Along with my seven colleagues on the Rapid City Historic Preservation Commission, I urge the Rapid City School District to adopt a facilities plan that places greater value on Rapid City’s many tight-knit neighborhoods. While we applaud the district’s recent plan update to keep Wilson open (for now), our intention here is larger and hinges on the importance of community-centered schools in creating connected, healthy, and economically vibrant neighborhoods.
Due to its architectural significance as well as its vital role within the surrounding neighborhoods, we urge the district to fully incorporate a rehabilitated Wilson Elementary into the facilities plan. To support this goal, our commission stands ready and willing to provide technical assistance to the district. To guide the plan forward, we can explore case studies of successful renovations, retrofits, and additions to historic school buildings that brought life and value to the communities they serve.
While we think Wilson is the most architecturally significant building in jeopardy of closing, it is not the only neighborhood school whose closure would be detrimental to its neighborhood and to Rapid City at large. Wilson, Robbinsdale, Canyon Lake, and Horace Mann are all community-centered schools built in the pre- and post-war eras that helped shape the identity of Rapid City neighborhoods. While some of those facilities may not be suitable for preservation, the central, unifying role of the schools contributes to a strong sense of unity and belonging in the neighborhoods that are served by them. We support efforts to rebuild these schools, and pledge to help explore options that make sense for the Rapid City School District.
Borrowing from a seminal research paper, Helping Johnny Walk to School, we encourage you to consider that neighborhood schools:
- Encourage close ties with community members because residents of all ages can ably utilize the schools.
- Offer educational benefits because attendance and extracurricular participation are typically better.
- Increase property values, which encourages continued public and private investment in a neighborhood.
- Save on construction and operating costs by sharing facilities and utilizing existing infrastructure.
- Offer location efficiency and safety by reducing travel times, traffic congestion, and traffic accidents.
- Encourage healthier families due to increased walkability and access to school activities.
The decision to replace neighborhood schools with suburban campuses will impact the collective sense of place for generations. There are a host of reasons to avoid relying too heavily on suburban schools:
- Far-flung schools increase road congestion and strain on infrastructure.
- Distant locations requiring bus or auto transportation reduce opportunities for physical activity for both children and adults.
- Connections between school and community are weakened by distance, especially for economically disadvantaged families and those with two parents working full-time.
- Demolishing and abandoning schools in existing communities decreases property values and diminishes the tax base.
We humbly ask you to consider the many students who participate in enriching school activities because they can walk or use a public bus to attend, offering access that is equitable to all students, regardless of the resources available to their family. Think of all the times our school buildings are hives of activity before, during, and after the school day because they are located within our densest and most diverse neighborhoods. Pause and consider the range of local residents who use school facilities because they are multi-purpose resources that can be utilized by all, regardless of age, income, or demographics.
We want to be part of the district’s coalition to support a successful Vote Yes campaign, but we need to make sure the district is committed to a plan that supports our under-resourced families and reinforces the historic fabric and neighborhood vitality of our great city. We look forward to working with the district to fully develop a plan that equitably serves the needs of all community members and continues to help Rapid City’s children and families grow and thrive in inclusive, community-centered schools.Feature photo from Rapid City Area Schools
John Riker, Assoc. AIA, is a design professional in Rapid City who has a keen interest in architecture’s ability to create inclusive spaces and promote social justice. He is currently transitioning from private practice to a role as a project manager in the public sector. Among his community engagements, John is the chairperson of the Rapid City Historic Preservation Commission, as well as an AIA South Dakota Board Member. John is a combat veteran, and he continues to serve in the Air National Guard.