High Achievers

When Gary Payne thinks about building schools, he has a simple but lofty vision.

"I imagine a kid who wakes up and jumps out of bed excitedly, saying, `I want to go to school!'"

As administrator of facilities management and construction for the Davis School District in Farmington, Utah, Payne has the opportunity to achieve that goal. In the late 1990s, the district has strived to build schools more relevant to students and how they learn, instead of the "square shoeboxes" built in previous eras.

"Those schools weren't meeting the needs of our curriculum," says Payne.

That's not true of the buildings that the Davis district and many others across the nation have been constructing in recent years.

With research available on how students learn and teachers teach most effectively, more money to build higher-quality schools, and a heightened awareness of the vital role a school building assumes in the community at large, more and more education institutions are taking advantage of the opportunity by creating environments that inspire teachers, stimulate students and encourage learning.

NOT YOUR PARENTS' CLASSROOM School buildings don't have to look the way they did 50 years ago - and in many cases, it's better if they don't. Many people may argue that they attended school in facilities considered no-frills or worse, and they received a good education and have prospered.

A superb teacher or an especially intelligent or motivated student often can overcome dreary or deteriorating school conditions; and an apathetic, lackadaisical student can fail in the grandest educational facility.

But the chances for a meaningful education are much greater for a student immersed in a safe, friendly and stimulating environment. Various studies have linked poor building conditions and classroom crowding with lower student achievement. Teachers who can concentrate on their lesson plans and students instead of worrying about ceiling tiles collapsing or bursting water pipes are more likely to provide effective instruction.

Many of the U.S. schools built after World War II in response to the baby boom were constructed quickly and cheaply to meet the urgent demand for more classroom space. They were hardly ideal educational environments then, and as they have aged, their flaws are even more evident.

"Curriculum took a back seat to other concerns," says Payne.

By the 1990s, public school enrollment began to climb again significantly. Many administrators saw this as an opportunity to replace these aging schools or add new facilities, and were prepared to learn from past mistakes.

A PLACE TO LEARN How far an administration can go in shaping a facility that enhances learning is a function of how much money it has to construct or renovate a building. Still, even schools with modest capital budgets can include features that establish an atmosphere conducive to learning and exploration.

Some of those elements:

- Involve all those who the school will affect - students, teachers, other staff members, parents, neighbors, business people and other community members - in the planning process for a new or renovated facility. By seeking a broad perspective and giving those who will benefit most from the facility a say in how it will look, an institution will make it more likely that those people will embrace the final product.

- Build schools that are smaller or, if that is not feasible, create schools-within-schools (sometimes called houses, neighborhoods or villages) in large buildings so students can identify with the school and develop a sense of community.

- Design classrooms and learning spaces that invite student involvement and interaction.

- Establish learning spaces that are flexible enough to accommodate either small or large groups and a variety of activities, from performance projects to silent reading.

- Use as much natural light as feasible in the school design. Studies have shown students may perform better in classrooms lighted naturally.

- Take advantage of the outdoor environment around the school to expose students to hands-on learning.

- Recognize the learning opportunities that businesses or other organizations in the community - zoos, museums, etc. - can offer students.

- Place a school's administrative space in visible and accessible locations to establish greater presence and approachability.

- Allow community members convenient access to some school facilities, such as gymnasiums, auditoriums and libraries.

- Place windows, lighting and landscape elements to engender a feeling of safety and security at a school.

- Make sure hallways are wide enough to prevent traffic bottlenecks and visible enough to allow adequate supervision.

- Provide enough space to accommodate technology and enough flexibility to accommodate future breakthroughs.

FEELING SMALL Scioto High School in Dublin, Ohio, was built in 1995 to accommodate 1,200 students, but its design allows the students to be part of more manageable groups of 300.

"We have four pods of 300 students," says Joe Riedel, district planner for Dublin City Schools. "That lets us establish a school-within-a-school concept."

The design of the pods is flexible enough to organize the pods by grade level or by subject matter. "We can go any way the future dictates," says Riedel.

To make the school even more flexible, most interior walls can be removed, and the space reconfigured.

In the Davis district, administrators began their plans for several new elementary schools by forming a planning committee of some 50 people - "engineers, PTA members, teachers, administrators, consultants," says Payne.

Their work led to a prototype design that has been used at two new elementary schools, Lakeside and Creekside. The district has traditionally built large schools, but administrators wanted these new facilities to give students a greater sense of belonging.

"We want to make the kids feel as if they are coming to a school much smaller, as if there were 300 students instead of 800 or 900," says Payne.

The schools are divided into sections of classrooms arranged in pods that surround multiuse activity spaces. Technology, science and art classes take place in the shared spaces. Teacher desks, instead of being in the classrooms, are placed together in a central location to encourage teamwork among faculty members. Teachers can monitor classrooms and the shared spaces through windows.

