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Tom Smart, Deseret Morning News
Ecker Hill Middle School in Park City School District includes open space, natural light and a river design in the floor.

A space shuttle appears to be coming out of the front of a building on Washington Boulevard in Ogden. If you were to go inside, you'd soon find yourself in what appears to be a space-age control room.

It's Ogden School District's aerospace magnet elementary school, as yet unnamed, which will open in the fall.

And it's nothing like the school design most adults remember from their own childhoods.

Neither are the trapezoid and triangle halls at Nibley Park Elementary, or the crayon lights lining the halls of North Star Elementary in Salt Lake City. But the concept of studying at round tables in a steep glass-enclosed alcove at Ecker Hill Middle School in Park City or traversing gently curved glass-sided hallways at Harrisville's Orion Junior High, planets dancing overhead, doesn't seem foreign to most children.

Schools are being designed using a whole new set of principles. And the architects have the scientific evidence to back them up.

A well-designed school "enhances and supports the healthy development of students," says Dennis Cecchini, vice president of MHTN Architects, "so they become vibrant, healthy contributors to society. It's about a lot more than making sure the carpet doesn't give off gas or meeting building codes."

"In the last 10 years or so, studies show buildings affect learning," says Steve Crane, owner/partner of the architect firm VCBO, one of several in Utah that design schools.

He cites a study of three locations with distinctly different climates: Colorado Springs, Seattle and Orange County. It found that students in classrooms with a lot of daylight had 26 percent higher math scores and 28 percent higher reading retention, compared to those who relied solely on interior lighting.

Schools are also being designed for collaborative learning, those spaces a crucial element of the total plan. "Teach someone to do it themselves, and they learn it 100 percent," he says. "Break-out spaces and collaboration areas are important."

Crane calls it a BLT — "Building as a Learning Tool." A school might fold a section of exposed duct work or electrical cables into the overall look to show children how the building is made and operates, for example.

A researcher at Cornell University found that classrooms where teachers can manipulate the furniture and thus involve the space itself in the learning process saw a 70 percent increase in students learning the material. Retention was up, too. Put the kids in desks in neat rows — what some architects call "kids on grids" — and the levels drop, Crane says.

Caves, campfires

MHTN's Cecchini sounds like he's planning a camping trip as he colorfully describes the elements his firm employs to design schools: There are watering holes and caves and campfires and wayfinding tools.

The "watering hole" is a gathering space where students and teachers can socialize. It's a learning spot, too, because through those interactions, he says, children learn to work well with others.

At the "campfire," the experts — usually teachers — speak to students in an interactive setting.

Students go to the "cave" areas for private study moments to learn from themselves in a quiet setting. Cecchini says students need "impromptu" caves, as well as more formalized individual places to study.

And the wayfinding details move students through a building easily, especially important at an elementary school level. That, it turns out, reduces anxiety. Architects often do that through use of colors in the corridors — always nice and wide — or shapes. Gently curved corridors help, too. They're less intimidating than the old-school straight and narrow hallways.

And speaking of intimidation, did you know that red carpet makes grade-school kids anxious, even fearful? With older students, it sparks behavior problems and horsing around, says Crane.

"The trick to all this is to make a great design while doing all these functional aspects," says Cecchini.

Modern schools not only have lots of glass to let in that education-enhancing natural daylight, but also so students see others learning and for safety reasons. Contrary to old-school worries about distraction, studies show that being able to look outside during class helps students refresh their minds so they don't lose focus, he says.

Color is important

Many elementary schools use a primary color scheme, with blues, yellows and reds. As the students get older, the colors become more natural and muted. But their application is part science, as well. Certain colors energize and provide a sense of wellbeing.

Color schemes are also one of the more contentious areas in school design, with different members of committees rooting for their own favorites. It must not be whim-driven. While a color scheme can be annoying to architects, the experts say, it may actually be detrimental to students and learning.

A while back, Crane's firm gave students disposable cameras and asked them to take pictures of what they like and dislike about their school. "I've done schools for 30 years, and that was one of the most eye-opening things I've ever done." Another group was told to take photos of where they learn, who they learn from and where they sit when they learn.

Also eye-opening, he says. "Only 27 percent learn at school. More showed the park and the dining room table." Who do they learn from? The pictures showed parents and Uncle Fred and the zookeeper; 24 percent showed their teacher. As for where they sit, no one brought in a photo of a desk. "Kids think they learn better other places than their desk."

Besides creating the collaborative learning spaces, says Gerry Nichols, president of architect firm NJRA, the designers also keep safety in mind, including visibility for both staff and students. They fold in brain stimulation and environmental health such as healthy air flow. And as the price of construction keeps rising, cost is a major factor. New schools, he says, are more energy efficient (thanks in part to that natural lighting).

North Star Elementary School was one of the first in the Salt Lake School District built with many of the new concepts, back in 1999. "It's light and bright and full of color," says principal Earl Arnoldson.

The school is divided into four pods, each shaped differently and containing students from all six grades. The pods are part of the "community of caring" concept promoted by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, embracing teamwork and a sense of family. It reduces bullying in school, while promoting responsibility and respect, he says. "If there's competition, it's between pods and not kids."

Still, the school's not perfect. He craves more storage and parking, not uncommon laments.

Gathering input

Architect Nichols says he spends a lot of time in schools, just watching how they work, noting the ebb and flow of students during the day. He also attends community meetings to "determine what, within their eyes, fits properly."

All the architects describe a process of gathering suggestions and keenly observing surroundings. Salt Lake City School District is among those that have formalized the process, since most of its schools are being built or rebuilt in established neighborhoods, says Larry Turner, district preconstruction compliance supervisor. The school has to meld with its surroundings.

Each school's design begins with about four months' work by a building committee that includes teachers from different grades at the school, the principal or a counselor, someone from the PTA or school council and others, including neighbors. Turner serves on each school's committee, charged with "keeping everybody on task, within the program and the square footage." There are certain set features. For instance, new elementary schools are consistently built for 550-student capacity.

The architect leads the discussions as the group works its way through ideas, themes and what they would like to see in the school. From those, the architect develops concepts the committee will "tweak" or love or reject outright. If the committee signs off on it, it goes to the neighborhood for input, before it's presented to the school board for approval. The committee may help choose the color scheme, cabinetry and floor plan, etc. Then the facility staff, architect, design team, engineers and others who see it through construction take over.

Involving the community reduces complaints. But they've also found that neighborhoods that have had input feel some pride of ownership. Those schools less often fall victim to graffiti, Turner says.

Some key construction issues are less aesthetic but no less important, such as drop-off zones and places for school buses to pick up and deliver. Parking lots are key as well, but those factors can be determined as much by the the space available. External features are important to the whole neighborhood.

Neighborhoods and schools are increasingly well integrated in use, as well as appearance, with buildings that are not just for the students, but for community enhancement, too. Some schools are venues for community meetings or after-hours community education classes. Their auditoriums are concert venues and meeting places. Even if the school population shrinks, Nichols says, "the community is always there to use that facility as teaching and recreational space."

His schools, says Crane, are like his kids — "They're all my favorites and I could talk about them all day long."

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