Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

Decent Facilities and Learning: Thirman A. Milner Elementary School and Beyond

by Cynthia L. Uline - 2000

As we face America’s deteriorating school buildings, we also face an opportunity to advance overall educational goals. This article considers the possibilities inherent in designing, constructing, and renovating schools when participants apply a perspective that balances science with the art of constructing, and renovating schools. The author advances an expanded notion of “decent” schools, one that accounts for the internal dimension of human experience, a dimension we know to be necessary to all interaction and learning. The circumstances of one urban elementary school in Hartford, Connecticut, its renovations, additions and history provide a case in point. The article reviews the research that relates building design and condition to learning and suggests strategies for reinvigorating the design process. The author contends that the possibilities introduced are inherent in all school building projects, no matter the size, geography, affluence or demographics of a district.

As we face America’s deteriorating school buildings, we also face an opportunity to advance overall educational goals. This article considers the possibilities inherent in designing, constructing, and renovating schools when participants apply a perspective that balances science with the art of constructing and renovating schools. The author advances an expanded notion of “decent” schools, one that accounts for the internal dimension of human experience, a dimension we know to be necessary to all interaction and learning. The circumstances of one urban elementary school in Hartford, Connecticut, its renovations, additions, and history, provide a case in point. The article reviews the research that relates building design and condition to learning and suggests strategies for reinvigorating the design process. The author contends that the possibilities introduced are inherent in all school building projects, no matter the size, geography, affluence, or demographics of a district.


Public schools face a challenge they cannot ignore. A 1989 Education Writers Association report found 21 percent of U.S. schools to be fifty years old or older with another 50 percent of U.S. schools built in the 1950s and 60s. The report estimated that these aging schools required $84 billion dollars in new construction and retrofitting.1 A recent U.S. General Accounting Office report places the figure at $112 billion.2 The report, “School Facilities: Condition of America’s Schools” characterizes the need as follows:

A number of state courts as well as Congress have recognized that a high-quality learning environment is essential to educating the nation’s children. Crucial to establishing that learning environment is that children attend school in decent facilities. “Decent facilities” was specifically defined by one court as those that are “ . . . structurally safe, contain fire safety measures, sufficient exits, an adequate and safe water supply, an adequate sewage disposal system, sufficient and sanitary toilet facilities and plumbing fixtures, adequate storage, adequate light, be in good repair and attractively painted as well as contain acoustics for noise control. . . .” More recently, the Congress passed the Education Infrastructure Act of 1994. . . . Despite these efforts, . . . many public elementary and secondary schools are in substandard condition.3

While we debate the virtues of national testing and standards, decentralized administration, vouchers, alternative assessment techniques, and private investment in public education, sooner or later we must face the condition of the environment within which these activities will or will not take place, because in some schools, the roof is literally falling down.4 A recent American Society of Civil Engineers report judged the condition of America’s schools as worse than the country’s highways, subways, and bridges.5 In response to these grave assessments, the Clinton administration is seeking to provide federal aid, earmarking the projected tobacco litigation settlement as a possible source of funds.6 Whether or not communities receive support beyond local tax dollars, it is safe to conclude that a majority of school administrators, students, parents, taxpayers, and communities will be asked to confront the issue of school construction.

As educators, it is incumbent upon us to consider how we conduct ourselves in meeting this challenge. We can be passive, allowing events to proceed and accept whatever outcomes occur. We can plan with an eye on making it through construction and/or renovation quickly so to avoid inconvenience. But there is another alternative and that is to learn as much as we can for purposes of engaging creatively and utilizing the event of construction for furthering learning objectives and advancing overall educational goals.

This article takes the circumstances of one urban elementary school in Hartford, Connecticut, its history, renovations, and additions, as a case in point and as a point of departure for a discussion about the quality and decency of the environments we provide for learning.

Thirman L. Milner is a largely unremarkable American school building. Constructed in 1924, it is one of thirty-two schools in the city of Hartford. It is neither the oldest nor the most historically noteworthy, and although some maintain its physical condition places it among the worst in the city, certainly it is not alone in this regard. In fact, the statistics suggest Milner is representative of many other schools across the country, and Jeffrey Hayden’s recent film, Children in America’s Schools, vividly depicts other such representative schools, these in the state of Ohio, contrasting the best with the worst.

