Creating a Welcome Message in the Physical Environment

by John Ciardullo

When the subject of how to make our schools better comes up, there's never a shortage of ideas. Since going to school is a universal experience in this country, we all have our notions about what needs to be done-and we can be pretty passionate about it.

It's a discussion that needs to go beyond pedagogical issues. As an architect with 30 years of experience designing schools, libraries and numerous public facilities, I've found that the quality of the physical environment has a great deal to do with how a building is perceived and used.

Nowhere is that perception more crucial than in a public school setting. We all know about student alienation. We all have heard complaints about parent apathy. We understand that too often administrators, teachers and staff feel overworked and unappreciated.

The answer in building a new school, constructing an addition or renovating an existing structure is to make it welcoming and an integral part of the community. This may sound easy enough, but it means that everyone who has a say-school boards, superintendents, principals, voters who approve school budgets-must sign on to the program.

Positive Developments

Some encouraging signs have emerged. Huge high schools in New York City, for instance, that were built in the 1920s and '30s are now seen as alienating institutions. Mini-schools within the old buildings are cutting these behemoths down to human size.

Experience has led me to the following guiding principles:

* The design of a school should promote social interaction on a human scale.

That doesn't necessarily mean you can't have buildings with sizable populations and high density. But it does mean you need to break down the whole into units where students and those who look after them feel a sense of neighborhood and no one gets lost in the shuffle. With fewer students per class, teachers develop more intimate relationships with pupils and their families. In the ideal situation, schools are self-policing where all teachers know all students.

* The design of a school should welcome community involvement.

More than just parents of current students should be involved in school activities to give the community a stake in a school's success. That means developing a facility where outsiders are greeted and integrated into the life of the building.

* Stop thinking about schools as seasonal or limited-use buildings.

Sufficient air conditioning, for instance, makes it possible to operate in hot weather, and lighting should be adequate for evening use.

* Open facilities to the public.

School areas, such as libraries, gymnasiums and computer labs, should be made available to the public year-round. This can only help encourage the notion that learning is a pleasurable, continuing activity, not something to be endured.

* Construct schools as close as possible to the center of town rather than on the outskirts.

The point is to prevent a sense of isolation among those who work and study there. They should feel they're at the vital heart of their community. There's a compelling reason to believe that violence, vandalism and poor performance tend to diminish in a school that's seen as the center of its community.

Open-Minded Attitudes

I'm currently working on additions to two elementary schools in Westchester County, N.Y., that include new libraries, cafeterias and classrooms. These structures can serve as separate mini-schools, operating independently and preventing the oppressive sense of an institution grown so large that people get lost.

An addition to another school features a new library, gymnasium/multipurpose room and classrooms that will function independently and will allow for community basketball, community theater and community access to the library.

This trend is catching on in urban schools, too. Assignments I've undertaken in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens provide similar amenities.

A safe and effective design means much more than eliminating elements like sinister blind corridors or dimly lit stairwells. There must be a genuine desire to transform those schools that have an institutional, industrial feel into places where people of widely disparate ages and life experiences eagerly want to share in the excitement of learning.

So how do we combat the inertia that besets school systems just as it does other large bureaucracies? Enlightened leadership by school boards and administrators is an absolute necessity. They must be willing to invite architects and designers to think in new ways. They must be willing and eager to invite the public to view these proposals and be open to suggestions.

Imagine a situation where principals, teachers and staff members are consulted about their work environment and students, parents and others feel like insiders in the design process.

If there is a general perception that the community has a significant say in how their schools will look and function, the battle is well on its way to being won.

John Ciardullo is principal of John Ciardullo Associates, an architectural firm, at 221 West 57th St., 9th Floor, New York, N.Y. 10019. E-mail: