This is a ... school?

Today's designs mirror museums and malls, but don't shortchange

For decades, schools were as square and predictable as a well-worn pair of Hush Puppies. Screaming-yellow buses might have given a dash of color to the early morning, but by 9 a.m., the message was all about staid, solid-brick authority.

Then came the fads. Architects have tinkered with one innovation after another since the 1960s in an attempt to update design, including energy-saving windowless structures and tearing out all interior walls.

But now, at the end of the 1990s -as America is poised to jump into the largest school-building boom in its history - designers claim they've finally got it right. The schools of the new millennium will be highly flexible, designed to meet a wide range of needs, evoke the family room more than the classroom, and be more security conscious.

A school-population boom is fueling this current round of building, which is most heavily concentrated in the West and South. Across the US, a record number of K-12 children -53.2 million and counting -are heading to class each day. As a result, this fall 526 new schools opened their doors, and estimates are that at least 6,000 more will be in business by 2006.

Wear and tear is another driving force. Many of the buildings that went up during the baby boomers' school years are now four decades old, the point at which maintenance demands multiply. About one-third of the country's schools (25,000) are in need of repair, according to US government figures.

But as a new generation of school buildings puts its mark on the landscape, it's also clear that educational demands and preferences - along with environmental concerns and legal mandates such as access for those with disabilities - are pushing a significant rethinking of the physical plant in which learning takes place.

"The whole paradigm just changed," says William DeJong, president of DeJong and Associates, a Dublin, Ohio,-based architecture firm that specializes in school design. "Form needs to follow function, and today you've got a whole new set of needs that just didn't exist in the past."

Typical, says Mr. DeJong, is the new middle school in Mason, Ohio. "It's a 1,000-student school, but the kids are divided into interdisciplinary teams of 100, and the space is designed so you're never in an area of more than 250 kids. There's a sense of warmth, belonging, almost like being in a little house."

The new 2,000-student Kaiser High School in Fontana, Calif., illustrates the same principle, says Mark Schoeman, senior designer for HMC Architects in Ontario, Calif. "We try to create academies, families, pods" within the school.

What that means in terms of design is several clusters of classrooms, each built around a common 240,000-square-foot courtyard used by all students.

What it also means is that parents of these new schoolchildren may not recognize the schools their kids are heading off to.

Gone are the bad old days of the 1970s when an overwhelming concern with energy costs produced a flock of windowless buildings. Also left behind, in terms of design, are the cheap buildings of that era that were built on the fly to accommodate the wave of baby-boom students.

Builders are now more savvy about planning for long-term needs, rather than reacting to educational fads, as they did in the '80s when classroom walls were pulled down only to be put up again as progressive theories were tested and then rejected.

Now, making good use of natural light is a top consideration in many contemporary school designs, for example, and where communities can afford it, more sophisticated and attractive materials are being used. Wood trim is replacing plastic or synthetics, and terrazzo tile is replacing concrete.

"Flexibility is the buzz word, it's become the key" to school design, says Mr. Schoeman.

Today classrooms are given a shape and size that permits the traditional setup of one teacher standing in front of the room lecturing, but can also be transformed -often through the use of modular furniture -into a space conducive to project work in small groups or teams.

Particularly as teaching becomes more interdisciplinary, classrooms are also being designed to accommodate any subject matter. Science rooms are now set up with sinks and lab equipment against the walls rather than in islands in the middle of the room so that the space could work just as well for an English class.

And with technology changing at a breathtaking pace -and being an integral part of modern design - new schools must remain as flexible as possible in that area. Basically what's needed, says Schoeman, are "empty conduits everywhere."

No longer just for kids

But it's not just changing academic needs that schools have to be positioned to meet. They are no longer necessarily seen simply as places for kids, but are also being conceived as an extension of the community - to permit buildings a utility that could outstrip their lives as schools.

