Bringing our schools out into the open


I’m pretty happy with the Japanese elementary school my children attend. But I have to say one thing: I hate the building itself. It’s the standard four-story concrete block. Drab, institutional and uninviting. What I dislike most is that it’s closed off from the surrounding neighborhood, hidden away behind high walls and locked gates. Like a prison.

So I was very happy to hear that there is, or at least was, something of a movement to make schools more a part of the community. A few years ago, the Education Ministry started actively encouraging schools to open their facilities to local residents for after-hours recreation and learning. Since nothing qualifies as a movement in Japan if it doesn’t have a slogan, the ministry thought up a very nice one: Gakko wa chiikijumin no shogai gakushu no besu kyanpu (Schools are the base camp of lifelong learning for community residents).

Most schools in Japan do make some facilities available to the community. But it’s usually on a limited basis. At our school, for example, the schoolyard is open for after-school play four days a week. But only for third-graders and up, and only for an hour. On weekend afternoons, it’s open for a few hours to anyone. The PTA organizes volunteers to supervise, for which the school receives a stipend from our ward. But most of the time, including during school vacations, the schoolyard is locked up tight. No one can use it.

We don’t have a sports field, but community groups may request to use the gymnasium. Few do, however, because our building is over 30 years old and the facilities aren’t very good. The gymnasium is used a few evenings a week by a badminton team and for karate lessons, but the ceiling isn’t high enough for volleyball, and the basketball hoops are too low for adults. Sports teams prefer the newer schools in our ward.

In any case, the ministry has been pressing schools to open more than just sports facilities. It wants schools to open their libraries on weekends; to make lunchrooms available as meeting rooms for local groups; to allow art and home economic rooms to be used for adult lessons. When planning new schools, the ministry wants communities to adopt designs that make it easier to open facilities to the neighborhood. And it’s pushing for schoolyards without walls or fences.

Many communities embraced this “open school” movement. They recognized the advantages of multi-use facilities, including more efficient use of public funds and improved access to recreational facilities. When towns built schools without fences, they found that the benefits outweighed the problems. Local residents had a sense of ownership in the school when they could see it. Gardening groups offered to help maintain schoolyards. There were few incidents of damage to facilities.

Unfortunately, the open school movement suffered a serious setback on April 8, 2001, when a knife-wielding intruder entered Ikeda Primary School in Osaka Prefecture and murdered eight young children. It was such a tragedy, such a shock to the nation, that almost all discussion of open schools was dropped. Schools that used to leave their gates open started locking them. Schools that didn’t have fences put them up.

In a recent survey in Osaka and Tokyo, nearly 90 percent of schools said they now keep their gates locked, except when students arrive and leave. Many of the surveyed schools said they believe the design of Japanese schools makes them vulnerable to intruders, and they want security guards and surveillance cameras.

All this makes me feel very sad. I’ve seen Americans held hostage to their fear of crime, and I hate it happening in Japan, too.

When I was a child growing up in the United States some 30 years ago, children had a lot of freedom. Even very young kids were allowed to play all over the neighborhood without supervision. The only rule was to come home when the streetlights came on. But by the time I had my own kids, Americans had become more fearful about crime. In the safe, upper-middle-class U.S. neighborhood we lived in until two years ago, no one let kids run free.

Did America really become so much more dangerous in the last 30 years? Does the risk of crime justify depriving children of the freedom to play? I think it was more a change in perception than an actual rise in crime rates. My generation of parents somehow came to believe that we could, and therefore should, protect our children from all dangers. I don’t think that’s possible. I think we fool ourselves if we believe we can create a risk-free environment for our children.

Sure, I want my kids to be safe at school. Of course, I want our school to make it difficult for an intruder to enter. But I don’t believe any security measure can be 100 percent effective. I don’t want the school to go so far that they deprive our students of a sense of liberty. Or make the school off-limits to the community.

Wouldn’t it be nice if our home economics room could be used after hours for cooking classes that serve public-health goals? How about a demonstration on nutritious meals for elderly people with dietary restrictions? How about a class on vegetable preparation for young people who live alone and tend to buy their meals from convenience stores?

Our school would probably get extra funding if our facilities were shared with the community. Maybe we’d get an indoor pool if area residents could use it on evenings and weekends. Perhaps we’d get more books if our library opened to the community after school hours. Or more computers if our computer room could be used for adult lessons, too.

Japan is so short of space for public facilities that we really need to give the concept of open schools another chance. The real lesson from the Ikeda Primary School incident isn’t that we should lock up our schools. It is that we should take security into account as we plan how to open our school facilities to the community.