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Monuments to Reform

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San Juan Capistrano, Calif.

In a business built on the sure ground of knowledge, it's hard to know where the next bright idea might come from.

Education--that hallowed enterprise often symbolized by a firmly rooted and wide stretching oak--has been so repeatedly remade, reformed, restructured, and re-engineered that it has more in common with the changing breeze than the anchored tree.

The three R's expanded to include art and music and later physical education and electives. Then came thinking skills, teamwork and tolerance, technology.

Drill-and-practice was ridden out in favor of experiential learning in open spaces only to be rebuffed by the back-to-basics movement. Not to mention tracking and untracking and schools-within-schools.

And today's reforms are sure to be refined. You never catch the wind. You compensate for it.

But here on the scenic shores of the Pacific Ocean, and in big cities and small towns across the country, million-dollar monuments to the ideas of school reformers stand long after the experts may have changed their minds. These shrines are everywhere, protected by walls and shielded by roofs. They are maintained, sometimes at immense cost. Properly viewed, a tour of local buildings becomes school-reform time travel.

And in the Capistrano Unified School District, it is no different. Forty years of elementary schools show more than the latest styles in water fountains and pencil sharpeners--they reflect once-trendy ideas that have given way to the current thinking. Twenty years of high schools reveal more than changes in brick and tile and heavy-duty carpeting--they show the abrupt contrast between a concept associated with the past and one that looks to the future.

School architects draw up blueprints that bend and change according to the prevailing thoughts. And like a weather vane frozen in place, their creations inevitably point the way the breeze was blowing.

Who's my teleprompter man?" asks James Fleming, the mild-mannered superintendent of the Capistrano schools, as he squints through the hot studio lights trained on him.

In a classroom at Aliso Niguel High School, Fleming is the star of the pilot episode of "Chalk Talk," a student-directed cablevision program making its debut this month in Orange County. He is seated behind a large wooden teacher's desk, backed by a green chalkboard. Off his left shoulder is an old bookshelf topped by a globe.

But these props--which evoke American schools the same way scrubs and a stethoscope distinguish a doctor--are nowhere to be found in the classrooms of Aliso Niguel. The teachers' chief workstation is an electronic cabinet stocked with a computer, laser printer, telephone, and TV. Chalkboards are the retired grandparent of the sliding white panels scribbled with dry-erase markers. Even in the library here, the bookshelves are hardly the focal point, and they are hardly full. The 2,000-student school is spending most of its money on computer-run reference materials that students can find on the bank of machines that dominates the large library.

Opened in 1993, the $25 million school was designed as a prototype that would look to the future while keeping its ambitions within the limits of the state's school-building program. Aliso Niguel is easily a step beyond any facility the burgeoning Capistrano district has ever put together.

Behind the library sits a control room filled with videocassette players, compact disk players, computer network links, satellite receivers, and enough cable to outfit a Circuit City. In a Spanish class across the building, a teacher has dialed up a subtitled movie for her students to watch. The big-screen television in her classroom also serves as a huge computer monitor, one that she can control from any spot in the room with an infrared remote control. The control room can even connect the TVs internally for conferences between classes and link them to schools in other cities.

Beyond making the building a technology showcase, architects and local planners have been faithful to many popular notions. Classrooms were built to emphasize modern, high-skills training geared toward making students more employable. Security concerns are also spoken for. And portable classrooms--a staple in many growing school districts--have been incorporated into the design as part of the plan instead of looking like a trailer park that popped up on a school playground.

Jan Hansen, the building's architect, acknowledges that he is not an ardent follower of the latest school-reform trends. But architects, he adds, have long realized that their job lies at the intersection of reform thinkers, government regulators, and local teachers and school administrators.

"As long as the teachers are up-to-date, we will be in good shape," says Hansen, a partner in the PJHM Architects SouthWest firm in nearby San Clemente, which makes most of its money designing schools. "When we get together for planning committee meetings, we want people expounding a lot of education philosophy."

Architects also try to help districts enhance classrooms while adhering to school-building programs and squeezing savings in operating overhead--like reducing lighting and heating costs--to make more money available for classrooms.

Inside, louvered skylights that hang like upside-down pyramids dominate the center of most classroom ceilings, providing free lighting that can be dimmed. Windows in the back of each classroom open onto skylighted hallways. And to complete the airy feel, the lunch area is an open courtyard where fast-food companies peddle their pizzas and tacos and sweet-and-sour pork from stalls that might have been lifted from a shopping mall.

The sprawling courtyards are enclosed by doors that, during school, close off the campus.

Inside the classrooms, teachers have gained a new arsenal of teaching tools. The school is one of the first to make wide use of resources on the Internet. Teachers can send electronic mail throughout the building to avoid sending messengers. The equipment--which consumed a great deal of time during design--is meant to allow teachers to move away from the front of the classroom, encourage them to find new ways of teaching, and tap into emerging technologies.

