`Big Apple' School Designs Shine

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

PUBLIC School No. 5, under construction in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, represents an effort by the New York City Board of Education to completely rethink the teaching space in its new elementary and secondary schools.

Surging immigration has fueled the need for additional schools. With a student population pushing 1 million students (close to an all-time high), and more than 40,000 students entering the system each year, four city districts are bursting at the seams and 28 others are stretched.

The Board of Education first considered developing a single prototype school, a "cookie-cutter" design. "Within a week, we decided that this really wasn't going to work for us," says Rose Diamond, director of the Board of Education's Office of Strategic Planning, Division of School Facilities. "We don't get full-block sites like you had in the 1920s.... We decided that we needed a modular prototype building that could be adapted to a variety of sites," she says.

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Architect George Luaces worked on the prototype developed by the New York architectural firm of Gruzen Samton Steinglass, one of four firms chosen to create school designs for the Board of Education. .

"We looked at the basic rectangular classroom space and asked, `What are the parts that make up the classroom? How does the classroom function?' " Mr. Luaces says.

They found three "subspaces" within the classroom: the instructional space, where the teacher faces students at a blackboard; an independent study zone, where more intimate and focused study takes place; a service zone, including computers, a wardrobe, sink, drinking fountains, and cabinets.

To organize the three functions within a single room, Luaces explains, they took the traditional rectangular classroom shape and "jolted" it. (See diagram on Page 13.)

A bay window projects on one side of the room, forming one subspace and letting more sunlight in. An indent at the opposite side creates another subspace, a compact service zone for computers, sinks, and lockers for children's coats.

In the center of the room, desks are lined up in rows facing the teacher in front. That area is defined by the color of the carpet and an inset in the ceiling. First- and second-grade classrooms have an attached bathroom. Overall, the design gives teachers two auxiliary learning spaces to use.

Education reformers, looking at declining school performance nationwide, have long suspected that there is a connection between the classroom environment and student performance. Yet very few studies have been done on the subject.

"Hardly anything is being done in the educational literature right now that looks at the facility's impact upon performance," says Gary Moore, a professor of architecture at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee.

"On the architectural side, the picture is just as bad," he says. Architectural journals contain "reams of pretty pictures of school buildings.... but they don't say anything about whether the school is better for performance."

"Decisions that get made about school building are usually made far removed from the people who are going to have to work in the building," says Grant Wiggins, director of the Center on Learning, Assessment and School Structure in Geneseo, N.Y.

New York City's Board of Education set out to address the problem of including everyone in the planning process. Ms. Diamond, a school teacher of 10 years with an architecture degree, coordinated the planning and building programs for the board.

Because developing one prototype to satisfy the needs of all the districts would take too long, a prototype process emerged. "We decided that we would go with four architects. Each would be given three sites," Diamond says. "Their job was to design a modular, or prototypical, school that could be adapted to the three sites, thereby showing us immediately that their prototype worked."

TODAY Diamond heads up a school-building program that has 17 schools under construction. Breaking all previous records, the project has moved from idea to mortar and bricks in four years - a fast track given the city's notorious layers of regulation.

Four districts needed schools immediately: District 10 in the Bronx was overcrowded by 6,000 pupils; District 6 in Manhattan was oversubscribed by 4,500 pupils; District 24 in Queens and District 17 in Brooklyn each had 3,600 extra students.

"There was a critical need," Diamond says. "The whole context for this program was `Let's build buildings, and let's build them before the kids graduate.' "

In selecting architects for the program, the Board of Education asked individual designers questions such as: "Do you have children?" "Where do they go to school?" "Where did you go to school?" Most of the architects chosen went to New York City public schools themselves. As Diamond puts it, "We wanted people who wanted to give back to the city."

"Our intent was not to save money," she adds. "Our intent was to save time. As it turned out, we saved a lot of money. We saved a tremendous amount on design fees.... [And] as the contractors out there become more familiar with [the prototypes], they're able to refine their bids."

Midway through the design development process, the New York State legislature stepped in to light a fire under the program. It established the School Construction Authority. This entity was given the power to supercede the maze of limitations and rules that normally beset public construction projects in New York.

"By the time the School Construction Authority was created in '89, [it was] handed six buildings that were 100 percent designed, and another six at 90 percent, so they could hit the ground running," Diamond says. The first schools built under this program are scheduled to open at the end of the year.

The swiftness of the construction contrasts with the deliberate, inclusive approach the board took to the planning process. Rather than trying to speed the planning, Diamond says, "If anything, we extended the time for that because we knew that these buildings would be used over and over again. We had to make sure to get it right."

Diamond and the Board of Education required architects to address the interests of user groups. "We had a team of educators, architects, teachers, students, principals, the unions, the maintenance people together in a room once a week, knocking out the issues," Diamond says.

Architects working on the prototype designs tried to discard preconceptions that stifle changes in school design.

"The building has to be friendly, has to be calm, has to be the right scale," Luaces says. In addition to fitting the scale of the child, the building also has to fit the scale and architectural framework of the neighborhood.

The Gruzen Samton Steinglass buildings feature a plan that basically stays the same from site to site but can be topped by different "hats" to match the architectural style of nearby buildings.

"We wanted these buildings to be beacons - important, permanent-looking structures," Diamond says. "We wanted them to say that to the communities and also fit into their neighborhoods."

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