This article begins with a synopsis of the recent construction activities at Milner and then places these activities within the larger context of building design, considering both the scientific and artistic dimensions of the endeavor. Next, the article reviews the research that relates building design to learning, revealing both the scientific and artistic dimensions as present and necessary components within this dynamic. Finally, strategies for reinvigorating the dialogue are suggested, with specific methods for tapping the collective knowledge of educators, design professionals, and community members, making the exchange of particular knowledge each possesses integral to the larger planning process.

But first, what makes for a good and decent school? The question is too rarely asked, and yet, as with all questions, is so important in its capacity to define and clarify our intentions, to set a tone and mark a course of action. And, if physical environment is as essential as the courts declare and the research demonstrates, such deliberations should be requisite to any building effort. Thus far, we are competent at issuing obligation bonds, managing debt, supervising bidding, and managing construction. This knowledge has the convenience of being discrete and accessible, and has been well documented by leading authorities on school facilities planning.7 In addition to the availability of practical writings, school administrators can consult with district solicitors, business managers, and often state architects. Some districts now have facilities planners responsible for directing these matters. But what of those elements that are less discrete, less definable, yet equally important to creating quality environments for learning? How do educators come to know about and understand these elements? As a crucial first step we need to adjust our point of view as we determine the meaning of decent facilities.


Like so many America schools, Thirman L. Milner has suffered as a result of shortsighted maintenance and repair policies.8 Understanding the reasons for these policies and the school district’s inability and/or unwillingness to change them requires that we consider recent developments and events within the Hartford Public School District.

Hartford, Connecticut, covers eighteen and a half square miles and is home to 140,000 people. The city stands at the center of a twenty-nine town metropolitan area, encompassing 1,500 square miles and a million people. Hartford is the state’s capital and its poorest city. When one compares the incomes of Hartford’s citizens with those of residents in surrounding communities, the disparity is greater than in any other city in America.9

The Hartford Public School District educates 25,500 students. Two-thirds live in poverty and one-third are bilingual or special education students. These students’ scores are the lowest in the state on the Connecticut Mastery Test. Since 1985, Hartford has had the highest percentage of students below remedial standards. Only 7 percent attained the state goal for reading performance in 1995. Only 11 percent met the goal for math and 13 percent for writing. A higher percentage of Hartford’s students drop out of school before they graduate than do the students in any other Connecticut school district.

The Hartford Public School District has struggled a decade or more through significant financial and management crises. In May 1996, following the failure of an experiment in “contracting out” the management of its thirty-two schools, the mayor declared a state of emergency in Hartford’s public schools. By June of that year, the state of Connecticut was initiating an unusual partnership with the city that would result in a top-to-bottom review of the school district, and a subsequent list of forty-eight recommendations for improvement. Less than a year later, in April 1997, the state of Connecticut seized control of the district.

Meanwhile, the school buildings within the district continue to deteriorate. For too many years school building maintenance, repairs, and construction have taken a back seat. Finally the physical condition of Thirman Milner could no longer be tolerated.

A school building is the physical site for teaching and learning. As such, it stands as a testimony to our commitment regarding these endeavors. That Thirman Milner exists signals a paucity of such commitment. Yet this has not always been the case. Constructed in 1924, Thirman L. Milner was designed and built in era with a different point of view regarding school as a public enterprise. Its lofty parapets, columns, and iron-gated vestibules reflect the 1920s sentiment that schools should be built as monuments to education. By contemporary sensibilities, this may have little to do with the children who would both inhabit and inherit them, and yet the building’s high ceilings and wide spaces do lend a sense of majesty. In spite of the school’s needs, the volume of each room and the wash of natural light give an abundance of air and a feeling of grandness, keeping Milner a habitable place for learning in spite of everything. The fact is, this school was built with an attention to the immaterial, the spiritual, the affective.