The drafting classroom is filled with computers rather than easels. Shop classes use the latest diagnostic and craft machinery. The home-economics classroom looks more like a working industrial kitchen that turns out three-course gourmet meals rather than three-step brownies.

And down one of the many mauve-and-taupe hallways on the other side of an ordinary looking door, students in headsets sit in front of a bank of television screens. The monitors show various angles of Superintendent Fleming, who pulls his white cuffs down from the sleeve of his navy suit coat. The student director and her assistants watch as the cameras focus for another take. In the classroom next door, where studio lights hang from the ceiling and a boy at a computer gets the teleprompter ready, word comes through the floor manager's headset that taping is about to begin. Fleming sits quietly until he gets the nod.

"Hi," he says confidently. "And welcome to Chalk Talk."

cross the country, architects are drawing blueprints that literally give dimension and proportion to the notions that school researchers and policymakers can only lobby for.

In response to recommendations that schools wean themselves from standardized testing toward more authentic ways of assessing children, new classrooms have been designed to help students who need to work on portfolios. Banks of individual workstations positioned against a curved wall give students privacy and teachers easy access to each child.

An emphasis on student teamwork has prompted school designers to build cubicles that group students and promote cooperative work and projects.

A renewed interest in nature and environmental education has led other school architects to incorporate natural surroundings and settings. Indeed, officials at Aliso Niguel note that the layout of the school gives teachers maximum access to Aliso Creek, a waterway that runs along the edge of the district's property in the fast-growing community of Aliso Viejo.

Most obvious inside new schools are their adaptations to expanding technology. Looking back, planners in the Capistrano district say they were smart to anticipate the reach of technology as they began designing Aliso Niguel more than five years ago.

"It's astounding what that system cost over there," says Dan Crawford, the associate superintendent who oversees building and maintenance of the Capistrano district. "But we just guessed at the amount of conduit we needed for the system. Looking back though, if we hadn't laid all that empty conduit, we wouldn't be able to pay what it would cost to add it now."

And like officials at Aliso Niguel, who built a gymnasium and theater with the needs of community members in mind, many new schools are going an extra mile to incorporate the ideas of lifelong learning and community connections as they plan new campuses.

In many cities, architects are also on the front lines of the movement to build smaller schools that give students a stronger feeling of belonging. If a reform idea is going to gain ground, incorporating it into a construction project is a good start.

Of course, one era's bold stroke can become the next generation's eyesore. If Aliso Niguel brings to mind a protected, efficient, computer-led world, the hulking high school down the road in Dana Point captures another time--bell-bottom jeans, holistic thinking, and open classrooms.

Hansen, an architect whose appearance is as neat as his handwriting, and Crawford walk through the old high school with as much criticism for Dana Hills as they had praise for Aliso Niguel.

The two-story building, opened in 1973, is built around a hollow rectangular core that retained its original smooth concrete finish until it was recently coated with off-white paint. Light feeds into the cavernous commons though small windows around the edges of the raised roof, blocking any direct light inside. Classrooms also depend largely on rows of fluorescent lights.

The building has been almost remade since it opened. The scattered windows that catch the spectacular view down to the coast were not part of the original plan.

In a second-floor pod of classrooms, just outside a glassed box of teachers' offices, Hansen points up to the ceiling. The black metal tracks between the panels, he explains, were the starting point for this school's interior. Movable wall panels could be snapped into the tracks if school officials decided they needed to. They were quickly added, Crawford says, as were doors.

Still, the school retains vast open areas that go largely unused, including the central atrium. Hansen says it is hard for a school architect nowadays to be comfortable in the presence of so much dead or "submedia" space--areas that were envisioned as spots for small-group work or educational displays.

"This school is full of submedia centers that couldn't be supervised and furnished," Hansen says. "The idea was that all this empty space could be used for different education projects and all of it could enhance the program, but it never happened. And when you are limited in the number of square feet you can have per student, that dead space just pushes everybody too close together. There was so much attention to leaving room for interior circulation that the classrooms had to become smaller."

Hansen and Crawford note other changes as well, including a wall of gray tile that recently went up in place of the old color choice: avocado. A wall of fiery orange tile is the next to go.

"I'm sure that 20 years from now people will look at all that teal and mauve at Aliso Niguel and say, 'What were they thinking?"' says Jacqueline Price, the district's community-relations director. If Dana Hills proves anything, it is that the times change.

"Since this building was finished, the trend has been to close down, close down, close down," says Hansen, standing in the spacious core of the complex. "It has happened partly as a security issue, partly for learning, and partly because you can have bigger classrooms, which teachers want. High school classroom design is not as innovative as it was 20 years ago, but it works better."

