Making an Impact

Sept. 1, 1999
Schools across the nation are adding classrooms at a record pace, but how is this space affecting learning?

The good news is that many school districts are getting the money—an estimated $17 billion in 1998—to construct new buildings or upgrade and expand existing schools.

The bad news to people like Anne Taylor is what many of those districts are doing with the money.

"The schools they are building are the same as ones 200 years old—passive spaces, a little red schoolhouse," says Taylor, director of the Institute for Environmental Education at the University of New Mexico's School of Architecture and Planning. "Fifty-four classrooms down a long hallway, with an administration office at the front and a gymnasium at the back.

"Too many educators see students sitting in straight little rows. Schools need to be community-oriented centers for lifelong learning."

Taylor is one of many people in education advocating changes in school design. She maintains that by focusing on students' needs, districts can design innovative learning spaces that will inspire teachers, excite students and enhance learning.

"Students want education that is real, active, project-oriented—not out of textbooks," says Taylor. "Schools should not be isolated pieces of land behind fences."

Fixing what we have
Before exploring innovation, many schools districts must confront a more immediate problem: existing buildings often desperately need renovating.

The General Accounting Office, in a widely cited study, estimated in 1995 that it would cost $112 billion to bring U.S. schools into good overall condition. Children are trying to learn in crowded, aging buildings with leaking roofs, crumbling walls, inadequate wiring, and poor climate control, lighting and acoustics.

In recent years, as educators have drawn attention to the facilities needs of America's school districts, most people have recognized the effect that school facilities can have on student learning. Several studies have linked student achievement and behavior to building conditions:

  • In the District of Columbia, researchers found that student achievement scores were lower in schools with poor building conditions.
  • In rural Virginia, a study associated lower student achievement with substandard building conditions.
  • A study of large, urban high schools in Virginia also found that students in substandard buildings scored lower than those in above-standard buildings.
  • Researchers in New York City found that students in crowded schools scored lower in math and reading than students in schools under capacity.
  • A study released in June showed that students in classrooms with more natural lighting performed better than those in facilities with less natural light (see sidebar, below).

Confronted with the needs and buoyed by better economic conditions, voters and government officials have begun to respond.

For instance, last year Clark County, Nev., passed a $3.5 billion bond referendum, and San Diego voters passed a $1.5 billion bond proposal to build and repair facilities. Statewide, California voters approved a $9.2 billion facilities package for K-12 and college systems.

This year, Congress backed a proposal from President Bill Clinton and approved $1.2 billion in grants to help schools reduce class size in early grades. Clinton also has proposed making nearly $25 billion in bonds available to states and districts to build and modernize up to 6,000 public schools.

"If we want our children to compete at a world-class level, they must have modern, world-class schools," Clinton told an Iowa audience in July.

What should we build?
Once school districts have the money to upgrade facilities, they have to decide what kind of space they want to add.

Schools today need more space than those built a generation or more ago. They must accommodate computers, media centers and programs, such as special education, guidance counseling and English as a second language.

Beyond providing better physical conditions, many schools are also exploring designs that encourage and stimulate learning (see sidebar, below).

"We need to involve students, community members, parents and staff in designing schools," says Taylor. "There should be futuristic architecture instead of a building like a 1920s library. Have the architect include some design elements to teach the physics of structure, or geometry. Why not have a school in an office building or a sports stadium or a museum?"

Instead of looking first at square footage, planners should focus on students' developmental needs, the curriculum and how students will be taught.

Taylor envisions classrooms that contain several defined "zones" that enhance the learning experience: areas for the teacher, for work, storage, living things, display, research, technology, lounging or quiet play, and graphic arts. Where possible, there should be a transition area between classrooms and an outdoor playground that could serve as a classroom extension for art projects, gardening and botany.

"A classroom should be like an architectural design studio," says Taylor. "There should be space to pin up stuff, a presentation area, a workstation, creative places. Children should create the environment like a theatrical set design."

Classrooms without walls
At Walnut Hills High School in Cincinnati, officials and school boosters looked beyond the traditional concepts when they decided to add an arts and science center.

A wing of traditional classrooms was razed to make room for an addition. It includes state-of-the-art science labs, art studios and classrooms, and a 7,500-square-foot courtyard that will serve as an outdoor learning space and "real-life" laboratory. It is scheduled to open this fall.

