I have been working with a community wondering what to do with its last remaining“open” elementary school. The building is 40 years old and in need of upgrading and repairs to its infrastructure, including HVAC and electrical service. The carpeting is showing signs of wear, the“windowless” design is no longer acceptable and storage is a major concern.

Though the years, changes have been made to the building. The original open space was compromised with “temporary” walls that identify the space of classrooms and cut down on the visual distractions of an open school. But, since they do not go to the ceiling and are not of solid construction, noise still passes from space to space. And, the original HVAC design has been disrupted.

The prevailing thought among parents is that the building ought to be divided into individual classrooms. But interviews with teachers show ambivalence towards that plan. While some teachers wanted rooms of their own “with a door I can close,” the majority (and even some who wanted to close their door) praised the fact that the existing school encouraged working together, grade-level projects, a free-flow among students and teachers, and provided spaces where each grade (about 100 student) could meet, talk and plan without interfering with others.

To me, what was remarkable was the easy flow of students and the fact that groups of them were able to find space to sit or lie on the floor and work undisturbed by adults and other students. The activity around them did not distract them.

Like some of the teachers, I was disturbed by ambient noise from room to room and lack of storage — not only are coats and backpacks strewn around, but teachers must go looking for materials because there was no place to keep them in their rooms.

So, there are problems with the building, but there are also strengths that should be maintained and would be lost if the space was simply cut into a series of standard single rooms. Among those noted are the following.

The library, a huge, open space (more than 6,000 sq. ft) that dominates the center of the building and invites students to interact with materials also provides individual study space, group meeting areas and instructional rooms.

Twelve-ft.-wide carpeted corridors allow two and three classes to pass easily, providing excellent space to display student work and keep the building warm and quiet.

Large art and music rooms include storage and are in the heart of the school, adjacent to the library. These rooms were designed as separated areas and have worked extremely well.

The classrooms are almost all 960 sq. ft. Teachers who wanted closed doors did not want them at the expense of the space they now enjoy.

Students and teachers can move freely from room to room so that students can be quickly grouped and teachers can meet, interact, speak and plan while maintaining supervision of their groups. This free-flow between rooms also makes it possible to assemble larger groups for presentations on the spur of the moment.

I don’t know what is going to be done with this school. The infrastructure must be repaired, replaced and brought up to date. Storage problems must be addressed, and there are a number of specific spaces that need improvement. But the biggest challenge for the architect is going to be providing more classrooms with doors without losing the camaraderie and opportunities for working together that the open school provided.

The open school concept did not work as planned, but modern teaching calls for teaming, cooperation, interdisciplinary teaching, formation of large and small groups, and many other techniques that need flexible open spaces to work properly. It would be a shame if, in attempting to upgrade an existing open school, architects lose what was attractive and good and turn the space into a series of little private boxes. It would be akin to “throwing out the baby with the bath water.

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."