'Innovation' still besets some schools 1960s trend to open space failed quickly; renovation costs millions; Hours being wasted by distractions in many older buildings


Open-space schools -- an innovation once embraced by Howard County -- continue to take their toll educationally and financially on students, teachers, parents and taxpayers.

Two decades after Howard built its last school without any interior walls, the county is continuing to spend several million dollars a year to retrofit older schools.

In addition, teachers and students say, untold instructional hours are still being wasted every school day by distractions and noise in open-space schools.

And the costs will continue -- at least through the end of the century -- as the county school system gradually renovates the approximately two dozen buildings designed on the open-classroom model.

"The bottom line is that the whole idea of open schools is basically dead, and reasonably so," said Pat Baker, chairwoman of the county PTA Council's education facilities committee. "I don't think you'll get any educators to contradict you on that.

"But it looks like a lot of schools are going to keep paying the price for what was built 25 years ago," she said.

The county's most well known cost from open classrooms is the replacement of old Wilde Lake High School, the prototypical open-space high school.

School officials decided it was easier to tear down and rebuild Wilde Lake for $25.9 million than renovate it.

But the costs of remaining open classrooms are much more pervasive and subtle. They include students and teachers who can't concentrate, temperature differences between some classrooms in the same buildings of as much as 20 degrees and a haphazard assortment of efforts to put up temporary walls using chalkboards and bookshelves.

"It gets frustrating at times because I have to be careful not to do activities that will disturb the other teachers," said Tom Stabile, a Stevens Forest Elementary School gifted and talented teacher whose doorless classroom is bounded only by 6-foot-high walls and bookcases. "For kids, sometimes I do feel sorry for them, because I know it has to be distracting."

Students who transfer from open classrooms to closed ones recognize the difference immediately.

"It's a lot easier to concentrate," said Stephanie Moller, an eighth-grader at Patapsco Middle School, which has been completely renovated in the last two years to create closed classrooms. "You can hear your teacher now instead of the one next door."

The open-classroom model was one of several educational trends to emerge nationally in the 1960s, joining such ideas as the whole-language approach to reading and the move away from traditional, direct instruction in other basic subjects.

The philosophy called for students to be in an environment in which they had the freedom to choose what they wanted to learn, rather than being locked into the traditional classroom with four walls and a door.

Teachers began to work in teams, sharing concepts, lessons and students.

At its extreme, the philosophy meant that the interiors of buildings were built without walls and exterior windows.

Classrooms were intentionally placed side-by-side without separations to block out noise or visual distractions.

"It was the big trend of the early '70s," said Clark Godsall, vice chairman of research on school facilities for the Reston, Va.-based Association of School Business Officials. "But within a few years, teachers saw it just wasn't working and they already were putting up walls.

"Some school systems just seemed to do more construction during that time and now have a lot more open-classroom schools," he said.

That's what happened in Howard, which was embarking on the biggest expansion in the system's history just when open

classrooms became the hot trend in education.

From 1967 to 1977, the school system opened 28 schools, half of the county's current total.

"It's almost as if because Columbia was so new, we saw the open-space concept as something we should do, and we went at the idea with a vengeance," said Howard County Superintendent Michael E. Hickey.

"Now we have some teachers trying to deliver a high-quality education in real difficult physical conditions."

By the time Dr. Hickey came to Howard and opened Bollman Bridge Elementary School in Jessup in 1988 -- his first new school and Howard's first regular school in a decade -- the philosophy of the county had changed.

"Modified open space" was the new elementary school concept, intended to maintain the benefits of team teaching without the distractions of no walls.

All of the new buildings since Bollman Bridge have been engineered so that adjoining classrooms are separated by flexible walls with doors, permitting teachers to close themselves off from the class next door. A minimum of 15 or 20 feet of open space separates classes that aren't contained by four walls.

"It's the best of both worlds," said Edward Alexander, Howard's director of elementary schools. "Teachers have the flexibility to utilize the space as they want, when they want."

But for older schools built along the open-space model, the flexibility simply isn't there.

Movable classroom walls in such newer schools as Elkridge and Forest Ridge elementaries can be opened or closed, but such older schools as Stevens Forest and Thunder Hill elementaries don't have those options.

What has resulted in older open-space schools is a maze of semi-permanent walls, bookcases, blackboards and open space -- depending upon teachers' preferences.

"Our fifth-grade team wanted more open space, so they put up only one wall and let bookcases separate the other classes," said Wilbur Payne, principal at Stevens Forest. "It's not ideal, but the majority of the teachers I've talked with appreciate at least having the semi-privacy."

But the partial walls have created a heating-and-cooling nightmare at many of the open schools, which were built with only a handful of vents to heat the large open spaces.

When large rooms are divided, one section may have the vent while the others don't -- frequently creating 20-degree temperature imbalances between adjacent areas.

That was a frequent problem at Patapsco Middle, which opened in 1969 without any interior walls or exterior windows.

Within three years, teachers and students knew the design was a mistake, and over the next two decades a complex series of partial walls were set up. Because of the original design, some of the partially closed classrooms were tucked behind other classrooms -- forcing students to interrupt other classes just to go to the bathroom.

Twenty-five years later, the school system is renovating Patapsco for about $2.3 million, creating a school that contains many of the same closed-classroom features found in new middle schools such as Elkridge Landing. The heating-and-cooling system and ductwork also were replaced.

"It's like a brand-new school," said Patapsco Principal Stephen Gibson. "There's a substantial improvement in the learning environment."

Other middle schools built on the open classroom model -- including Wilde Lake, Oakland Mills and Dunloggin -- also are scheduled for renovations over the next several years, each costing between $2 million and $3 million.

Additionally, several high schools -- including Centennial, Mount Hebron and Oakland Mills -- are expected to undergo multi-million dollar renovations within five years, renovations that will include the construction of more permanent walls in some areas that originally had been designed for open classrooms.

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