- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 8, 2003

Few public schools have a marble fireplace with a gas-generated flame in their library’s quiet room, but such a place exists at the renovated Idea Public Charter School in Northeast, formerly Carver Elementary.

More surprisingly, it’s there because of a suggestion put forward by Marcus Horne, 17, of Northwest, a senior at the school who plans to attend George Mason University in the fall.

While some people might see the well-appointed room as a needless and expensive bit of luxury, today’s farseeing architects consider it as an example of how good school design can affect the way students learn.

Studies show student performance is directly affected by the quality of a building’s physical structure, according to the Washington-based Sustainable Building Industries Council and local architect Leon Chatelain, whose firm did the $1.8 million charter school makeover, finished just a month ago.

“One 15-year-old who has never done homework in his life said he is going to come up here every day at 4 o’clock to do his homework — and that was unsolicited,” Idea School Principal Bill Dexter says proudly, showing off the room in the newly refurbished half of the school. School officials hope to continue the renovation project, making over the rest of the school, which is in a neighborhood that has seen better times.

The gas lines already were in place for the chemistry labs, he explains, so adding the fireplace only cost about $1,500 — money for the entire renovation project was raised through tax-free municipal bonds. The fireplace, framed with handsomely polished stone, provides warmth and humanity in what might otherwise be perceived as a sterile room.

One month isn’t much time to judge a cumulative effect on learning, but Col. Norman Johnson, a retired military man who is Idea’s director and CEO, says he can see students already taking more pride in their surroundings.

Halls at the school are cheerful and clean with school colors of gray and blue applied wherever possible, replacing an institutional dull green shade. Solid wood is used in cabinets throughout. Daylight is prominent, and artificial lighting is a flattering reflected mode called “bounce lighting” rather than the traditional harsh fluorescent bulbs.

Vinyl flooring and non-toxic carpet tiles replace scuffed linoleum. Vinyl may cost more, but it holds up better and saves money over time, says Mr. Chatelain, adding that non-toxic carpet tiling can be replaced in sections so it always looks fresh and old pieces can be recycled by manufacturers.

Modern school interiors are more likely to resemble homes as architects strive to provide more inviting personal surroundings in line with educators’ assertions that a great deal of learning in schools takes place informally. To that end, many architects incorporate what they call breakout spaces — also known as atriums or town squares — where students can begin or continue discussions outside the classroom.

“In the 1950s we designed schools without windows because we thought they were distractions,” says architect Suman Sorg of Sorg & Associates, whose firm currently is charged with producing a plan to renovate or rebuild Anacostia High School. “[Now] we want light and windows to encourage minds to wander off where they might go.”

“Windows,” Mr. Chatelain agrees, “[promote] a relationship to the outside and the world at large. We tried to instill a sense of responsibility for the world.”

The embrace of natural light, a relatively new factor in school design, comes about through a better understanding of materials used in heating and cooling systems, but also through ongoing studies about the effects of light on how the brain works.

“We know how lighting affects children in the classroom,” says architect John Everhard, the head of a newly formed Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture. “What [the academy] expects to be able to do is not just say what happens to children in the classroom setting when lighting is different, but why this happens. What we are doing [next] is looking inside their brains.”

Another change is the adoption of brighter colors used inside and outside the buildings.

“It makes a more interesting environment to be in. It’s not busy, but it’s not dull either,” says Mr. Chatelain, who has 30 years of experience designing schools. “[The concept] goes back to respecting students. They feel better about themselves in such a place. If you want them to be an adult, give them an adult environment.”

Anne Peterson is operations manager at Flint Hill School, a 2-year-old $16 million Chatelain project on 35 acres in Oakton. She says the school’s windows help save on energy costs.

“Often we don’t need to turn on the lights,” she says of the new high school.

The private school’s exterior is red, yellow and gray, its lobby adorned with ficus trees leading to an open hall, or atrium, where students gather informally under samples of student artwork.

Victoria Evans, 18, a senior from Oak Hill, acknowledges the hall’s attractiveness even though she says the trees remind her of a mall. She praises Flint Hill’s senior commons, a stand-alone area of sofas and chairs reserved for senior class members, and the school’s state-of-the-art science labs.

“Creating a sense of dignity about a building doesn’t take money. It’s about light, color, the way plans are organized, and the way a building relates to the street,” says architect Steven Kleinrock of Einhorn, Yaffee & Prescott, whose firm has done work on the District’s Hardy Middle School and Neville-Thomas Elementary as well as designing new health sciences and student services buildings at Montgomery College.

“We use ‘green’ materials whenever we can to create environments that enhance learning and not detract,” he says. “The most important thing isn’t just the interior but how you feel about a building when you see it.”

(Current code words among architects working on academic institutions are “high performance” and “sustainability” — referring to the importance of efficiency and sensitivity to environmental concerns.)

Echoing the sentiments of many other architects in the field, he calls schools “some of the most civic structures in society. The children see whether the outside respects schools. So we try to design schools that attract the kind of students we want.”

“Much like libraries are now centers for community interaction, I think adult participation in off-hours is going to be important; the big thing is how to separate the uses but keep them available for multi-generations,” Ms. Sorg says, noting that the same flexibility is reflected in the “integrated learning” approach used in many classrooms today.

The biggest change at the elementary school level is the demise of the once-popular open classroom, which removed all walls and structures in favor of a single room where several classes were taught at the same time. It has been replaced by the concept of clusters — a group of classrooms opening onto a central common area. The poor acoustics of open classrooms made for a poor learning environment, architects say.

“A school within a school is a trend at the elementary level,” notes architect Bob Widger of Sorg & Associates. “The key is the amount of privacy in a classroom. You have to be able to control the environment.”

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