Maria Aldridge is not interested in the ordinary - forget about walls painted in primary colors, or unappealing entrance halls.

As the school effectiveness coordinator at West Health Junior School, the agreeable Ms. Aldridge influences a range of activities that are far hipper than her corporate-sounding title - from the school's flaxen walls to a computer room that looks like a spaceship.

Her position is unique in England, or it was when it was created by head teacher (principal) Preet Sahota almost three years ago. He was looking for a way to propel the faltering school for 7- to 11-year-olds into a new century and make it "the most unschool-like school around."

"Maria has very quickly, with a lot of hard work, created an environment that is a pleasure to come into," Mr. Sahota says. "The pupils want to come, attendance has gone up, there is no more graffiti."

Aldridge, a former teacher and businesswoman with a sense for design, quickly banished the coat hooks that used to run the length of the school, and put a library - in the form of bookcases lining the walls - in their place. She replaced an ugly brick structure in the entrance with a display that changes periodically and leads children to the library to research its contents (she calls it a "library trail"). She created a special room where students have their literacy lessons, and implemented weekday workshops that allow the school's working-class parents to see firsthand how to help their students with their work.

But probably her most significant contribution is the futuristic COMCEN - or Communications Center. "I wanted a computer room that didn't look like a computer room," she says. She calls what they ended up with a "slick style" room akin to the movie "2001."

At first glance, it looks more like a disco than a schoolroom - it is windowless and comes complete with lava lamps and a sci-fi ambiance (there are windows, it turns out, but they are covered with panels that read "Deflector Shields"). Probably most notable is that students work on computers hidden under clear desktops. Aldridge liked the idea of them not having to crane their heads to look up at a screen, and of being able to see the teacher and a TV monitor that lists assignments.

It's just one sign of the changes that Aldridge has implemented. When she first arrived, for example, the school's computers and the library were housed in one room that was divided in two. "It just wasn't an efficient way of doing things," she says.

She works three and a half days a week, but spends a lot of her own time researching and preparing projects - like turning an old stock room into what is now a new computer cafe for older students. She also helps with in-service training for the school's teachers.

Her efforts have not gone unnoticed. She's helped the school win several awards, and won one of her own recently for creative use of technology. She's modest about her achievements, and sums up her job simply: "It's looking at situations ... and thinking of a better way to do it."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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