Sometimes that means moving the community into the school, and sometimes it means sending school activities out to the community, says Gary Keep, senior vice president of the SHW Group in Dallas.

"We're seeing more cooperative use of facilities," says Mr. Keep. "Sometimes the city parks department and the school will come together to buy 10 acres of land. Half is used for the school, half becomes a park also open to the public."

Some towns are also sharing pools and library facilities with their local schools as a cost-saving measure, he says.

A high degree of flexibility in school design also allows the public to make maximum use of a school facility after school hours, says Michael Hall, chief marketing officer and an architect at Fanning/Howey Associates in Celina, Ohio. "An auditorium with tiers and platforms can easily be converted to a dinner theater for the community," he points out.

Extensions of home

However, in some ways, the blending of community and school needs is more than just a practical consideration. Many parents are concerned that schools should feel more like extensions of home, and less like institutions with no relation to the world outside the classroom.

"We're trying to tone down that institutional look," says Hall. "There's more sensitivity to the kids and their feelings. We're using warmer colors, more carpet, a warmer interior."

A school building ought to make a student feel "that someone cares," says Keep. As career-focused parents spend less time parenting, schools must take over more of the nurturing function. "More social services are being provided and there's more full-time baby-sitting going on," says Hall.

The hunger for intimacy is also reflected in the way school space is carved up. Actually, most schools are getting bigger, points out Hall. "Throughout the 1950s, '60s, and '70s, the average elementary school was 75 to 90 square feet per student. Now it's between 110 and 130."

Security - keep it light

When it comes to creating a feeling of warmth, however, designers in this post-Columbine era must steer a careful course between the demands of intimacy and those of security: "Security was already a concern but the week after Columbine it shot to the top of the list," Hall says.

It's a point not lost on students, the group many designers acknowledge are the ultimate arbiters of the success of a school.

Cameron Teichgraeber, a high-schooler in Redlands, Calif., recently attended summer school in a brand-new school in a different section of town. It is a two-story structure built around an open courtyard where guards watch from on high, and tinted windows reduce contact with the outside world. The result, says Cameron, is an uncomfortable focus on security.

Most of today's designers are aware of the drawbacks to drastic security measures and remain focused on "passive" measures rather than creating environments with the feel of a fortress.

"We just finished a high school where you can stand in one place and see 60 to 70 percent of the campus," Schoeman says. "There's a sense of observation and knowing what's going on. That's the first step of security."

Heavy use of glass is another security measure popular in many new school designs, says DeJong. "There's a new highly insulated glass that's very energy efficient," he says. Using glass creates "a light, airy feeling," but at the same time, "it's easy to see what's going on."

According to DeJong, there are many factors more important to safety than metal detectors. "It's how you lay things out, where you put the parking lots, how you organize traffic patterns."

He also discourages designs that isolate students in places with no adult presence. "When it comes to cafeterias, kids and adults should eat together," he says. "That's basic."

In addition, he recommends positioning faculty restrooms so that adults must walk through student restrooms in order to enter their own. It's another "passive" means of keeping an eye on student activity -in a spot that often serves as a breeding ground for trouble.

More-exciting process

And it's not just during the school day that adults are having more impact on the experience of students. When it comes to school design, community members -including those without children in the schools -are taking a brand-new interest.

"The whole process of how schools are planned is more exciting now," says DeJong. "There's a lot more community input, more of a feeling of ownership."

Sometimes the interest is centered on the students, but often community members are there "to protect their tax dollars," says Hall. "When it comes to spending there's much more scrutiny."

A number of communities, he notes, now post school planning information on the Internet, allowing maximum give-and-take with the community.

Such planning might help prevent reactions like the one Cameron had to the prison-like new school she attended in the summer. She prefers an older model -the 102-year-old high school she normally attends. Ideally, she says, she'd love a school with "high ceilings, open spaces, and interesting design." But the main thing, she says, is "it needs to be a place where it's OK just to come and learn."


(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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