By Sue Kiesewetter
The biggest school building boom in more than 50 years has Greater Cincinnati educators rethinking the features they'd like to see in their schools.
Gone are the windowless, airtight buildings fueled by the 1970s energy crisis and the cookie-cutter, sprawling one-story brick buildings popular when many of today's taxpayers - or their grandparents - were toddlers.
Schools being built today are bigger, air-conditioned and designed for community use. They are wired for computers in the classroom, as well as wireless laptop labs. There are spaces for teacher collaboration, small group projects and vocational instruction. Many contain studios for distance learning or video productions.
Whether fueled by skyrocketing population growth or the availability of funds from the Ohio School Facilities Commission, local construction projects valued at more than $1 billion are under way.
"Our revised estimate is that $2.5 million is being spent on school construction per day in Ohio," said Wayne Coleman, OSFC's planning manager for Cincinnati.
Building sites are changing, too. An ideal location is no longer flat land devoid of trees, hills or other topographic features. Instead, ponds or creeks - once frowned upon as safety hazards - are being heralded as outdoor learning labs where science classes study life cycles of butterflies.
Architects find themselves collaborating not only with educators, but also with parents, students and community residents to determine what features should be incorporated into the design.
Steed-Hammond-Paul Architects in Hamilton developed a "Schoolhouse of Quality" program designed to systematically get input through surveys, focus groups and community meetings before the first pencil mark hits the paper.
"A big trend now is how communities use schools after hours," said Mike Dingeldein, vice president of Steed-Hammond-Paul.
For example, in the New Miami Local Schools' year-old K-12 building, the media center is open to the community after school. Walkers use the gymnasiums at Lakota East and West high schools after school. In Fairfield, a community theater group is partnering with the schools to provide summer theater in the senior high school's performing arts center.
"When we were designing the addition to the Hamilton High School media center, it was the superintendent's vision that it would be open to community use. That's why we partnered with Lane Library," said spokeswoman Joni Copas. "The schools belong to the community - we wanted to make them accessible, especially at Hamilton High. It's the hub of the city."
Perhaps the most visible example of schools partnering with the community is in Mason, where a single structure opened last year that includes:
A 379,000-square-foot high school.
A 149,000 square foot community center with a recreation pool.
An indoor walking track.
Six full-size basketball courts.
A competition pool.
A 1,200-seat auditorium.
Fitness and weight rooms.
A senior citizen center that will be shared by students and the community.
Planning between the city and schools began in 1999 when the city donated land. Plans are now being studied to partner with Middletown Regional Hospital for a fitness program.
"We work through each scenario as partners to see what best benefits the community," said Eric Kantor, president of the Mason Board of Education.
"There's a great checks and balance system built into the legal agreement but without the daily conversations it wouldn't work. We're plowing new ground in each endeavor."
No matter where the school is located - urban or rural - two words are being used when designing schools: security and flexibility.
"Fifteen years ago you wouldn't be talking about wiring your whole school to be safe," said James W. "Bill" Sears, superintendent of the Lebanon Schools, where a new high school and elementary will open in 2004.
"We'll have over 100 cameras that will be inside and outside our new high school. They'll be in locker bays, stairwells, entrances and parking lots.''
Each wing of Lebanon's new elementary school will have its own playground area, which achieves two things.
"It's more secure and it keeps kids together in smaller groups,'' Sears said. "It's a way to make a very large school seem smaller, more family-like.''
In Indian Hill an emphasis was put on flexibility when designing the new high school and elementary school, set to open in 2004, said Superintendent David Quattrone.
As a result, Indian Hill classrooms will have adjoining independent study rooms, places outside teacher offices for gatherings, seminar rooms, and space for small-group instruction.
School leaders are also thinking green when designing schools. Natural light and ventilation are just as important as classroom size. Empty spaces between buildings - paved over in the past - are now becoming secure courtyards or outdoor learning labs accessible only through the school.
Windows have tinting that allows natural light but not heat. Overhangs keep hot summer sun out but allow warming rays that come in at low angles in winter, Dingeldein said.
Art rooms in Lebanon's new high school are being placed so they have windows facing north to provide indirect light requested by the art teachers.
Carefully positioned trees shelter windows from summer heat but let sun help heat in winter when branches are bare.
"Virtually every one of our elementary schools has taken a wooded area and made a nature area," said Lakota Superintendent Kathleen Klink.
Cafeterias in Lakota's schools are even being designed to reflect a change in food offerings.
Plains Junior School, for example, will open Tuesday. It has separate kiosk-like areas for specialty foods - Plains Grille, Border Stop, Plains Deli and Hot Zone - along with the traditional hot lunch offerings.
Booths, tall tables, awnings and plants look more like a food court at the mall than a school lunchroom. It is a concept introduced in Lakota Schools six years ago when Lakota East and West opened.
"I want children to want to be there," said Treva Whitlock, Lakota's director of child nutrition. "We want this to look like a mall food court."
In Monroe, where a single K-12 school is set to open next year, school leaders are considering partnering with Butler Tech to offer an agricultural science, equine, ecology or other programs. That's because more than 80 acres they own contain wetlands, 15 acres are pastureland and have a barn.
"You can do a lot of outdoor education here," said Superintendent Arnol Elam. "It's pristine property."
School construction in Cincinnati area
Bethel-Tate: A 2000-seat stadium/sports complex at the high school. Cost: $1.37 million.
Bishop Fenwick High School (Middletown): A high school will open spring 2004. Cost: $12 million.
Cincinnati Public: Planning is under way for a $985 million facilities plan that would build 35 schools and renovate 31 schools over the next decade.
Felicity-Franklin: High school under construction, should open in fall 2004. The middle school is also being renovated along with the high school gymnasium. Cost: $15 million.
Goshen: Spaulding Elementary opens on the site of the former middle school. Cost: $7 million.
Hamilton: Construction begins this fall on a ninth-grade school that is part of a 10-year, $176 million project to replace 14 elementary buildings with nine new schools.
Indian Hill: Construction is under way on a $49.6 million project that will build a high school and elementary school scheduled to open in fall 2004.
Lakota: An elementary school and junior school are opening this month in Liberty Township. Cost: $25.5 million.
Lebanon: Construction on a high school and elementary school is under way with both expected to open fall 2004. Cost: $50 million.
Milford: Opening Mulberry and McCormick K-6 elementary schools Sept. 2. Construction continues on Pattison and Meadowview elementary schools, which will open in fall 2004. Cost: $43.5 million.
Monroe: A K-12 campus is under construction, expected to open in August 2004. Cost: $29.9 million.
Princeton: Planning continues for an $85 million project to replace or renovate eight elementary schools.
Ross: Site work on a $50 million project begins in September. It will pay for construction of a high school, additions at Elda and Morgan elementary schools and renovation work.
Sacred Heart (Fairfield): A 12-classroom addition is slated to open in late September. Cost is $2.6 million.
St. Ursula (East Walnut Hills): A 30,000-square foot gymnasium complex and 1,000-seat convocation center opens. Cost: $4.2 million.
Sunman-Dearborn: Opening an intermediate school for grades 5-6 ends the first phase of a $32 million construction project that last year renovated Sunman Elementary. Planning for phase two begins this year.
Sycamore Schools: Montgomery Elementary to open this month, $10.4 million.
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