Crawford can't stop pointing out features that have been added at Dana Hills. "We've still got to get a door there," he says as he passes one classroom. In a corner of the commons, he draws Hansen's attention toward a raised pedestal of concrete.

"In the original plan that was a planter," Crawford says. "You know what a planter in the middle of a high school turns into? A big trash can. It was a planter without any sunlight that got covered over pretty quickly."

Hansen, who has been an architect long enough to suggest planters of his own, offers a mild defense.

"But the idea there, Dan, is that if you can get a science class to take it on as a project, it works," he says. "I've seen it work."

Some concepts--like open classrooms--start to fall apart when they are put into practice. In Capistrano, however, a soaring enrollment doesn't offer the option of putting a school building in mothballs. Growth forced the district to open its first completely portable school in 1992, Foxborough Elementary. The school is a collection of modular buildings, huddled inside a chain-link fence like wagons bracing for attacking Indians.

Aliso Niguel and Dana Hills offer a striking contrast in design and education concepts. In the district's elementary schools, the architecture shows a slower evolution. Concordia Elementary in San Clemente is the closest thing the Capistrano district has to the nostalgic set of "Chalk Talk." Built in 1959, the school adheres to the classic "finger plan," a layout in which a covered breezeway connects lines of classrooms. The classrooms provide light and shelter and little more. A bare-bones school, the stucco building with its long rows of classrooms looks like a barracks or storage garages.

The clusters had become a bit more connected by the time the district opened San Juan Elementary here in San Juan Capistrano in 1963. On the classic-looking school campus, brick classroom buildings with banks of windows and tile roofs are connected to one another and a central building by a walkway.

By 1969, the district's new elementary school tried to push classrooms closer together, creating clusters of red-brick buildings that start to look like a motor lodge. Dana Elementary is scant on library space, instead maximizing storage and display space in each room. Rows of fluorescent lights hang from the high ceilings. The buildings are clustered around a cafetorium, with tables and chairs that roll back into wells built into the walls. The central auditorium also houses the boiler used to heat the building.

Ambuehl Elementary, which Hansen designed, takes the grouping concept even further. United in a single building designed to take on students from portable classrooms outside, the school opened in 1977. It incorporates a host of spaces meant to tie classrooms and teachers closer together. The building--which looks like a mountain lodge from the outside--also includes out-of-the-way corners and steps where children can work on their own or in groups. Like Dana Hills High, built earlier in the same era, Hansen says architects became drawn into the effort to help students learn better.

"It was just an era of trying to do interesting things," Hansen explains. "Education relatedness is the term I use. We make it easy to move from one educational space to another without going outside and sometimes without opening doors. Even transitional spaces can become education-oriented."

The kindergarten area at Ambuehl includes a pair of silos where students can work alone on reading or art projects. Nooks offer teachers a quiet place to contemplate and plan their work. Classrooms open onto islands with sinks and storage areas, which also are available for students coming in from the portable trailers.

And in the auditorium, steps give students even more terraces to work on their own or in small groups. Such spaces, though innovative, are largely absent in more recent buildings because of efforts to make all areas accessible to children with disabilities.

In fact, much about school design has happened in response to changing legal times, too. Crawford notes that the dry-erase boards work well for teachers, but they also eliminate lawsuits that had been filed by teachers allergic to chalk dust. Playgrounds, traditionally covered by sand, now include a more rubbery base and wood chips designed to speed drainage and cushion falls.The modern playground and the modern school are captured at Lobo Elementary in San Clemente, which opened its doors in 1994. The school takes the grouping idea beyond the efforts at Ambuehl, creating "villages" within the school--areas that allow teachers to share office space and even classrooms. Different wings of the school are outfitted to stress different themes and activities, finally cashing in on the open spaces that architects began trying to perfect in the 1970s.

Lobo also includes an improved twist on an elementary school multipurpose room, an area that Crawford says is the hardest space to design effectively. The library at Lobo--built with computers in mind--has a folding wall onto the stage that doubles as the music room. On the other side, a second wall can be removed to face an auditorium that accommodates more than 800 people. Most of the time, the single space is three separate rooms.

The school follows many of the same themes as Aliso Niguel, its high school contemporary. A skylight with blinds that can be controlled from a switch on the wall dominates the ceiling. Classrooms are arranged to focus on a teaching wall--a cabinet stocked with a monitor and a videocassette recorder.

"Technology is a big wave now," Hansen says. "But the pendulum still swings. I would bet that open space will come back to some degree."

At Lobo, open kindergartens allow teachers and children to move between two sprawling classrooms loaded with toys and books and supplies. The rooms face a separate play area designed to keep the tots out of the older children's way.

And on the back edge of the well-equipped playground, where colorful blue and yellow slides and climbing toys sit in the bright sun and cooling breeze, a small sandbox sits alone.

For old time's sake.

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