A growing number of schools across the country share buildings and other facilities with other schools, a practice called “co-location.” Although on the surface it seems to make sense to give empty space in a public school building to, say, a charter school without a brick-and-mortar home, there are a variety of issues that make this a far more problematic “solution” than it seems.

In this post, academics Kathy Schultz, Wagma Mommandi and Melia Repko-Erwin of the University of Colorado at Boulder look at those unintended consequences, which affect teachers, students and entire communities.

Schultz is dean of the school of education at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and her new book is “Distrust and Educational Change.” Mommandi and Repko-Erwin are doctoral students at the school.

By Kathy Schultz, Wagma Mommandi and Melia Repko-Erwin

When teachers and students started the 2019-20 school year, most returned to their own school buildings — though many found themselves sharing their facilities with one or more schools. It’s a phenomenon known as “co-location,” and it has become an increasingly common practice, especially in urban school districts. But while the decision to co-locate schools may seem like an obvious solution when one school is in need of space and another has extra, the unintended consequences of this decision can lead to distrust between students, teachers and administrators.

An all-too common scenario occurs when district leaders decide to house two distinct schools within a single building because an existing school has extra space and a newly approved school is in need of space. Some link this seemingly paradoxical issue of having too much and too little space to the proliferation of school choice and changing urban demographics; for instance, in 2000, California voters approved Proposition 39, which stated that available or “unused” space in district school buildings must be given to district-approved charter schools.

Yet co-location is not a new idea. In the late 1980s, the small-schools movement sought to break down large, comprehensive high schools into smaller schools within a school. The idea behind this reform effort was that students’ academic needs would be better met in more intimate settings where teachers could facilitate more personalized and more democratic learning opportunities.

While successful small schools continue to operate across the United States, as a reform strategy the small-schools movement has been largely abandoned. One reason is that the challenges of sharing a building were overlooked in the enthusiasm for smaller communities. Another was that people had tremendous faith that size alone would make a significant difference in the academic achievement of students. By and large, this was only one piece of a solution.

Despite the increasing prominence of co-location policies across the United States, the impact of co-location on teaching and learning remains largely unexamined. It would appear that for district leaders, the advantage of saving money from shared space outweighs any potential disadvantages.

In addition, because districts or states often approve charter schools without taking into account the costs of new buildings, in many instances, charter schools find themselves without a building and, as a result, their founders located them within existing spaces. This happens even when those spaces are occupied by very different schools. Yet the potential clash of school missions and instructional approaches is rarely, if ever, discussed.

Teachers in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) raised the issue of co-location during their January 2019 strike, and, as part of the strike settlement, LAUSD promised to examine the issue. There have also been several instances when community groups and parents have protested the co-location of schools, prompting district leaders to respond accordingly. For example, the New York City Department of Education has published clearer guidelines for how district-run and charter schools share space. Likewise, Denver Public Schools developed a shared-facilities policy based on the district’s school accountability system.

Today the co-location of schools has become standard practice as a solution to the myriad fiscal troubles facing urban school districts. When district-run schools lose students — because of demographic shifts and, even more often, because of new charter schools — a seemingly logical solution is to offer the open space to a new school.

The problem is that despite talk of the need for collaboration and partnership, there are often few resources or incentives for co-located school leaders to work together. As a result, schools that share buildings often remain separate from one another. In some cases, schools build physical barriers to denote their separate identities. In addition, different bell schedules often prevent communication and resource-sharing among schools, teachers and students.

Perhaps most important, teachers and school leaders are rarely consulted when district administrators make decisions to co-locate schools. While teachers are central to the implementation of co-location policies and can speak directly to their impact on teaching and learning in their classrooms, teachers’ perspectives are missing from discussions.

In our recent conversations with teachers in one district, we gained important insights about this largely unexamined policy. A majority of the teachers working in co-located schools expressed overwhelming dissatisfaction and frustration with their current work environment, despite the fact that they may have been initially optimistic about the potential of co-location. Others pointed to the loss of history and identity that came along with decisions to reconfigure a school.

As one high school teacher explained: “When [the charter school] jumped onto [our] campus, they painted the doors [a different color]. The community was like, What? Those are [our historic rival’s] colors. That was a history that a new teacher didn’t know. … But the reality is, they don’t know the community. They don’t know the history.”

Indeed, co-located schools are often brought together with little consideration for the history and traditions of the original school and the community it has served. The high school teacher’s quote reveals that while the new school’s decision to paint their doors a rival school’s color may have been unintentional, it contributed to deep feelings of distrust within the community.

Furthermore, teachers frequently talked about the prevalence of co-located schools in neighborhoods housing predominantly Latinx and black families. These observations not only highlighted educators’ perceptions that co-location practices served to further marginalize those historically underserved by the district, they also revealed how co-location in marginalized communities exacerbated feelings of distrust between those working in and attending co-located schools and those responsible for co-location decisions (i.e., district leaders).

A teacher from a historically Latinx school explained, “Despite the feelings of the students who have been there for years and years, the community members who have been there for years and years, the district makes the final decision and just forces these co-locations.”

Teachers and leaders also described the inequities between co-located schools in terms of resources and space. Often when charter schools share buildings with district-run schools, they have more access to outside funding and their classrooms are better equipped, often with fewer students.

These inequities are apparent to students and teachers across schools, creating greater tension and more distrust. In addition, even when district-run schools have demonstrated continuous improvement, they have not always been able to expand their student bodies. At one particular campus, this challenge was anticipated prior to co-location. Although district leaders promised to reconsider co-location if enrollment at the original school increased, at the time of this writing the building remains co-located and the student population truncated.

What does this all mean?

First, it is critical that district leaders examine new policies to understand the distrust they may engender, directly addressing the distrust rather than pretending it doesn’t exist. In addition, we urge district leaders to talk to teachers before they enact co-location policies in order to learn more about what might be done to support the learning and opportunities for all children and youth.

Finally, we suggest that policymakers take a holistic and long view. Saving money by bringing schools together in one building may initially seem expedient, but in the end it may lead to significant and enduring consequences. We understand that co-location policies are unlikely to be reversed in the near future; however, before leaders enact them, there is much to learn by talking to the teachers who are most closely impacted by these decisions.