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Doors easing shut on open classrooms Idealistic '70s concept blamed for noise, increased distraction; Closed rooms preferred; School systems face costly construction or temporary walls


A shift in educational philosophy is prompting general and potentially costly remodeling of schools across the region. Many teachers, parents and students want walls.

Throughout the late 1960s and early '70s, the construction of open classrooms took hold in schools, the idea being that about 100 students and their three or four teachers would mingle, learning together and sharing ideas and lesson plans.

What happened instead was that many children were distracted by students in other classes and teachers going over unrelated work a few feet away.

Teachers carved out their own rooms by building walls of bookcases, coatracks, blackboards and vertical files. And parents worried about their children learning in buildings that looked very different from the places where they went to school.

"We've heard from certain communities that a closed classroom environment is more conducive to effective teaching and learning," said Kenneth P. Lawson, associate superintendent of instruction and student services in Anne Arundel County public schools.

"I think it would be fair to say that most schools and communities prefer the old-style closed classrooms."

So now, a third of the schools in Anne Arundel County, as well as some schools in Howard and Carroll counties and at least one in Baltimore, are looking at how they can afford to close up the open spaces.

It is no simple task. Each classroom will need its own windows or natural light sources, storage area, water fountains or sinks, safety exit signs and ventilation, said Rodell E. Phaire Sr., director of facilities planning and construction for Anne Arundel schools.

Anne Arundel County Council has approved $150,000 to investigate how much it would cost and how long it would take to retrofit about 40 of the county's 120 schools constructed with open-space classrooms. By Sept. 3, private contractors are to present estimates to the school board, Phaire said. It is estimated it could cost $750,000 a school to make the changes.

Some Anne Arundel schools have already been transformed. At Oak Hill Elementary School, the PTA recently raised about $10,000 to put in 8-foot-high fixed partitions to subdivide some classrooms.

And Jessup Elementary, North Glen Elementary in Glen Burnie and Folger McKinsley Elementary in Severna Park have been retrofitted with hallways and individual classrooms.

No true walls

Jessup Elementary had open-space classrooms until the 1994-1995 school year.

"One grade would be on one side with dividers up between them but not true walls," recalled Carole Perry, who runs the media center. "The desks were arranged in class groups but no walls to separate the halls from the classroom."

Now, white hallways trimmed in blue and self-contained classrooms have replaced the pods. Linda Trebes recalled that before the switch, "A lot of children had a very difficult time focusing. As a teacher, I had a difficult time focusing."

Apologies for noise

Doing hands-on projects with her own students, she felt she had to apologize to her colleagues for the noise. And when there was a standardized test, the whole pod, including students who were not ready, had to take it, she said.

Fifth-grader Jessica Geinzer, 10, said when a student "acted out" or an administrator came into the pod to look for one teacher or student, all the students took notice.

"[With] open space it was kind of hard to learn," she said. "The only thing I really miss is being able to wave to my friends in other classes."

The trend toward more self-contained classrooms is taking hold in the metropolitan region because, some educators say,

teachers and students can't cope with, much less take advantage of, the amorphous design.

"One of the concepts of open space was that it would provide extremely flexible and adaptable space for any grouping," said Allen Abend, chief of school facilities for the Maryland State Department of Education. "In fact, I think it was learned that more specificity in school architecture led to more specificity and adaptability [in classrooms]. You want some fixed elements in the architecture that commit to certain types of [use]."

Parents wary

Besides that, some parents are wary of the design. "When it was completely open space, some parents were complaining about noise and some kids being distracted," said Sydney Cousin, Howard County schools' associate superintendent of finance and operations.

"We've gone back and renovated them to make them more self-contained, but not to completely revert to self-contained classrooms," he said.

When maintenance workers repair plumbing or ventilation or make other renovations in an open-space classroom, they also erect partitions to make the classrooms more private, he said.

Since the mid-1980s, Howard's schools have been designed with what might be called modified open-space architecture. Four learning areas are constructed in a cluster that can be divided with movable partitions and are set up with two additional rooms to accommodate group projects, science experiments or speakers.

In Baltimore, at least one elementary school is being converted to separate classrooms, and Carroll County is putting up walls too.

Four elementary schools, one middle school and one high school with some open space were constructed in Carroll County between 1969 and 1976. In the mid-1980s, Westminster High School and Northwest Middle School installed partitions.

And now Robert Moton Elementary is going through a partial retrofitting, according to Vernon F. Smith, chief engineer with the facilities department for Carroll County schools.

"We are designing classroom space that has flexible, movable walls," Smith said. "We want the buildings to withstand any changes in educational philosophy and strategy for the next 40 years."

Open-space benefits

Some educators see benefits in open-space classrooms.

Pasadena's Bodkin Elementary School Principal Rocco Ferretti says the open-space design cultivates team teaching and keeps teachers from being abusive with discipline.

Bodkin Elementary School teacher Carolyn Kobasko says: "It's nice to look around and see other adult faces -- you get to see what other teachers are doing."

Sydney Cousin, associate superintendent of finance and operations for Howard County schools, says: "You don't have a chance to go into a cocoon by closing the door to your room and isolating yourself in the building."

Linda Trebes, a second-grade teacher at Jessup Elementary School, appreciated the chance to watch more experienced teachers in action when she was a rookie. "It was excellent for me just to observe."

Vernon F. Smith, Carroll County schools facility engineer and former teacher, says students benefit because they can tap into the instructional expertise of more than one teacher.

Pub Date: 6/09/97

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