Creating Learning Environments That Work

Founded in 1895, Walnut Hills High School in Cincinnati, Ohio, has more than 100 years of tradition as a public college preparatory school with a classical liberal arts curriculum that turned out a long list of distinguished alumni. Admission to this six-year school, encompassing grades 7-12, requires students to pass an entrance exam. Current enrollment is approximately 1,900, and student scores on Ohio’s proficiency tests regularly rank among the highest in the state.

The school had science labs dating back to when the current building was constructed in 1931, art rooms located in the basement of the building and minimal computers with no Internet access. In 1993 voters defeated a school levy that would have given them the necessary funding to improve the facilities.

When the school’s centennial was celebrated in 1995, its Parents Board decided that a major capital fundraiser should be undertaken. A feasibility study was done among alumni and found there was support for such a project. In October of that year, they established the Alumni Foundation and created a committee to do a needs assessment. The assessment was conducted over several months among teachers, students, parents, staff and alumni to determine the most critical needs of the school.

The overwhelming opinion, says Deborah Heldman, executive director of the Walnut Hills High School Alumni Foundation, was that the science and art facilities were in most dire need of replacement. Classroom space alone was an issue, and the school had some 20-30 temporary classrooms on the school’s property. “It looked like an army barracks. We decided we didn’t want another generation to have to learn in inadequate facilities,” Heldman says.

At the outset, the price tag for the new center was estimated at $12 million. Community support for the Arts & Science Center was strong enough that a local bank loaned the school $8.5 million based on in-hand cash and pledges totaling $4 million. This allowed them to start construction approximately a year before originally planned and bring the center in under the initial estimate.

Assessing Needs and Raising Expectations

The decision to construct an arts and sciences facility was predicated on the school’s classical liberal arts curriculum, Heldman says. The combination of those disciplines seemed the most natural match. “We took the two areas that needed the most creative space,” says Walnut Hills High School Principal Marvin Koenig.

According to Held- man, a nationwide search for an architectural firm to design the building “ended up in our own backyard” with the selection of Hamilton, Ohio-based Steed-Hammond-Paul, Inc. The architects were charged with creating a “world-class” arts and sciences center that would embrace five main goals: to increase hands-on learning; to incorporate new and future technology; to provide an indoor-outdoor learning experience; to create flexibility for interdisciplinary learning; and to blend with the existing architecture of the old building.

Richard Thomas, a principal of Steed-Hammond-Paul and vice president and director of design and operations, says the design process involved determining the relationship of the classrooms to the school’s curriculum, as well as studying the relationships between teachers, between students and between teachers and students. They also talked to the trustees of the school for input as to what they viewed as the school’s goals for the project.

Groups were taken to visit other arts and sciences facilities, particularly on the college and university level, to see what could be possible for inclusion in the new building. When visiting other facilities was difficult or prohibitive, representatives from those schools, such as Harvard University, were brought to Walnut Hills to give presentations.

In addition, teachers were asked about their vision for the school. According to Heldman, getting them to think beyond the basics, such as science labs having working sinks with running water, was a challenge. Some mentioned having enough outlets to plug in extension cords. “In a $10.5-million building, we weren’t going to have extension cords,” she says.

All teachers had to do was come to the design meetings, make suggestions or requests, and they got what they asked for, Heldman explains. Classrooms in the new building, for the most part, were designed to the teachers’ specifications.

Concrete Planning

The 59,000-square-foot Arts & Science Center reflects the Jeffersonian brick architecture of the original school structure with which it physically interconnects, while employing modern construction techniques and materials. “A building ought to be built in the language of the time,” Thomas explains.

Although the interior of the building has fixed walls, it was designed with an eye toward change, to meet future needs. All load-bearing walls are on the outside; the interior walls are steel framed. This allows for relatively inexpensive modification or renovation of the interior space, says Thomas.

The old building has traditional dark colors with white trim, while the new center is decorated in earth tones, such as soft green, variations of beige and light terra cotta. The glass curtain wall overlooking the rear courtyard, which is the school’s Center for Outdoor Learning, brings the outside in and the inside outdoors, promoting visual communication, Thomas explains. Natural light is available in all classrooms, supplementing the standard fluorescent lighting fixtures.

According to Koenig, a great deal of attention was paid to details, such as lighting in the stairwells of the two-story structure, glossy paint on the walls for ease of cleaning and limited building access after hours. He comments that, between school hours, after-school activities and community events, the school is in use about 18 hours a day, seven days a week.

With such extensive use, durability was an issue. Carpeting was limited to the open gathering area, called the Forum, and to teacher workrooms. Vinyl tile is used in the classrooms and hallways because of its economy, wear and ease of maintenance, Thomas says.

The Arcade, which serves as an interior, cross-campus thoroughfare, is tiled with brick pavers. That area needed to be hard enough to withstand almost anything, including football players’ spikes or the occasional student who decides to go through on a skateboard, Koenig jokingly remarks.

The two-story-high Forum is located at the center of the building and can hold about 90 students, Thomas says. The open space is designed as a presentation area, which has lighting that can be controlled by dimmer switches and is wired to accommodate full video and audio.

Lining the hallways on either side of the Forum are lighted display cases for exhibiting various works. Cases on the lower floor house student-created art objects and the upper floor cases are used for science displays.

The center is home to the life sciences, chemistry and physics classrooms and labs, as well as art studios, honors classrooms, math/science and computer labs. Rooms are fitted with solid wood cabinetry and built-in locking storage.

According to Thomas, due to teacher preference, pairs of chemistry classrooms, with traditional student seating, share an interconnected chemistry lab. Life science teachers, however, requested combined classrooms/laboratories. Those are furnished with student lab tables that can be reconfigured to create work islands. All science classrooms are equipped with teacher demonstration tables.

The four art studios do not have the drop, acoustical-tiled ceilings of the regular classrooms. Instead, they are about 15 feet high, allowing clearance for the creation of larger projects such as statues or robots. Teachers have small desks and students use either individual drafting stations or six-student tables, depending upon the type of work.

A computer studio allows students to employ animation graphics, which, Koenig says, is useful in creating some of their award-winning robot designs. Photography students have larger darkrooms than before. One darkroom can hold an entire class and the other about eight students.

Six honors classrooms are included in the center, four of which have moveable partitions that can be opened to create two large classrooms for interdisciplinary studies.

In the two teacher work areas, one for science, the other for art, each teacher has his or her own individual workspace with its own computer and telephone. There are also conference areas for group planning.

The Arts & Science Center opened in October 1999, early and on budget, Heldman brags.

Kudos and Catching Up

The single largest impact of the new center, says Jeffrey Lazar, teacher and Science Department chair, is technology. There are more computerized devices than ever before, giving students the opportunity to gather more data for learning from elements such as the roof-top weather station and the outdoor laboratory.

Another major improvement is more and more up-to-date safety equipment, says Lazar. Better fume hoods in the chemistry labs protect students while conducting experiments, and there are more shower and eye wash stations available.

Koenig adds that the new center has enabled the school to increase course offerings. Starting with the 2001-02 school year, Walnut Hills will be offering the same introduction to engineering course currently offered at Ohio State University. He also notes that students now are able to spend more learning time in the laboratories than before.

The facilities, however, are not yet being used to the fullest capacity, remarks Koenig. He explains that the school’s teachers have to educate themselves to use the new technology available.

“The leadership really comes from the students in the classroom,” Koenig says.

Robbin Rittner-Heir is a Dayton-based freelance writer with experience in education issue.