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`Big Apple' School Designs Shine

By David C. WaltersStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 26, 1992


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.

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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.

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.