"We had numerous meetings and discussions with school officials, parents, students and recent graduates," says Dick Thomas, director of design and operations for the architectural firm Steed Hammond Paul. "The outgrowth of those discussions was the need for more hands-on learning."

Private donors raised $12 million for the addition to Walnut Hills, a public school for grades 7 through 12.

The outdoor space includes six "bio-beds," each of which recreates an ecological environment. It also has an aquatic garden that will sustain different aquatic ecosystems. As the seasons change, students can study climate differences.

Meanwhile, art students can use the science garden to draw landscapes or flowers, and language students can visit the garden to learn the Latin names for various plant species.

"It will be a different approach from the lecture-dominated classes that most students went through," says Thomas. "It will be about 70-30 hands-on."

Maximum flexibility
In the Leon County, Fla., School District, officials have been exploring more creative space designs in recent construction projects, including Lawton Chiles High School, which opened in Tallahassee in August.

"The big thing is flexibility," says Jim Croteau, the district's chief of planning and policy. "There's a desire for more community use. The gym and the media center are more accessible to the public, so they can be used after hours and on weekends. That changes the whole orientation of the school."

Lawton Chiles also will have science classrooms geared toward hands-on learning rather than lectures.

"We're not teaching science with just a sink anymore," says Croteau.

Another key issue is giving teachers more control of the climate in their classrooms.

"Air quality is a big concern," says Croteau. "You want to have control of the temperature and air flow at the classroom level. Teachers have taped vents shut or put fans in the doorway because they had no way to control temperature."

In some cases, design elements meant to enhance learning have to be compromised for safety. In an elementary school, the district had wanted exterior hallways because less noise would infiltrate the classroom. The district redesigned the corridors after parents wanted more protection from tornadoes and hurricanes.

In an article for the Center for Environment, Education and Design Studies, Croteau says districts designing buildings should ask themselves several questions:

  • What skills and experiences will tomorrow's students need to have to be lifelong learners?
  • Which of those skills and experiences are not in the curriculum?
  • How will technology affect what is taught?
  • How can schools expand or erase traditional boundaries of time and space to enhance learning?
  • What issues does the community care about?

The renewed focus on the community is a throwback to how earlier generations related to their schools.

"Years ago, schools were an integral part of the community," says Croteau. "Then in the '60s they began to build schools in the suburbs. There was more distance from the residents. It was almost like an office building.

"Now it's returning to the way it was. Schools are one of the few things remaining that can hold a community together."

SIDEBAR: Let There Be Light

A skylight in a school can make the building look pretty, but is that beauty only skin deep? Does it add anything more than superficial aesthetics?

Yes, says a study released in June by a California architecture firm. Its report, "Daylighting in Schools," found that natural light improves student performance.

The study showed that elementary-age children in classrooms well-lighted by skylights or windows scored better in math and reading than students in rooms with less natural light.

"We established a statistically compelling connection between daylighting and student performance," says the report from the Heschong Mahone Group, Fair Oaks, Calif.

The firm conducted the lighting study for the California Board for Energy Efficiency, and Pacific Gas and Electric. The study looked at the lighting conditions in more than 2,000 classrooms and monitored the performance of more than 21,000 students in the Seattle School District, the Poudre School District in Fort Collins, Colo., and the Capistrano School District in Orange County, Calif.

"The three districts have different curriculum and teaching styles, different school-building designs and very different climates," the report says. "And yet the results of studies show consistently positive and highly significant effects."

In Capistrano, where the most detailed information was collected, researchers followed test scores of second- through fifth-graders over a school year. Controlling for other influences, they found that students with the most daylighting in their classrooms progressed 20 percent faster on math tests and 26 percent faster on reading tests in a year than students in classrooms with the least daylighting.

In the Seattle and Poudre districts, the researchers looked only at math and reading test scores at the end of the school year. Students in rooms with the most daylighting scored 7 percent to 18 percent higher than those with the least daylighting.

Lisa Heschong, a partner in the architectural firm that directed the study, says the findings will provide solid data to bolster the arguments of those who believe daylighting is beneficial. The report could persuade school officials and architects to give greater attention to natural light as they design schools.

Who turned out the light?
Years ago, most schools were built with plenty of windows. Before fluorescent lighting became prevalent, it was assumed that daylight would illuminate school rooms. But in the 1960s, other factors took precedence.