"In general, there are a lot of windows and a lot of color," says Payne. "At some of our older schools, the colors are dark, and it feels as if you're entering a cave."

Any school being designed today should have technology as a prime ingredient. Those planning Scioto High School recognized the importance of technology as they designed the school in the early 1990s.

The building has satellite systems that connect the school to the rest of the school district and beyond, a centralized media distribution system that can transmit videos and other materials directly to individual classrooms, and a media production facility that can broadcast throughout the school. There is also more basic - but much desired - technology: telephone access in most classrooms.

"There's a ton of technology," says Riedel.

WELCOMING THE COMMUNITY For the neighborhood surrounding a school, the building has importance that extends beyond the learning that goes on inside. Communities that view their schools as a valuable resource for everyone, not just school-age children, are more likely to take ownership of the building and be more aware of the importance and value of education. That can translate to support on election day when districts are seeking funds to meet their facility and curriculum needs.

Schools are acknowledging and welcoming this critical link with their communities in their building designs. Areas that community members are likely to use - gymnasiums, libraries, auditoriums and other meeting spaces - are being placed so that they are more accessible.

"In the '70s, we would have buried the media center way back in the building," says Payne. "Now we have brought that out front, so people can find it more easily."

With public use in mind, the Davis district also included several multipurpose rooms in its new elementary schools.

"We have enough room to bring parents together for a back-to-school night or other meetings, and we have enough room for the kids to play indoors," says Payne.

A design that make certain areas of a building more accessible also allows schools greater control by limiting the sections of a building that are open to outsiders after school hours.

"We just put rolling doors here or there and close access to the areas that aren't needed," says Riedel. "That way we don't have people getting lost in these huge academic areas."

Adding facilities with designs that enhance learning makes sense for improving education, but it can cause conflict in districts where some schools haven't benefited from new construction.

"There's an obvious lack of equity between buildings," says Payne. "But if we never improved facilities, we'd still be stuck with buildings from the '20s and '30s."

The Davis district addresses that inequity through a Facility Improvement Fund. The money is disbursed using a formula that provides the most resources to the oldest facilities.

The interest in effective school design has reached the top levels of the federal government. U.S. Education Secretary Richard Riley has estimated that the nation will need 6,000 new schools in the next 10 years, and the government wants those schools built to take advantage of designs that enhance education.

Earlier this year, the Education Department released a resource guide to help educators, architects and facility planners work with their communities to design schools effectively. The guide, "Schools as Centers of Community: A Citizen's Guide for Planning and Design," is endorsed by the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the American Association of School Administrators (AASA).

"We are in a time when we need to see school facilities more and more as community learning centers, as real centers of community," says Riley. "We need to have school buildings that are open longer, later and for more members of the community."

The guide sets out six design principles that will lead to schools that provide effective education. Learning environments should:

- Enhance teaching and learning and accommodate the needs of all learners. "The vast majority of more than 86,000 public school buildings currently in use were designed to sustain a model of education characterized by large-group, teacher-centered instruction taking place in isolated classrooms," says the guide. "Current knowledge and research about learning calls for new models...characterized by increased student involvement (and) engaging learners into an active participatory process of doing rather than just receiving."

- Serve as the center of the community. "The majority of school facilities currently in use were designed to serve as stand-alone instructional facilities where community access is limited," the guide states. "Today's educational facilities...should serve a variety of community needs in partnership with a wide spectrum of public, civic and private organizations to provide ample space for public meetings and activities. At their best, school facilities can help meet the leisure, recreational and wellness needs of the community."

- Result from a planning/design process involving all stakeholders. "When community members become visionaries, creators and owners, rather than cogs on a bureaucratic wheel, they are more willing to work together to set goals, solve problems and, ultimately, provide their schools with the kind of ongoing support they need to be successful," says the guide.

- Provide for health, safety and security. "School designs should incorporate the kinds of physical features that enhance safety, such as carefully considered traffic patterns," the guide says. "They should eliminate the kinds of features that add to the potential for violence and crime, such as poorly lighted and obscured areas."

A school's size also can affect security. "When schools and classrooms are kept small enough to allow teachers and students to form personal relationships, a sense of community is established that promotes a safer environment," the guide states.

- Make effective use of all available resources. "Schools...should provide flexible space for conducting large- and small-group instruction," the guide states. "Through creative approaches, they even can provide opportunities for using the building and grounds as `three-dimensional textbooks.' "

Technology is essential to help students and teachers gain access to resources.

"School designs should ensure that the necessary structures and infrastructures exist to support the use of the most up-to-date educational technology," the guide says. "In addition, they should accommodate applications of technology that allow teachers to become guides and coaches rather than simple information givers."

- Allow for flexibility and adaptability to changing needs. "Designers cannot afford to lock themselves too firmly on any one permanent notion of facility," the guide states. "They should be open to a whole array of ideas about what constitutes `school.'"

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