October 4, 2009 in City

Designed for learning

By The Spokesman-Review
 
Dan Pelle photo

Shadle Park High School sophomores Katerina Boren and Nick Brown water and measure mums in the school’s newly remodeled greenhouse Friday.
(Full-size photo)

Fresh air, daylight and elbow room improve learning in schools. Who’d have thought?

Temperature, acoustics and safety make a difference too.

Technology, well, that’s a no-brainer.

As Inland Northwest schools are remodeled, rebuilt and modernized, greater consideration is being given to design elements that national studies show can create better learning environments.

“A lot of natural light, comfortable spaces are more conducive to learning,” said Kevin Foster, Ferris High School principal and a committee member for the district’s remodeling projects. “Technology makes more items available to the classroom.”

Greg Brown, Spokane Public Schools director of capital projects, said facilities designers “know that good learning environments are positive to the education of the students and well-being of the teachers.”

Spokane Public Schools is in the second phase of a 25-year plan to make major changes at all of its traditional high schools while also addressing smaller-scale changes at other schools along the way, such as heating and cooling systems that pump fresh air into classrooms, basic maintenance and upgrading athletic facilities.

One of the biggest changes: The district is reversing course on an earlier experiment in open-air, community-college-style layouts, like that of Ferris High School.

The result is that Ferris will be almost completely reconstructed. School officials say its design is unsafe – with nearly 100 exterior doors – and impractical, with winter posing challenges to students walking from building to building.

Districts around the region vary when it comes to improvements being made at schools. Funding is the primary constraint.

Coeur d’Alene School District recently remodeled two of its schools. Freeman School District in south Spokane County is building a new high school. Central Valley School District has had to forgo some desired projects because voters have rejected the last three bond proposals.

“Greenacres, Ponderosa, Chester and Sunrise are four schools that are currently open-concept schools (minimal interior walls) – that is not good,” said Central Valley spokeswoman Melanie Rose. “It’s hard for one class to do what they need to do without disturbing a neighbor. Student learning is impacted in those buildings.”

Students in noisy environments can score 20 percent lower on reading tests, according to a study released in 2002 by the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities. Noise also hampers a student’s general cognitive abilities, the study said.

As Spokane schools undergo major remodels, acoustics have been a consideration in regular classrooms as well as areas where activities are apt to be loud – band, orchestra or choir rooms, for example.

In those special classrooms, sound-absorbing padding is mounted on the walls, and curtains can be pulled around students to further dampen noise, Brown said.

The new regular classrooms are equipped with sound systems that allow teachers to use wireless microphones to speak to students in the 850-square-foot spaces.

Most schools being remodeled throughout the region are integrating more daylight and fresh air.

A study released earlier this year that analyzed three school districts in Washington, California and Colorado showed increased natural light in schools had a profound impact.

“Students in daylit schools outperformed the students in non-daylit schools by 5 to 14 percent,” according to a study published by the federal Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory. “In one school district, students with the most daylighting in their classrooms progressed 20 percent faster on math tests and 26 percent faster on reading tests when compared with students in the least daylit classrooms.”

Adding natural light during the remodels at Shadle and Rogers high schools in Spokane was a primary goal that is now a prominent feature.

There are walls of windows two stories high at the entrances of both schools, and windows are abundant in hallways and classrooms. The glass is double-paned, which reduces glare and loss of heating or cooling.

The added natural light has been well received, Brown said. Many teachers say they leave the classroom’s lights off for the most part.

The Coeur d’Alene School District used a different approach for filtering more daylight into the rooms, said Bryan Martin, director of maintenance and facilities. Windows around the tops of the walls, above the cabinets, provide ample daylight.

Another common feature to remodeled classrooms in Spokane and Coeur d’Alene: heating and cooling systems that pump in fresh air and provide a separate air supply to each room that can be individually controlled.

Nancy Bernard, program manager for Washington’s Department of Health indoor air quality and school environmental health programs, said air quality is important to the learning environment: “For one, if you don’t have the right type of ventilation, the carbon monoxide levels start to build, and then students start to get sleepy,” she said. “You don’t get the dilution of chemicals from people or products.  …  If you have a good ventilation system, then those chemicals are being removed.”

Additionally, “we know ventilation plays a role in some infectious disease spread  …  but how much is unknown,” Bernard said.

Brown, of Spokane Public Schools, said another important consideration is to make sure new schools still work well in years to come.

The remodels are “for the students now and for the students in the future,” he said.

That’s why Spokane Public Schools has added extra cables and fiber optics so upgrades can be made easily. In the Spokane and Coeur d’Alene districts, most schools have wireless Internet connections throughout the buildings. Central Valley School District is not wireless yet, officials said.

Projectors that hang from classroom ceilings in Spokane and Coeur d’Alene are multifunctional. Cable television, the Web and DVDs can be viewed through the device at the click of a button. Laptops can be used in any classroom rather than stationary computers.

During the Spokane remodels, data plugs were added to classrooms, as were electrical outlets.

Brown said: “There used to be one (outlet) per wall, and now they are about every 10 feet.”

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