I first arrived on a day in February 1995 in the company of a contractor preparing to bid on asbestos abatement and lead paint removal in preparation for renovation. Once that work was complete, plans called for a three-story, 17,000-square-foot addition to the existing 60,000-square-foot, three-story school. New construction will include classrooms, kitchen, and cafeteria. Renovations to the existing school would include roofing, structural re-abatement, cabinetry, and window and door retrofit.10

Our first view of Thirman L. Milner Elementary School was of the north side, looking south from Vine Street. The facade is brick, concrete, and glass. A parapet, notched at the corners, adorns the roof line. Three stories of windows are stacked over each other, tall and rectangular. The third story windows arch and with each ascending story, the windows increase in height. Concrete pilasters project from the brick facade filling the verticals between windows. The pilasters appear to support the parapet and at the corners pass into its face, integrating with the notches. At the northwest corner of the building, at ground level, is an arch with a wrought iron gate opening into a vestibule. A similar gated entry at the southwest corner is closed off. One can imagine not a school, but a castle, perhaps the pennants just struck, the knights asleep in their beds.

We circle the building, along chain link fence, to a rear lot. On the west end of the building is an overgrown school yard, littered with cans, broken bottles, a rain soaked mattress. Here plans call for trees, shrubs, benches, and playground equipment. In the rear lot are modular classrooms to accommodate students who make this building project necessary. Across the street, the neighborhood is public housing.

We enter through a back entrance, climbing stairs to the first floor. The walls in the stairwell are cracked and peeling. Down the hall, a garbage can catches water dripping through the ceiling. According to the architect’s plans for Milner, stairwells, hallways, ceilings, and some classrooms contain defective lead paint and asbestos based floor tiles. So that school might continue, the building is divided into three phases of construction with each phase conducted under full containment. Along with the environmental abatement, the plans call for extensive structural re-abatement: foundation, framing, roofing. Mechanicals will also be brought up to codes—plumbing, heating, fire, and electrical.

Thirman L. Milner has already passed its seventh decade. The thirteen-foot ceilings, wide corridors, oak millwork, and moveable transoms compose the environment experienced by children, teachers, and administrators for over seventy years. Sunlight floods through the windows animating classrooms and articulating the forms within. There are murals, small green plants, clay sculptures, and mobiles suspended more airily than a modern school can approach. Student work adorns the walls and brightly colored tempera art is everywhere. The classrooms are twenty-four by thirty feet, with space to move in and room for a variety of desk configurations.

How is it that we have moved from a time when the schools we built were significant, even monumental, to a time when we resist establishing even the most minimum standards of quality for our public schools? In so many we continue to justify the violation of basic health and safety codes, because the doors must be ready to open each Monday morning. We tell ourselves that teachers’ simple classrooms should suffice, lead-based paint, asbestos, and overcrowdedness notwithstanding. We have allowed our schools to fall into a state of disrepair we would not accept in the places where we work, eat, recreate, or shop. Many maintain that the only concerns and solutions are of a fiscal nature. In discussions of capital outlay and facilities planning, we must stick to tough-minded concerns while ideas of comfort, beauty and imagination are regarded as esoteric, pretentious, and expensive. Still, if we wish our schools to support community values and be centers of excellence, perhaps it is time to seek a more thoughtful balance. In minimizing the importance of what might be termed internal concerns, perhaps we are denying communities an invigorating and engaging opportunity.

One need only look at schools in a more affluent school district to consider the importance of these internal concerns. What efforts beyond the minimum do we see that we might consider frivolous or self-indulgent? Esoteric? Pretentious? What of their efforts beyond the minimum do we deem unnecessary and even ostentatious? No doubt there are many, and yet to discount all makes us smugly indifferent to culture and possibility. Common sense tells us that these taxpayers are no more intent on wasting money than the people of a less affluent school district. Being content with commonplace ideas is all well and good, but too often we allow such thinking to foreshorten creativity and set aside that which is in the realm of the abstract. Perhaps it is time to initiate the dialogue about quality and decency in a forum that reaches beyond the parameters of isolated local communities.


Architecture at its most fundamental is the art and science of designing and erecting buildings. It is the design and creation of stable structures that meet the practical and aesthetic needs of people. But when it comes to designing and building schools, we have yet to arrive at some reasonable balance between the art and science of the endeavor.


