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How school design creates better students
Detail: The aging of schools across North America, including in Ottawa, provides an opportunity to create "21st-century learning environments" that actually improve students' marks and behaviour, says a University of Wisconsin-Madison researcher.

Jeffery Lackney says studies show more windows can improve test scores, smaller schools can foster leadership, carpeting can turn the class clown into a bookworm, and the shape of a hallway can improve social skills and discourage bullying.

"Light, sound, air and temperature can have a very powerful impact on the physiology of a student, affecting their cognitive abilities and their attention," says Mr. Lackney, an assistant professor in the university's department of engineering professional development.

Kathy Lausman, Ottawa-Carleton District's board manager of physical facilities and design and construction services, notes that 75 per cent of the city's existing 153 schools are more than than 20 years old.

The Ottawa-Carleton Catholic School Board plans to build eight new schools and two additions at a cost of about $50 million over the next 13 years.

Mr. Lackney says the projected boom in school construction offers a chance to employ decades of research by architects, educators and environmental psychologists that point to links between design elements and student achievement.

For example, a 1999 California study, which tracked 21,000 students in three states, found students in classrooms with the most daylight improved 20 per cent faster on math tests and 26 per cent faster on reading tests over one year than students in classrooms with the least daylight.

"Natural light and artificial full-spectrum lighting has been found to minimize mental fatigue as well as reduce hyperactivity in children," says Mr. Lackney.

Air flow is another critical element in design, he says. Reading comprehension declines as room temperature rises above 74F, and addition and subtraction skills decline when a room becomes warmer than 77F.

In so-called "sick buildings" that have poor ventilation and use building materials that emit pollutants, children develop skin rashes and mental fatigue.

The experience with open-concept schools built in the 1960s highlighted the problems with noise; a noisy classroom reduces mental concentration, causes more errors and decreases teaching time. "Your blood pressure literally rises."

Mr. Lackney says schools should have sound-absorbing materials on floors, walls and ceilings; be located away from noisy urban streets, and separate active areas from quiet study areas.

Research has shown smaller schools tend to have a lower incidence of crime and serious student misconduct. They can better address special needs and provide more opportunities to participate in extracurricular activities.

"This gives students a chance to exercise leadership roles," says Mr. Lackney.

"Students are more satisfied and are more successful in employment later in life. Math and verbal test scores are higher."

Elementary schools should have no more than 200-400 students; middle schools should have 400-600 and high schools should have 600-800 students.

"Increased density can induce stress in children, thereby increasing aggressive behaviour and distraction in younger children," he says.

Furthermore, the schools should be broken down into groups of 100 students, and class sizes should be small. Mr. Lackney recommends 12-16 students in elementary classes; 16-20 students in middle school classes and 20-24 students in high school classes.

One study found children in smaller classrooms outperformed those in regular-size classes of 25 students, especially in reading and mathematics test scores.

Mr. Lackney says hallways should have areas for students to gather informally between classes, especially in high school as students develop social skills and need informal places to hang out.

"Corridors become these long scary things which are great for supervision but are not really conducive for learning," he says.

"If you don't have these crush spaces, kids run and scream to their next class.

"There's a perception among the public that money is more important than a child's education," says Mr. Lackney. "We talk about 'let's not build a Taj Mahal.' It was good enough for me, it's good enough for them. But it's not good enough.

"Education is changing in terms of its goals, instructional methods, technology, and curriculum. That's a challenge to designers to think differently about what we can do in these environments to improve them."
Source: The Ottawa Citizen, City Section, pg. D6 (Byline: Maria Cook)
Date: September 28 2002