Several years ago the Nathan Clifford School, located in the dense suburban neighborhood of Oakdale, was closed by the city of Portland. Local students are now transported to a new site outside the neighborhood. The historic school was sold to a developer who converted it into apartments using historic tax credits and conserved the open space at the rear of the building as a park.
Can Historic Schools Meet 21st Century Educational Needs?
Local schools were once thought of as important civic landmarks, built to last for generations, and representative of a community’s investment in its youngest citizens. They embodied the spirit of their neighborhoods, their city, and their community’s history. While many historic schools in Greater Portland may not be designated historic landmarks, they are often seen as local landmarks. With proper maintenance and timely upgrading, they can continue to serve their communities for many years to come.
In Portland planners and design advocates are promoting a concept called “complete neighborhoods.” This refers to locales where residents have safe and convenient access to all the goods and services needed in daily life, including a variety of housing options, shops, public schools, open spaces and recreational opportunities, transportation options, and civic services. An important element of a complete neighborhood is that it is sized for a walkable human scale and accessible to people of all ages and abilities. Historic school buildings are usually located on sites within walking or biking distance of the community members they serve and provide valuable social services, community gathering places, and access to open space and recreation outside normal school hours.
Longfellow Elementary School in Portland has the highest rate of elementary students within walking distance according to school district reports. Yet the building is in dire need of internal updating to accommodate modern educational requirements, and exterior preservation to secure the building’s envelope from the elements. The city council and school board will soon be making important decisions about the school’s future. Citizens in the school’s Deering Center neighborhood are concerned that prolonged underfunding of their school’s needs might result in its closure, like the Oakdale neighborhood experienced with the closure of the Nathan Clifford School in 2011.