Today we build schools to human dimensions: a body’s length, width, and mass, with considerations for perceiving space and moving through it, for how we reach, sit, walk, and interact. For example, the average person takes up one foot, eight inches of space when standing and two feet, five and a half inches when sitting. On average, three people standing together occupy five feet, seven inches of space, while one person in a wheelchair may require up to six and a half feet.11

Add to these dimensions the distance covered by an outstretched arm, the length of a stride, the momentum accomplished with each turn of a wheelchair’s wheels. How we engineer the shape of a room, the width of a hallway, the rise of a ramp are determined by human dimensions. These change according to activity, age, and gender and from one individual to another, but it is nevertheless an understanding of the body’s structures and functions that directs our plans for enclosing the spaces we inhabit. This is to say, we build our schools around ourselves.

These dimensions are averages we depend on in designing and building. We would not think to build to dimensions outside our physical nature. We would not assume to build functional space that requires cautious use. For reasons of safety and efficiency, ease of motion and accessibility, we require a fit. By seeing schools as built from the interior out, rather than from the exterior in, we enhance our point of view, placing the needs, activities, behaviors, and requirements of the occupants on equal footing in any discussion of design.

As schools are built to human dimensions, they are also built to particular structural, mechanical, and technical specifications. Building codes are the rules that regulate capacity, specify materials, and direct travel inside and outside a building. Codes establish requirements for heating, ventilation, plumbing, sewage, lights, and alarms. Codes, like human dimensions, vary and change, only here the changes depend on advances in materials, technology, geography, and legislation. For example, a seismic rating might be upgraded or sprinkler systems may become more advanced.

Building codes are the formal expression of human need, expectation, and capacity. They are based on the decisions of an informed citizenry and enforced by responsible agencies; they exist for reasons of health and safety; they are the application of knowledge born of observation, experience, testing, and consensus. We know they are effective, consequently we use them. Yet it must be acknowledged that, for instance, in the state of Ohio it would take over $10 billion to bring the schools up to minimum codes for health and safety.12 In failing to see these efforts as fundamentally of human dimension, we see them as burdensome and onerous and, therefore, continue a cycle of minimum commitment.


As stated earlier, we build to accommodate ourselves, but we also build beyond ourselves, casting backward and reaching forward in time. American philosopher John Dewey writes that “architecture . . . expresses . . . enduring values of collective human life.”13 Educator and scholar J. W. Getzels suggests “our visions of human nature find expression in the buildings we construct.”14 We have expectations beyond the commonplace, expectations more subtle, more abstract. A building is a creation and we have discretion in its coming to exist.

Call these dimensions that reside within, internal dimensions. They exist within us all and demonstrate themselves in many ways. This is evident in the earlier intention that schools be built as monuments to education, and the more recent manifestation of the fire codes we have developed. People dying in a fire is simply not acceptable to us. Whether it is the statement our buildings make or the safety we require of them, both efforts well up from deep motivations.

Warmth, sanitation, potable water—all of these we require for the sake of their results. These dimensions within are intellectual, emotional, and aesthetic. They are based on experience, perception, judgment, reasoning, feeling, and volition. These dimensions are most often called the cognitive and affective, and we have come to accept them as vital to the learning process, as we now systematically measure intelligence, achievement, and personality. When it comes to learning, measuring the internal is accepted practice, and yet, in the context of building schools, discussion of the immaterial, even in the face of strong data, arouses suspicion and incites controversy.

A school building sends a message to its occupants and to the community beyond. In a study of exemplary schools in America and Japan, Hawkins and Overbaugh discovered that increased learning takes place in schools where the architecture reflects community values and thus is a source of citizen pride.15

The physical structure of a school building introduces children to forms and ideas outside the range of their experience. When planner/designers are willing “to make judgments based on the overall quality of a facility rather than [mere] adherence to myriad individual standards,” school buildings, as structures, begin to provoke thought and encourage learning just as powerfully as they protect occupants from the elements.16

If they have done their job well, planners/designers have even considered the relationships between spaces within the building. The aim should be a synthesis of program maximizing a unity of form and purpose. If carefully conceived, the separate spaces will reinforce each other physically and aesthetically. They will contain the best of the past, make safe the present, and be flexible enough to accommodate the future. These internal dimensions are as important to the design process as any other dimensions or concerns, and yet these considerations come to the table quietly, if they come at all.

It is worth noting that in Hawkins and Overbaugh’s (1988) study of American and Japanese schools “[c]leanliness and care were most important rather than cost or ostentation.”17 Significant schools need not be expensive. Any good architect can show how aesthetic qualities are not necessarily cost prohibitive and Hawkins and Overbaugh’s research bears this out.


