The community as classroom initiative

Futures Academy Community & Creative Placemaking Initiative (Community as Classroom)

The Community as Classroom uses the Fruit Belt neighborhood of Buffalo, NY and other distressed neighborhoods, as a “classroom” where students use the knowledge and skills learned in the traditional classroom to work with neighborhood residents and stakeholders to solve problems in the “neighborhood” classroom. There are four components that comprise the initiative: (1) Community Art, (2) Futures City and Neighborhood Building, (3) Community Heritage, and (4) Community Parks and Gardens. The varied components are highly interactive and relate to different aspects of the community development process. The Community as Classroom compliments the school’s curriculum, but it is not integrated into regular classroom activities. All of the activities occur during the school day, with students participating in the program being given release time from their science/social studies blocks. Referrals to the program come from the school’s guidance counselor, principal, and teachers, with some students referring themselves, after hearing about the program from participating students. Community as Classroom programs are taught by UB undergraduate and graduate students from a wide array of UB Departments, including Urban Planning, Architecture, Education, Engineering, and Visual Arts.

  1. Community as Art: The community art project involves students in the struggle to change the visual image of their community by adorning it with a range of art projects. The principle is to show students how they can change the way their neighborhood looks and feels. Dilapidation and a forlorn environment do not have to be the characteristic features of distressed communities. Within this framework, we want students to think aggressively about ways to re-image their community and to imbue it with the energy of youth culture.
  1. Futures City and Neighborhood Building: The Future City competition engages the students in a simulated problem-solving activity with real world implications. Each year, as part of a broader national competition, we develop one or two teams of no more than 10 seventh and eighth grade students, who use SimCity software to build a futuristic city based on a specific chosen theme such as nanotechnology, transportation, or alternative energy sources. In this process, they explore various policy choices and decide which ones to apply in the building of their city. In addition to developing a computerized city, they must also construct a scale model of a smaller portion of the city. The students take field trips, using the broader community as their ‘classroom’, to deepen their understanding of the theme and to gain insight into ways that the policy and decision making process shapes neighborhoods and cities. Local engineers and urban planners volunteer to work with the students in the development of their projects. This further facilitates neighborhood connections and deepens the ties between students and role models in the larger community.
  1. Community Heritage: Neighborhood pride and identity are critical community building components because they create attachment to place and give students, along with residents, a stake in the neighborhood development process. The purpose of the Community Heritage component is to provide students with an opportunity to gain insight into the Fruit Belt’s history, its process of development, and forces that have driven its development over time. The ultimate goal is for students to learn how to reflect on the past in order to gain insight into the present and formulate perspectives for the future. The Community Heritage project represents an effort to begin the systematic analysis and understanding of the neighborhood’s history.
  1. Community Parks and Gardens: In 2001, the UB CENTER transformed three vacant parcels of land across from Futures Academy, where dilapidated housing once existed, into a community garden. The project was more than symbolic. The vacant parcels were the first and last thing Futures Academy students saw to start and end the school day. The message the vacant parcels sent to the children was that no one cared about the neighborhood. The community garden, designed by Futures Academy students, was the first step to helping the students understand that they could change their community, if they were willing to put forth the effort. Since then, the UB CENTER has added a vegetable garden as well as a bird garden. The gardens are used as a home for several public art projects; to teach the principles of community gardening and urban food systems; and assists in the visual transformation of the areas surrounding the school.
  1. The Community Clean-A-Thon (CAT): The annual CAT is a community building project, which seeks to create linkages between Futures Academy and residents and stakeholders by using a neighborhood clean-up to improve the health and visual image of the community. A major objective is show students that even with limited resources a community can improve its living environment. The guiding principle is that citizen participation and building partnerships are the keys to building a strong community. Thus, the Clean-A-Thon is an empowering strategy and an organizing vehicle that connects Futures Academy to residents and stakeholders. The Clean-A-Thon is organized around the theme, “Collective Work and Responsibility,” which stresses the importance of the entire community taking control of the neighborhood’s destiny.