Building Schools That Enhance Learning

Nov. 1, 1998
Connected to but far beyond the realm of construction and operating costs is the importance of schools that enhance learning. Every facility-related dollar

Connected to but far beyond the realm of construction and operating costs is the importance of schools that enhance learning. Every facility-related dollar saved is a dollar earned for the learning environment. School spaces designed to maximize efficiency in circulation, access and multiuse allow more time and energy for learning activities. Classrooms designed for a particular district's computerization plan will allow precise wiring, lighting and configuration of spaces that work correctly the first day and throughout the facility's life cycle as technology and needs change.

It is a daunting task to determine how learning is affected by physical factors such as building age, visual factors and lighting. To make the task more manageable, identify elements that affect the learning environment, such as:

-Structural condition. Studies show that the quality of facilities may be related to student attitudes toward school, self-esteem and social relationships. In addition, parental involvement is related to the condition of school buildings and student achievement. This is disconcerting considering that 60 percent of schools need extensive repair or replacement of at least one major building system, such as a roof or boiler. Almost 14 million students attend school in buildings regarded as below standard or even dangerous.

-Size and capacity. The ideal high school size seems to range from 400 to 900 students. To create a sense of smallness, many large secondary schools are subdivided into houses, each with its own student body, faculty and administrator. Special areas may be appropriate for music, physical education, vocational education, home economics, laboratory sciences, foreign languages and mathematics.

Especially in multiuse schools that include community services, consider offices for social-services workers, clinics and community centers; open school-based libraries and computer labs for adults; day-care centers; parent-education facilities; and special reception areas. Such spaces encourage parental and community involvement.

-Environmental quality. Most states report inadequate HVAC systems and lighting as the key environmental problems in schools. The primary thermal problem is cooling, not heating. Be alert for tightly sealed buildings, allergy-promoting floor coverings, toxic emissions from cleaning fluids and paint, and quality of light and visual performance. The quality of light can affect learning. Exposure to full-spectrum lighting, such as daylight, has been associated with better school attendance, greater concentration, more positive moods and better scholastic performance.

-Safety and security. Good lighting and clear sight lines along hallways, in locker rooms and other areas can help to reduce inappropriate behavior when adult supervision may not be continuous.

Design elements that help faculty watch student activity include administrative offices that overlook courtyards and school entrances, teachers' offices distributed throughout the building with glass walls looking into stairwells and corridors, and corridor windows.

It is important to note that students have pride in an attractive school and will feel compelled to take care of it. A state-of-the-art, multiuse facility properly located can revitalize a declining neighborhood.

-Site location. Location affects many things, such as travel time to and from school, proximity to learning resources, the diversity of the student body, access to parents and patterns of community development.

A comprehensive outlook involves community-building initiatives for economic, service, education and physical development. Nearby businesses, public buildings and parks permit easy student access. Such placement may call for the renovation of existing facilities rather than new construction.

-Symbolic value and aesthetics. Schools often symbolize certain qualities, values, aspirations and experiences for individuals. Students attending unattractive and poorly maintained schools may feel diminished and less valued as a consequence. School facilities are a tangible symbol of our commitment to education, and the message is not lost on students.

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