As practitioners and researchers we often talk about values and emotion, symbolism and identity, often as the very foundation of our work, but then we follow with a weaker discourse. It is not that we ignore these internal concerns. On the contrary, scholars of educational facilities planning acknowledge them for their powerful and subtle force, their ability to make for success or failure.

Likewise, the Council of Educational Facilities Planners International and the American Institute of Architects continue to encourage dialogue, publishing articles on the relationship between the quality of physical space and learning, and the value of bringing architects and educators together to discuss the implications.18

Even the courts’ own minimum definition of a “decent facility” includes mention of aesthetic qualities such as light, sound, and color. How do we examine the connection between these qualities of the physical environment and various educational experiences? Have we demonstrated a connection? There are many who rightfully demand evidence that one exists. New ways of conceiving, building, and occupying schools will require new information.

A significant body of research does exists and has been reviewed elsewhere.19 The scholarship blends sociology, psychology, architecture, along with education. Subjects of inquiry included color, light, acoustics, size, and dimension.

Researchers have studied various architectural features and the effects each has on behavior. Berlyne studied complexity, novelty, surprise, and beauty and how these qualities stimulate exploratory behavior on the part of building occupants. Berlyne found that interest and involvement increased as stimulus complexity increased within a reasonable range.20 His theoretical framework was then applied to educational settings for young children. Kritchevsky and Prescott conducted a three-year case study of preschools. Their data link spatial quality in the physical environment with teacher and student engagement. As stated by Kritchevsky and Prescott:

Where spatial quality was low, children were less likely to be involved and interested, and teachers were more likely to be neutral or insensitive in their manner. . . . The higher the quality of space . . . the more likely were teachers to be sensitive and friendly in their manner toward children, to encourage [them].21

In a study of the Washington, D.C., public schools, Berner demonstrated that a building’s physical condition is statistically related to students’ academic achievement. A committee of experts including engineers, architects, and maintenance staff rated buildings poor, fair, or excellent according to their overall physical condition. Raters evaluated roofs, ceilings and walls, heating and electrical systems, and bathroom facilities. Berner’s findings indicate that the physical state of a school is one effective predictor of student achievement. Her analysis reflects high significance and parameter estimates. Data suggest that as schools move from poor to fair, average achievement scores can be expected to increase by 5.455 points, while improvement from poor to excellent results in a 10.9 point increase.22

Scholars have studied building age and upkeep and how these influence student achievement, attitude, and behavior.23 Bowers and Burkett compared groups of students in two rural Tennessee elementary schools, the newest and the oldest buildings in the district. Both student groups were determined to be from similar socioeconomic levels based on the percentage qualifying for free and reduced lunch. Teachers and administrators were comparable in terms of certification level, age, and experience. The new school was described as well equipped, with attention to acoustics, color schemes, and furniture selection, while no such efforts were visible in the old building. Data revealed that students attending the new school outperformed their peers in the older school on all available measures of achievement.24

Researchers have considered such environmental props and the impact they have on social interaction.25 Worchel and Teddlie found that props such as pictures improved students’ performance on word tasks.26 Santrock linked similar embellishments with students’ persistence at motor tasks.27

Further, the research considers what has been called hard versus soft environments. Hard environments refer to those physical spaces that may resist human imprint and are unresponsive and unyielding. Soft environments are more flexible and responsive, characterized by warm colors, soft furniture, and textured floor coverings. Researchers have attempted to show how these affect student participation and interaction.28 Sommer and Olsen discovered that students participated more in class discussions when they were in “soft” rooms. Students also rated their classrooms significantly higher when soft features were added. Of course, this is not to suggest that colorful props and small comforts will compensate for gross structural inadequacies. The students and teachers of Thirman L. Milner, for instance, should not have to make do. Still, these sorts of low-cost improvements are available to all schools and are too often absent even in state-of-the-art facilities.

