Education Reporter's Notebook

School Architects Build on Ideas to Help Bolster Student Learning

By Joetta L. Sack — October 08, 2004 3 min read
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Architects have a role in designing schools that encourage strong academic performance, though they need to do a better job selling school administrators and the public on their ideas.

That was one of the messages delivered to about 100 school architects and district facility planners who met here Sept. 26-28 for a twice-yearly conference sponsored by the Washington-based American Institute of Architects to discuss ways that architecture can influence learning.

Officials of the AIA and other architecture groups recently met with representatives from administrators’ groups, school boards, and teachers’ unions to test the AIA’s ideas on school design as part of a broader effort to promote the association’s nationwide initiative, Great Schools by Design. The results from the conversations varied widely, and the AIA found that many school officials are wary of architects and contractors, said Ronald E. Bogle, the president and chief executive officer of the American Architectural Foundation. The foundation is a Washington-based educational group that is helping coordinate the project.

Administrators lean toward using architects to design each new school their districts build, and getting significant input from the community and school users in order to help rally community support for projects, he said. They worry, though, that too many architects get carried away and design “Taj Mahal” schools for personal gain rather than for the needs of the community.

School board members, in contrast to administrators, are less interested in design and tend to believe that architects are “out of touch with cost.”

And finally, Mr. Bogle said, while teachers want more say in school designs, they feel that even when they are asked, their opinions don’t count.

There are other differences of opinion. More districts, for instance, use prototype designs for all their new schools to save money and to promote equity between communities, Mr. Bogle said. But the AIA discourages that practice because it believes each school and community has distinctive needs.

With so much attention focused on curriculum and test scores, is there a role for school design in improving education?

“The answer is, design matters—but I don’t think everybody is sharing that view,” Mr. Bogle said. “Design is really a practical issue that shapes lives.”

And while devising strategies for turning around failing schools is usually left to educators and academics, architects have plenty of thoughts on how they would redesign school buildings to support academic changes.

Two University of Virginia faculty members working on a joint school leadership project for principals in 10 schools across the state presented the conference attendees with scenarios in which schools were undergoing dramatic leadership and academic changes. Under the scenarios they presented, the structurally sound buildings needed quick physical changes to impress upon students, staff members, and parents that a transformation was under way.

Architects at the session came up with a host of suggestions, from gathering community volunteers to thoroughly clean and paint a building, to redesigning entrances and offices to help school leaders become more engaged in daily activities.

Thomas H. Blurock, who heads Thomas Blurock Architects in Costa Mesa, Calif., suggested cleaning the slate by painting everything a bright, glaring shade of white. “Then let [school officials] spend the rest of the year figuring out how to determine the environment of the school,” he said.

Other seminars focused on ways to make schools safer and more welcoming to diverse populations.

For instance, bullying is a much greater threat at schools than gun violence, said Dewey Cornell, the director of Virginia’s Youth Violence Project. Through design elements such as open spaces that can be easily monitored and designation of easily accessible places for counseling and meetings, architects can help schools reduce bullying and other tensions.

“Counselors don’t often have a place to work,” Mr. Cornell said. “Very often, the physical limitations of facilities prevent people from implementing programs that could turn around schools.”

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