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Four Ways to Save School Buildings from the Wrecking Ball

You might have missed it due to all of the handwringing and chest thumping about Michael Vick (He's staying!) and the Pope (He's leaving!). But Philadelphia's cash-strapped school district is closing schools faster than colorful developer Bart Blatstein can propose new and slightly insane ones. And that's a big, white elephant-sized problem for us all. Philadelphia Schools Superintendent William R. Hite, Jr. has, controversially, given notice that six public schools will be closed and put on the market soon. And an additional thirty-seven schools are set to close next year.

Surely we can find something creative to do with sturdy structures located in urban locations where land is scarce?

Thankfully, the Pew Charitable Trusts has spent a lot of time and money investigating the problem nationwide according to the timely study released yesterday, Shuttered Public Schools: The Struggle to Bring Old Buildings to New Life. The study foresees a grim future in which public school officials will be forced to add landlord and real estate agent to their job titles. And while 42 percent of the closed and abandoned schools Pew surveyed found new life, not unexpectedly, as charter schools, we had a few more whimsical ideas.

Daycare Facilities
How much of a stretch is it to transition from a building designed to meet the needs of tweens and teens to one housing little ones who still proudly count their age on their fingers? ("I four years old!")

Recording Studios
Philly is hopping with record labels and sound studios housed in facilities that require the staff to go outside if they want to change their mind, let alone produce and record quality audio. Let's take a tip from Detroit and repurpose a "reduced and abandoned" school that's been on the market for a while into the next Sound of Philadelphia. Kenny Gamble and Ruffhouse's Chris Schwartz can't do everything, people.

Sound Stages and Movie Studios
OK, who's going to volunteer to put a bug in the ear of Philadelphia Film Commissioner Sharon Pinkenson's hair stylist? Sure, we've got the Hollywood-style Sun Center Studios holding it down out in Chester Township, as well as more boutique studios and post-production facilities than you can hurl an old school film reel at. But the lengthy list of films both set and shot in the city proves that Philly is far more than just a way station on the way to New York and DC. Let's get local yokels Tina Fey and Bradley Cooper to cast a discerning eye at schools that would make the perfect soundstages for shows like The Bitches of Broad Street or What About Brad? (And yes, we've given up on waiting for Will Smith to make the Philly movie studio magic happen too.)

Haunted House
Hey, it worked for Eastern State Penitentiary and Pennhurst. It's true that most long-deserted public school buildings in the region haven't declined enough to make them candidates for the macabre makeovers those two underwent. But there are definitely a few long abandoned and downright dangerous public school building eyesores out there that, sadly, would be the perfect place for some enterprising entrepreneurs to get their shriek on. And really, what's scarier than high school?

· Philadelphia and Other Big Cities Struggle to Find Uses for Closed Schools [Pew Trusts]
· Shuttered Public Schools: The Struggle to Bring Old Buildings to New Life [PDF] [Pew Trusts]
· When Philly Schools Close, What Happens to the Buildings [Philly.com]

—Yvonne M. Jones