Presentation at the 2014 Active Living Research Annual Conference.
Background and Purpose
Partnerships between schools and other community agencies to share facilities can create new opportunities for afterschool physical activity (PA). Recently, national organizations (e.g., Institute of Medicine, the American Heart Association, Healthy People 2020, and the CDC) have identified shared use of school facilities as a priority strategy to increase accessible opportunities for physical activity. However, little is known about the current status of shared use across a large sample of public schools. Furthermore, while prior studies have identified potential barriers that prevent community organizations from accessing school facilities [1, 2] much of this research relied on surveys of a cross-section of school administrators or studies of single school districts.
The purpose of this study was to a) survey all public schools in a State to determine the current status of shared use in public schools at all levels (elementary, middle, high); and b) examine the common characteristics of school shared use and its barriers.
A survey instrument was designed from previous research on shared use of school facilities for physical activity . The instrument was piloted with 9 public school administrators in a large urban school district. The final questionnaire included 22 items related to shared use, the specific facilities shared by schools, the type of agreements (formal vs. informal), and common barriers to shared use. All public elementary, middle, and high schools (N=2,359) in North Carolina were surveyed for the study. Each school principal received a pre-survey email from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction informing them of the forthcoming survey, its importance, and included a request to participate. The survey was distributed by administering an electronic questionnaire through email. Respondents received two reminder emails to complete the survey during the first month of the survey being activated.
Responses yielded 1230 useable surveys (52.1% response rate). 88.8% of respondents (n=1092) indicated that school facilities were used by outside/non-school groups or individuals. The five most commonly shared school facilities were gyms (71.3%), cafeterias (47.1%), baseball/softball fields (34.9%), open spaces (29.7%), and classrooms (26.8%). The most frequently shared facilities at the 694 elementary schools were the gym (68.2%), cafeteria (45.1%), playground (32.4%), and open space (31.6%). Middle schools (n=244) were most likely to share the gym (80.3%), baseball/softball field (50.8%), cafeteria (44.3%), and football field (44.3%) and High schools (n=244) shared the gym (71.3%), cafeteria (54.5%), football field (48.8%), and baseball/softball field (43.1%). Overall, formal written agreements for shared use were more common across all school types and facilities. When shared used occurred, the percentage of formal written agreements for each school type were 57.5% for elementary schools, 63.9% for middle schools, and 59.6% for high schools. Formal written agreements were more common when schools shared use of gyms (73.8%), football fields (68.7%), baseball/softball fields (65.2%), and soccer fields (63.5%). An informal or no agreement for shared use was most common with school playgrounds (65.9%), and track (64.9%). For schools that did not share use of their school facilities (n=135) the most frequent reasons were no outside groups had ever asked to use school facilities (46.3%), followed by availability of facilities (12.0%), design of school facilities (10.9%), facility maintenance responsibilities and costs (10.3%), and liability concerns (9.1%).
Three key findings emerge from the study results. First, the percent of public schools in North Carolina that indicated they currently allow outside/non-school groups or organizations to use their facilities (88.7%) was much higher that previously reported. Lee et al.,  reported that only 59% of schools in a national survey shared school facilities and Spengler et al.,  found that 69% of responding schools shared facilities. Second, although shared use of indoor facilities and athletic fields was governed more frequently by formal written agreements, shared use of school playgrounds and track facilities was more frequently permitted with only informal or no agreement for community use. Third, unlike previous research that cites concerns related to increased liability and facility maintenance and operating costs as the most frequent barriers to shared use, we found that liability and costs were less frequently reported than lack of community interest in using school facilities and school administrators not knowing where to start.
Implications for Practice and Policy
Findings may be an indication that schools are becoming more accommodating to shared use partnerships. However, more research on the nature of shared use and types of programs and activities that occur is needed. Community organizations seeking to use indoor school facilities or athletic fields should be prepared to complete a formal written use agreement. Finally, a school history of low or no shared use may not be an indication of a school’s unwillingness to allow community use of their facilities. Preconceived notions that schools are unwilling to share their facilities may be preventing community organizations from initiating contact with school administrators.
Kanters, M.A., et al., Shared use of school facilities with community organizations and afterschool physical activity program participation: A cost-benefit assessment. Journal of School Health, in press.
Spengler, J.O., D.P. Connaughton, and J.E. Maddock, Liability concens and shared use of school recreational facilities in underserved communities. Am J Prev Med, 2011. 41(4): p. 415-420.
Lee, S.M., et al., Physicla education and physical activity: Results from the school health policies and programs study 2006. Journal of School Health, 2007. 77: p. 435-463.
Support / Funding Source
Funding for this work was made possible by FOA CDC-RFA-DP11-1115PPHF11 from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The views expressed in written materials do not necessarily reflect the official policies of the DHHS.