The link between all these elements and achievement as an outcome is less conclusive. The research does suggest that these qualities of physical space affect self-esteem, peer and student-teacher interactions, discipline, attention, motivation, and interpersonal relations.29 And many researchers, including Weinstein and Moore and Lackney, maintain these “prosocial behaviors” ultimately effect academic achievement. McGuffey identifies a number of studies that utilize stepwise multiple regression to examine the possibility of a more direct relationship between building condition and student performance on standardized tests.30 In most cases, students in newer buildings scored higher. These studies along with the more recent research conducted by Berner and Bowers and Burkett suggest that there may be a more direct link between the quality of the physical environment and student achievement.

Still, any empirical research must be sympathetic to the dynamics of how these experiences influence behavior. Clearly, quantifiable correlations between such personal and discrete experiences and the learning of traditional subject matter, across student aggregates, may not be attainable. We may need to entertain and weigh other sorts of evidence, including the experiential, philosophical, and historical.31 Strange to suggest that little is known about adult preferences for architectural features such as ceiling height, wall angles, and color schemes, and even less is known about such preferences in children.32 So rather than attempting to measure achievement outright, researchers might explore some measures of perception and orientation, of aesthetic preference and appreciation, as mediating variables.33 Nevertheless it is provocative to think about how little is known as to preferences when we all certainly have them.


The practical and the aesthetic are unnecessarily at odds when we consider school facilities design; school leaders who advocate for reconciliation face an uphill battle. Energizing the community and securing taxpayer support requires a clear articulation of need. Administrators must place the needs and requirements of their schools’ occupants before the public in a manner that demonstrates knowledge and confidence and in turn encourages the public to be fully engaged.

An informed dialogue that more adequately addresses both the external and the internal, the practical as well as the aesthetic dimensions of school architecture, will assist them in this task.

The way a community goes about building a school helps to determine the quality of the finished structure, helps to determine whether or not that structure will continue to inspire that same community over time. The act of building a school sets a tone for years to come.34

Teachers, administrators, and community members must join together in answering some important questions: What makes a school significant? How do we know when a school’s physical structure reinforces the established goals of teaching and learning? Do we understand why certain spaces work and others do not? Such a dialogue can begin tomorrow without costing a dime.


Henry Sanoff, an architect and professor of architecture at North Carolina State University, Raleigh, has twenty-five years’ experience with school communities in the United States and abroad. He writes that a “responsive school” requires those who actually dwell in the space be part of the planning process—teachers, students, staff, community members. He advocates participation by building users at several stages in the planning process and is convinced that “only a process that allows face-to-face contact between users and those who influence the decisions can result in a sense of ownership in the process and project.”35

Design teams, composed of informed users, must first document the existing conditions of a problem, define its context, and collect relevant data. Any solution will be linked to how the problem is perceived, defined, and articulated. The people who will live in a school must be the ones to undertake the work of determining outcomes and crafting the means to reach them, and even then the process must be ongoing as new staff is hired and new students are enrolled.

A beginning to such an outcome can be as modest as a field trip to the school. How is it that the water comes to bubble from the fountain? Where is the furnace and how efficiently does it do its job? Does the entrance invite people inside? How do classrooms vary, if they do? Is the roof leaking? Do the bathroom fixtures work? Occupants come to know and understand their school, both for its strengths and its limitations. Remember, most teachers and administrators are already facing these very issues.

Administrators can encourage teachers to describe learning activities in terms of physical features and spatial requirements. Using open-ended questions and discussing the performance of spaces for learning will serve to open the dialogue. According to Sanoff, “Basically it requires asking simple questions of who, what, where, how and when.”36 Such place-specific descriptions begin to “illuminate how interaction, communication, and consequently learning happens within space, takes up space, utilizes or fails to utilize space.”37

These simple activities develop understandings about a school building from a variety of perspectives. They are proactive. Each connects the activity of learning with the place of learning, encouraging commitment to both. When we grow conscious of both the external and internal dimensions of a school building and how each affects learning, we begin to make informed design decisions that will continue to support our larger educational goals.

Any evaluation of present facilities needs to incorporate the knowledge and experience of teachers, students, and staff and can be accessed through interviews, surveys, and walk-throughs as described, as well as use-flow diagrams and real-time studies.38

Initiating such activity creates the necessary conditions for drafting educational specifications. These specifications are the written communication from owner to design professional describing the educational activities that a new or renovated school should accommodate, and they are vital to any facilities planning process.

