- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 6, 2005

As a high school principal in Manassas Park, Bruce McDade is in charge of student learning, morale and safety. So he has become adept at interior design.

Bathroom mirrors? In his school, they are in the hallways, where image-conscious teenagers can be supervised when they cluster to check their appearance.

Classroom chairs? They are 26 inches wide, 2 inches roomier than normal, to keep students comfortable.

Oh yes, the window shades. Mr. McDade and his team went with material that blocks glare but still permits plenty of indirect light.

In schools, style is taking on substance. From the width of the corridors to the depth of classroom sinks, the smallest detail is viewed as a way to foster an academic advantage.

Advocates of fresh school design, however, have work to do. They must show elected leaders and taxpayers that such attention to detail does not drive costs out of reach.

At Manassas Park High School, scores in algebra, geometry and writing have risen since 1999, when students moved into a building featuring light, versatility and open spaces.

Mr. McDade says he has no doubt the school’s physical features have contributed to those scores.

“That’s exactly the message,” Mr. McDade said. “The design of this building does in fact have a measurable effect on student achievement and student behavior.”

Studies support what educators consider to be common sense: Students do better in school when they hear well, see well and are not packed into tight spaces. Noise, light, air quality, cold and heat all have been found to influence behavior.

Yet no comprehensive research ties smart design to achievement, said Judy Marks, associate director for the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities.

“We have examples of kids whose schools were dark and dank and crumbly, and when their new school opened, morale increased, the community came together, teachers stayed longer. Even the football team got better,” Miss Marks said.

“There are those anecdotal stories that can give you a glimpse, but trying to look for solid research on that is a little trickier.”

Clearly, though, the conversation about school construction is changing, as shown during a recent meeting of architects, mayors, city planners and school leaders from 38 states.

School leaders are asking new questions:

• What do parents and teachers want?

• How can the community help design the school, then have access to it once it’s built?

• What kind of layout would students find so engaging it would make them eager to show up?

“Let’s not build warehouses for them,” said Ronald Bogle, president of the American Architectural Foundation and former president of the Oklahoma City Board of Education. “Let’s create environments that are uplifting, that are exciting, that are interesting.”

That sounds great to policy-makers, until the question turns to money. Leaders are under pressure to ease crowding and ensure safety, which means design often is seen as a luxury.

Mr. Bogle, whose foundation leads a national drive to improve school design, said success stories need not be more expensive. The nation spends about $30 billion a year on school construction, he said, and “good design can be accomplished at the same price as bad design.”

At $21 million, which includes the cost of a final wing completed in 2004, Mr. McDade’s school is within the typical price range of a high school. Some features saved money. The school has no auditorium, but its common area doubles as a cafeteria and a place for class performances.

At Manassas Park High, teachers have private work and storage spaces. In their offices, they sit next to instructors from other subjects to encourage conversations across disciplines.

They have the option of holding classes in various locations, including the informal gathering areas, where the staircases are equipped with computer ports.

“You really feel like a professional here,” said history teacher Teresa Rayhel, who was wooed by the school’s design. “It’s a different feeling than your typical school.”

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