"There has been a strong countercurrent against the use of windows in schools in the last 30 years," says Heschong.

To make air-conditioning more efficient, reduce external noise, lower maintenance costs and bolster security, districts built schools with fewer windows. At the same time, a trend toward open classrooms led to buildings with classroom pods that had no windows.

In the intervening years, the pendulum has swung back to more windows and skylights. But the justification for natural lighting has in large part depended on subjective arguments.

"The pro-windows people would say 'It makes people feel good,'" says Heschong. "It appeals to people's common sense. They want to believe that daylight is a good thing. The forces against more lighting would argue that buildings with fewer windows save energy and construction money, and are quieter. They had more numbers in their back pocket."

Studies like this one, says Heschong, give window proponents some numbers to put in their own pockets.

Different kinds of light
In addition to tracking the performance of students based on the amount of light they are exposed to, the study tracked how different kinds of light affected students.

In Capistrano, students in classrooms with the most window area progressed 15 percent faster in math and 23 percent faster in reading than students in classrooms with the least amount of windows.

A classroom with a well-designed skylight had students progressing 19 percent to 20 percent faster in math and reading than students in classrooms without a skylight.

The study defined a well-designed skylight as one that allows the teacher to control the amount of daylight and one in which the light is fully diffused.

Skylights that allowed sunlight directly into the room and caused glare had a negative effect on student performance.

"It would seem that the mere presence of a 'patch of daylight' or 'connection to the outdoors' through toplighting is not sufficient to provide positive effects," the report says.

Cause and effect
The findings establish a correlation between daylighting and student performance, but they can't explain why. The study suggests some possible reasons:

  • Improved visibility: Daylight from skylights or windows often provides significantly more illumination than electric light. Studies have shown that people work faster and more accurately in better light.
  • Improved light quality: Daylighting provides better distribution of light and makes colors look more vivid and natural.
  • Improved health: Exposure to daylight is widely believed to promote health.
  • Improved mood: Teachers interviewed by researchers felt windows and daylight helped keep students calm and improved their attention spans.

Heschong, an admitted proponent of school windows, says putting more windows and skylights in a school's design won't necessarily lead to more expensive operating costs.

"There are ways to get around the question of windows and energy efficiency-tempered glass, laminated glass, blinds," says Heschong.

In some cases, windows and skylights can help lower a building's energy consumption.

"Good daylighting design makes the whole building more energy efficient," says Heschong. "Electric lights put out a lot of heat—more so in the Southern climates. You can compensate with daylighting."

She cautions that to achieve energy efficiency, school lights would have to be equipped with dimming switches to adjust lighting as needed.

But even if adding windows and skylights increased a school's expenses, the cost would be worth it if the effect on performance is as significant as the study indicates.

"The bottom line for schools is student performance," says Heschong. "If daylighting helps, then it shouldn't matter if it's more expensive."

SIDEBAR: Schools as Centers of Community

Last year, the U.S. Department of Education sponsored a "National Symposium on School Design." Architects, planners and educators developed six principles for designing schools. Here is a summary:

  • Enhance teaching and learning and accommodate the needs of all learners. Most U.S. school facilities were designed for large-group, teacher-centered instruction. Educational facilities should be designed to support new models of education that stress more active student involvement, and include strategies such as cooperative, project-based and interdisciplinary learning.
  • Serve as the center of the community. Most schools were designed as stand-alone instructional facilities where community access is limited. Today's schools should be designed as places where learning occurs "after hours," late at night and on weekends.
  • Result from a planning and design process that involves all stakeholders. Schools should be planned by the people who will use them, including educators, parents, students, and representatives from community, civic and business organizations. When members of a community are involved, they are more likely to provide schools with the kind of intensified support they need to be successful.
  • Provide for health, safety and security. School designs need to address environmental safeguards and incorporate physical features that enhance safety. In many cases, keeping schools safe requires changing attitudes. Attractive, well-designed and well-maintained facilities communicate respect for the people and activities housed in them.
  • Make effective use of all available resources. Schools should maximize the effect of the environment on learning. They should provide flexible space, and use the building and landscape as "three-dimensional textbooks." Schools should include technology that can facilitate new ways of teaching.
  • Allow for flexibility and adaptability to changing needs. Schools must be able to adjust. They cannot afford to become too set on a fixed notion about the use of space.

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