally tried it out.”

Citizen Schools brings professional volunteers into the classroom to teach about their particular area of expertise. Most of the Citizen School programs serve minority or low income communities. They offer a variety of courses, or “apprenticeships,” that last 10 weeks. Each course culminates in a final presentation where students share their newly-learned skills with parents, teachers and various professionals in the field they studied. Robinson’s assignment was a 7th grade classroom at Ivy Hill Elementary School.

Army of community advocates

Though Citizen Schools has an idea bank and lesson plan database, Robinson decided to forge her own path. “I didn’t want it to be just about Safe Routes to School,” she says, “I also wanted them to learn about their community and how they can be the changemakers within it.” She took aspects of Oregon-based “Neighborhood Navigators” curriculum and mixed it with her own community planning experiences to create a course where students would learn not just about the Planning profession but about community design, placemaking, responsible citizenship, and community efficacy.

After a few brief trainings on lesson planning and classroom management, Robinson donned her teaching hat, and assisted by Citizen Schools Team Leader Jamila Jackson, began a mission to groom her “army of community advocates.” Robinson began her class by talking about what planners do. The class  then dove into the benefits of walkable and bikeable communities, as well as what makes a community walkable and bikeable. “It was such a learning experience for me,” reflects Robinson,“ There were a lot of things I assumed the students would know, like how to safely cross a street, that they didn’t actually know all that well.”

“Real world” experience

As students began discussing what improvements they’d like to see in their school, two common themes emerged: 1) the need for a playground and  2) secure bike parking. One of Robinson’s main goals was to emphasize how work gets done in the “real” world. “Instead of them just saying to me ‘What’s the point of this? Principal (Malcolm) Outlaw isn’t going to let us do this anyway,’ I wanted them to talk to him directly about the changes they wanted to see within their school neighborhood, and be able to support their case. So the first thing I had them do was collect data and document existing conditions. “

She assigned her 11-student classroom the task of conducting a walkability audit of their school neighborhood. The class worked together to take pictures and assess what they liked and didn’t like around their school and what could be done better. The students really took to their task.  Robinson recalls that “the kids were so excited about going outside and doing the field work.” In the weeks that followed, she invited two co-workers, Mike Dannemiller, a planner and engineer, and Charlie Cunion, a landscape architect, to be guest speakers. They spoke about site selection and design principles and then worked with the class to use the information they had gathered to create a prioritization list for the playground and possible bike rack sites.

Armed with data and determination, the students met with the school’s principal to discuss their ideas for a new school-zone design. To their surprise, they found out that the principal, Mr. Outlaw,  had actually acquired funding for a new playground, and he welcomed their input for design proposals and bike rack implementation sites.

Benefits of Good Street design

Having already presented their school zone plans to the principal, Robinson’s class began preparing for their final presentation. The students widened the scope of their study and researched census data on their community’s characteristics, population and travel patterns.  They also spoke more in depth about the benefits of walking and biking. The students were particularly impressed by Robinson’s PowerPoint presentations, which gave visual examples of well-designed streets. Robinson recalls one particularly memorable “ah-ha” moment, “During a presentation on street calming techniques, one of the students just looked at me, open-mouthed, and I could see that something had clicked. ‘You really are a planner!’ he said. I will never forget that moment. “

At the end of the course, Robinson’s class gave a final report on their findings. They spoke about the characteristics of traffic-calmed street and the benefits having safe ways to walk and bike to school. They also presented a “vision” of what kind of projects they’d like to see happen around their school.

Empowering students

When asked if she would do it again, Robinson responded with a most definite “yes”.  Furthermore, she encourages other planners to get involved in programs that teach young people about their community and the Planning profession. “Middle school is a pretty ripe age for them to absorb the information.  When I first walked in and asked how many of them ride their bike to school, there was an outburst of sighs and one student said ‘Are you crazy?’ At that moment, I saw this as an opportunity for building relationships with them and was actually glad that they felt comfortable enough with me to be honest and not sugar coat their answers.” Involving students in the planning process also gives them a sense of empowerment. Students were not only able to express what they wanted to see changed, but they were also able to give evidence as to why it needs to change. After seeing examples of other communities that use placemaking and design to support bicycling and walking, one of her students asked, ‘Can’t we just ask Mr. Outlaw to let us ride our bikes to school? It would be so much faster.’

The lesson?  Change takes hard work and it is up to all of us to not just wait for change to happen, but to be a part of the change. “Things don’t happen because you want them to happen,” Robinson taught her class, “but because you make them happen.”