Open Class Concept Closed in County

Open Class Concept Closed in County

With its recent renovation completed, Orange Hunt Elementary has abandoned one utopian-concept in favor of something old-fashioned — classrooms with doors.

"I like it with closed classrooms," said Jackie Bruhn, 12, a sixth-grader who has experienced both open and closed classrooms at Orange Hunt.

"You don't get distracted," Jackie said. "The other ones, it echoed and carried."

Sue Fourney's daughter, Amy, 10, is an Orange Hunt student as well. At Back-to-School night last year, it was apparent that noise was a factor with the open classrooms.

"Back-to-School Night, the teacher was explaining to us and we'd be straining to hear her," Fourney said.

And so, one by one, the open-classroom concept is being eliminated from Fairfax County. With each new renovation, the classrooms and open areas are being closed off to enhance the learning environment.

Fairfax County Public Schools engineer Mike Eckhoff was involved in the 20-25 schools that have been renovated that way. The utopian concept was a product of the free-thinking, communal era in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

"It basically came from the West Coast," Eckhoff said. "A lot of them have been closed."

Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) superintendent Daniel Domenech attended the renovation completion ceremony at Orange Hunt on Friday, March 14. He noted the ill-fated concept.

"No walls. It was supposed to be a great learning environment. Now we know different," Domenech said, not hesitating to solicit funds for the remaining schools.

"We still have a number of schools and high schools around the county that are using the open classrooms. We have not been able to find funding," he said.

Lewis Rauch, FCPS director of design and construction, is involved with the efforts to go back to individual classrooms.

"There's been a big push everywhere to close-in the classrooms. Chantilly High School was an open concept," he said. It has since been renovated to close the classrooms.

The open-classroom concept utilized a lot of big tables, movable coat closets, pods, pits and learning centers. Hayfield Elementary School had an addition of open classrooms in 1974 for fifth- and sixth-grade classes. Instead of desks, students had "tote trays," where they kept their books. Teachers and students were more accessible and there was an air of no boundaries, but noise was a factor. Orange Hunt opened that year as well.

Renovations at Hayfield were completed last summer, and the area was closed off. There are still movable doors between classrooms.

"They turned it into classrooms. There are doors on the library now," said Sandy Wagner, assistant principal at Hayfield.

The education world has been discussing the open-class concept again, but it isn't taking shape in Fairfax County, according to Rauch.

"We've heard talk recently about the open concept again," he said. "It's not something that we're embracing at this time."

The total price tag for the Orange Hunt renovation was $7,614,000, which is a little above average to transform an open-classroom school into a closed-room facility, but that was due to the elimination of the school's modular classrooms, according to Eckhoff.

OVER AT TERRA CENTRE Elementary School, the school not only utilized the open-classroom concept but also incorporated "earth" appeal. It is partially underground as well, another aging concept when it opened in 1980. In 1991, glass partitions between classrooms were installed as well as walls in some parts, but the classrooms still have no doors. The school still has ramps to eight-classroom pods of classrooms, which share a common room at the hub.

Joe Farran is the assistant principal at Terra Centre. He pointed at the glass, which dominates the upper portion between all the rooms.

"When it was originally constructed, these were not here," he said.

Noise was an issue, though.

"Some children can't filter out noise. It depends on your learning style," he said but noted the social atmosphere that still exists at the hubs.

"It allows for it [social interaction] to happen. I can pop in and out without a door," he said.

The library is still open and accessible from several different sides. This adds to distractions if the librarian is holding a class, but there are book shelves to separate the library.

"To get anywhere, you have to pass the library," Farran said.

Rauch noted that the underground concept was a different situation. Cooling, heating and insulating are affected underground

"The oil embargo in the '70's, it came up as a good idea," he said.

Terra Centre is on county plans to be completely renovated sometime in the future, but not anytime soon. Other elementary schools included on that list are Terraset and Sunrise Valley in Reston. The further work to be done on the school includes taking the glass down and replacing it with real walls.

SCHOOLS with a semi-open design that are scheduled to be renovated include Franklin Sherman in McLean, Woodburn and Sleepy Hollow in Fairfax, and Freedom Hill in Tysons Corner. Those schools aren't as open as Orange Hunt, but "they have an open concept," Eckhoff said.

Planning for these renovations was part of the 2001 education bond, and the funds for actual construction will be part of upcoming bonds, probably in 2003 or 2004, said Eckhoff.