Early on in the process, community involvement is important for reasons of exchanging information and building community ownership over the project. The convening of public forums and planning workshops is more efficient than relying on information gathered piecemeal. They allow for the identity of points of consensus as well as points of conflict and make the design and planning solution “transparent so that decisions are understood by the people who made them.”39


The way a building is conceived and intended may have a role in its future life. This process of linking physical environment to pedagogical theory, of joining the community’s aspirations with the educator’s expertise and the architect’s vision, frames the essential lesson of participatory design. The result: a school building that will continue to support and inspire its students and teachers and the community beyond, a school building where subsequent renovations and additions are carried out in the spirit of continuity and coherence.

Articulating the complementary dimensions of design, explaining how each is applied and holding to an environment of concrete inquiry, based on experiences of the participants, plays a vital role. Architects are already willing to engage in what Sanoff calls participatory design techniques:

1. Participants engage in a goal setting process where the outcomes are learning activities structured to meet each goal. The architect supplies photographs of these different learning activities. Teachers and other building users work in small groups pinning the photographs to a campus plan and explaining the reasons for their choices.40

2. In another activity, the architect prepares alternative plans and models for discussion with teachers, who record their likes and dislikes on a visual rating scale.41

3. Likewise, John McKinley, a San Diego architect, seeks “interactive planning” when he is involved in a project. He uses a brainstorming process called “gaming.” Participants use paper shapes, drawings, and computer models to envision how the various spaces and building features might best relate to one another. He then uses these rudimentary plans to develop a design schematic.42

4. As another example, Ohio architects Steed, Hammon Paul promote “The School House of Quality.” In this process, they use ten-person focus groups, with each group representing a different constituency group within the community. These groups are asked to identify what they value in school and in community, perhaps parent involvement, acknowledgment of children’s individual strengths, or cooperation. Based on these findings, surveys are developed that tap larger samples of each constituent group. The results are used to determine what the community at large values and this knowledge then informs the school design process. Associate Vice President of Steed, Hammon Paul Architects, Inc., Lauren B. Della Bella suggests:

With this process, you have to change the way you think about a building. You eliminate [the] temptation to say “I want 12 electrical outlets in a classroom” and instead talk about alleviating students’ frustrations with the learning process.43

Within all of these strategies the intention is to work publicly and to maintain this consistently throughout the planning process. At Milner, key participants did not have such advantages. When I last spoke with the building principal, he reported mixed reactions to the renovations and additions. Among the concerns were: the adequacy of new spaces, new color schemes, and the addition of bathrooms, sinks, and countertops taking up valuable cubic footage within classrooms. Mostly he sounded weary of protracted and ongoing disruptions and, not surprisingly, he was skeptical of the commitment that these disruptions would be over when the 1998–99 school year began.

The aim must be for elegant and felicitous communication to prevent disaffection. Participation moves beyond perfunctory advisement, and the active participation that is fostered encourages intellectual engagement. Participation shapes the meaning of the proposed actions and welds commitment to them. The quality of the collective experience influences its outcome and both of these build within participants a desire and a capacity to continue influencing.

And too, it must be acknowledged that there are many complicated realities to confront. This is not a simple case of cause and effect. Participatory design strategies, in and of themselves, do not guarantee success. In the case of Milner the absence of a healthy tax base and the pressures of inflation forced the district to finance the building initiative over two separate bond issues. Passage of the two issues took time and so the project languished over four to five years, with completion not scheduled until August 1998.

Potentially, we can renew the civic commitment necessary for producing decent facilities by identifying school design and construction as a vehicle for enlivened participation. To do so would not be to conceive of a new mechanism to support communities in dialogue, but to rediscover an old one that we have neglected to sustain. The historical context of American school design and construction receives little attention in the current literature on teaching, learning, and administering schools. We rarely discuss how place and pedagogy have conjoined over time, the place of school coming to reflect and to shape the aims of schooling. The cadence of this history reveals episodes of innovation and imagination that have produced notable, unique, and original school buildings, reflecting clear pedagogical intent. Educators, acting both as designers and reformers, succeeded in facilitating the design of these significant schools because they recognized schooling as a shared American experience.

