Schools built as community centers

Campaigning for a new high school, supporters offered skeptics a deal: If you build it, you can come. This will be no ordinary school, but a civic center.

The appeal persuaded voters in this northern Michigan community to approve a bond issue after twice saying no. The new Gaylord High opened in 1994 and has become a model for cash-strapped school districts struggling to replace outdated buildings and equipment.

The local theater troupe puts on musicals in the auditorium, which seats nearly 550. Businessmen play basketball in the gym while parents drop off preschoolers at the daycare center. People come and go for meetings, concerts, college lectures.

Education analysts say there's a nationwide trend toward reestablishing the public school as a community focal point.

When a new high school opens next year in Medina, Ohio, its $15 million recreation center and its auditorium will be open to the public. A hospital will use its exercise room for therapy.

In Big Lake, Minn., the high school parking lot is full 15 hours a day as immigrants study English, families swim, and adults take classes on subjects ranging from computers to finance.

Gaylord's new school has computers, labs, a gym, a greenhouse, and even a kitchen. Ties with local businesses give students hands-on experience.

A businessman donated land to the district, which sold it for $480,000 to fund an auditorium that doubles as a regional performing-arts center. "I've seen entire families doing the shows, instead of the kids going one way in the summer and the parents another," says Al Glasby of Gaylord Community Productions. "[It] has really enriched the community."

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