Designing Smarter Schools

In the middle of the drug-infested Rampart neighborhood in Los Angeles there's a bright patch of hope. Out of an abandoned strip mall, a talented architect has created the wildly colorful Camino Nuevo Charter Academy for 270 local kids. Before Camino Nuevo opened this year, most of the kids had been bused to overcrowded city schools, many of them dreary and run-down. "The people who live here were undertaking something very remarkable by creating this school, and we wanted the design to reflect their sense of mission," says architect Kevin Daly. "It was essential that it didn't look like these kids from the poorest part of town got a repossessed mini-mall as their school." So, first Daly stripped away all vestiges of the strip mall: he put a courtyard-playground where the parking lot had been and arrayed 13 classrooms around it, each with a big window looking out. Then he designed pale green latticework that lightly covers the second-floor balcony, wraps around corners and then curves out like a ship's prow overlooking the courtyard. From the balcony, a big steel outdoor staircase cascades down to the ground. "It's chido," exclaimed Marvin Echeverria, 11, an immigrant from Guatemala, one recent day on the playground. "That means cool. I like everything about this school!"

Though few new schools are built with the flair of Camino Nuevo, school construction is on a fast track across the country. Buried in the drama of the recent elections were hundreds of successful school-bond issues nationwide. Increased enrollments, a desire for smaller class size and the deteriorating condition of existing buildings (the average school is 42 years old) are driving a $500 billion boom in new construction in the decade ahead--a scale not seen since the 1950s and '60s. For architects, it's an opportunity to build into their designs the trends brewing in education for the past 20 years. Schools used to be built on the factory model: the blackboard jungle of classrooms arrayed along endless corridors, desks facing front, all eyes on the teacher. Now "classrooms are geared more to students, and of course there's much more technology," says Ray Bordwell, an architect with Perkins & Will in Chicago, a leading firm in school design. Adds Katherine Peele of Boney Architects in Wilmington, N.C.: "We need to design small group areas, places where students with projects to work on can go. And we need to think about team teaching." That means flexible spaces--say, walls that can open between classrooms, or free spaces off hallways, or cafeterias that can double as rehearsal halls.

Not every school district has the luxury of thinking about innovative design. Some are just building as fast as they can--in Las Vegas, a new school opens every 30 days. Lots of districts use a one-size-fits-all prototype, and the job of designing it goes to the lowest bidder, just like the plumbing contract. But some school districts are teaming with creative architects to go beyond simply designing hard-wired, flexible spaces. They're trying to use design to help embrace the movements toward smaller schools, community-based schools and schools that are environmentally sound. In Chicago, a city with a $2.6 billion construction budget, officials are launching "Big Shoulders, Small Schools," in which top architects from around the country are competing to design two model K-through-eighth-grade schools of 800 students each. It's unusual for a school district to have such a major design competition--which says a lot about Chicago's willingness to think outside the box in building new schools. Carol Ross Barney, a Chicago architect among those invited to compete, has already designed the award-winning 750-student Little Village elementary school for the district. That school, featuring a light-filled central stairwell that's topped with a skylight and an Aztec sundial, sits on a tight site and was built on an even tighter budget. The way Barney managed to keep costs down was to use inexpen-sive building materials--varnished particleboard, glazed brick, glass block--in clever, elegant ways. Supporting columns are covered by spiral-corrugated industrial pipes. "They remind me of Bernini's spiral col-umns in St. Peter's," she says with a laugh.

One of the hottest new design schemes is the school-within-a-school. This idea has been around for at least a decade, with alternative schools and magnet schools carved out of bigger existing schools, but it's now catching on in new schools. At North Star Elementary, in Salt Lake City, local architect Steve Crane designed a school for 650 kids, separated into four "pods" or wings; each functions as a separate mini-school. A pod is made up of six classrooms clustered around a shared central activity room, all arrayed along a gently curving corridor. ("Kids and teachers told us they hated long corridors that seem to go on forever," says Crane.) The whole school shares the costly stuff: kitchen and cafeteria, gym and media center.

And as the importance of smaller schools is catching on, so is the notion of the school as a community center--an idea lost in the era of massive busing and huge consolidated schools. Even many of the biggest new facilities are designed for use 24/7, not 8 to 3, five days a week. In Wilmington, N.C., a performing-arts space open to the public connects a new middle and high school. And in dense urban areas, putting a school back in the neighborhood--often by renovating an old building--can bring a run-down area back to life, especially if it includes services like a health clinic. "The thing that promotes livable communities is the small neighborhood school," says Steven Bingler of Concordia Architects in New Orleans. "Parents can take their kids to school and participate in their education, which research shows is a key to student success."

There's plenty of other research, too, that should be guiding architects. Studies show students' test scores increase in buildings with windows that open to fresh air, and scores increase dramatically with lots of natural daylight. At the Diamond Ranch High School in Pomona, Calif., designed by Thom Mayne, sunlight floods the interiors. But there's more to this celebrated school than its environmental consciousness. The structure is made of two big jagged forms that meet in a canyon--a walkway open to the sky, where kids and teachers mingle. Inside, the rooms are angled, some in oddball shapes. The materials are tough--concrete, galvanized steel--but mesh beautifully into the dramatic, hilly landscape. The lesson taught by the design isn't about an educational trend--though the spaces are flexible and the classrooms wired to the max, each with a wall of 20 computers. "I wanted to make something optimistic for young people, for whom life is just beginning," says Mayne. "I hope there's a sense of exploration and freedom in the form. In its dynamic movement, its sense of the unfinished, it speaks of the future." That's something kids just can't learn from books.