Nineteenth-century American school leader Henry Barnard stands as a prominent example of one educator who combined school design and pedagogy, recognizing the importance of community engagement and commitment. His School Architecture, or Contributions to the Improvement of Schoolhouses in the United States gave voice to his personal crusade for enhancing the quality of America’s schools. As education commissioner for Rhode Island, his assessment of local school buildings, along with reports from several neighboring states, serves as an opening to “one of the most thorough treatises on architectural functionalism in America.”44

Barnard called for the broad dissemination of information on school architecture. His own writings railed against “cheapness of construction” as being “the great governing principle which decides upon [schoolhouse] materials, its forms and all its internal arrangements.” As early as 1848 he was advocating “a schoolhouse . . . well adapted to all the various ends which should be sought, such as the convenience, comfort, and health of pupils, convenience for supervision and conduct of the school, and facilities for the most successful prosecution of study.” As an educator, Barnard understood the connection. And Barnard extends his idea of school beyond its physical place, seating it within the character of community and the nurturing of its commitment to education as a shared interest. He encourages the utilization of tangible and explicit symbols. He writes “the style of the [school building] exterior should exhibit good, architectural proportion, and be calculated to inspire children and the community generally with respect for the object to which it is devoted.”45

It is not surprising that twentieth-century educators should turn to specialists when faced with important decisions. The cost of school buildings alone makes them “natural candidate[s] for expert planning and oversight.”46 The pressure of such a responsibility moves many school leaders to relinquish, or at least share, this one. The nature of the place of learning we too often leave to school architects and facilities planners. And the research that informs the work is set off from the larger body of scholarship on teaching, learning, and educational administration. Yet common sense tells us our inquiry is never so easily compartmentalized. When it comes to questions about teaching and learning and administering, perhaps the mind needs to think about place to inform itself as to the activities that will occur within that place. Certainly this was the case with Barnard, for whom place, pedagogy, and community character were inextricable.

The physical properties of a school building are the tangible context within which teaching and learning take place. They stand before our eyes, concrete and yet highly adaptable.47 We can influence these physical properties practically and artfully in the name of teaching and learning, which are the school’s primary function.


Seventy years ago, when Thirman L. Milner was built, we did not know that the planet Pluto existed. John Scopes was being convicted in Tennessee for teaching evolution. Insulin was unknown to us. The movies were silent and radio broadcasting was just beginning on a regular basis. To the citizenry, an education was ennobling and elevating, and that meant its activities should be housed in a significant structure. The original builders of Thirman L. Milner acted on what they knew to be good.

The current need for construction and renovation is a challenge as well as an opportunity. Along with Thirman L. Milner, one third of America’s schools currently face extensive repairs and others face a replacement of the entire building. We have allowed our schools to fall into a state of disrepair, our communities often being unwilling to accept the burden of school construction and renovation. In minimizing the importance of internal concerns, it has become easier to justify our indifference.

For too many communities, the definition of “decent” facilities remains narrow and miserly. When we do commit to improvements, economy, safety, and access receive the full thrust of our talents, but internal dimensions take a back seat. Yet we have always built with the immaterial in mind. For one era it was the call to the spiritual, school as monument to learning, and today we continue to make declarations regarding the immaterial and in fact do pass codes where we know them to be effective for outcomes we desire. We speak about the value of education and the need to reconceive schools, but the message is often incoherent and inarticulate and so too are the architectural outcomes.

Educators should view the building of a new school or the renovation of an older one as an opportunity to advance reforms.48 If our school buildings are ever to reach their full cognitive and affective potential, we must expand our definition of “decent” to include the immaterial, allowing both the art and the science of school design to support us in articulating larger educational purposes.

CYNTHIA L. ULINE is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Policy and Leadership at Ohio State University. She is, most recently, co-author with Megan Tschannen-Moran and Daniel M. Miller of “School Effectiveness: A Test of a Causal Model” (Educational Administration Quarterly, October 1998).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 102 Number 2, 2000, p. 442-460
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10452, Date Accessed: 5/19/2022 8:42:39 AM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Article Tools
Related Articles

Related Discussion
Post a Comment | Read All

About the Author
  • Cynthia Uline
    Ohio State University
    E-mail Author
    Cynthia L. Uline is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Policy and Leadership at the Ohio State University. Her most recent article, "School Effectiveness: A Test of a Causal Model", appears in Educational Administration Quarterly.
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue