From the outside, it's not difficult to pick out which building in a neighborhood is a school. But from that vantage point, it's not so easy to determine how good a school it is.

That depends on many factors — the quality of teachers, the involvement of parents, the dedication of students, the community's education standards. But the quality of education a school provides also is dependent on what is inside the facility — the types and sizes of spaces available, the equipment, the condition of the structure, and how well workers take care of the building.

Here are 10 topics school administrators should focus on as they try to provide students with the most effective indoor learning environment:

  • Daylighting

    In recent years, schools have rediscovered windows. In the 1960s and 1970s, designs called for fewer windows as administrators tried to make air-conditioning systems more efficient, reduce outside noise, lower maintenance costs and bolster security.

    But in shutting out the light, the designs also deprived students and staff of natural light. Advocates of daylighting maintained that natural light was better for learning, and studies have begun to bear out that belief. A 1999 study by the Heschong Mahone Group found that students performed better in classrooms that had more natural lighting. Efficient use of daylighting also can lower energy costs.

  • Acoustics

    Students who can't hear in a classroom have a hard time making the grade. Classroom dimensions cause reverberations that make it hard to hear a teacher. Background noise from equipment or outside traffic can drown out an instructor.

    Younger students and students not proficient in English can be especially susceptible to hearing difficulties in acoustically deficient classrooms.

    Schools can reduce noise by installing acoustic panels and barriers in classrooms, using amplification or installing quieter HVAC equipment.

  • Space

    To accommodate the different styles of learning and teaching, schools need different types of classroom space. Instead of the traditional notions of rows of desks facing a teacher, a classroom should have enough space for numerous activities.

    Some students might be working on computers; some might be engaged in small-group discussions; others might be reading quietly. Classrooms need to be large enough to provide appropriate areas for these various activities and flexible enough to allow students to move from one activity to the next.

  • Technology

    Computers have become an indispensable learning tool for students. Nearly every school in the United States has computers connected to the Internet. Government figures for 2000 show that 98 percent of public schools have Internet connections.

    Now that schools have the hardware, administrators must make sure that the machines become more than sophisticated toys and diversions. One way to maximize the benefit of computers in schools is to provide teachers appropriate training on how to apply technology to their instruction. A 2000 report commissioned by Congress said that teachers have received too little training, and what they have received is too superficial.

  • Ergonomics

    With students using computers more in classrooms, having the right kinds of desks and chairs becomes more important. Students who are uncomfortable or who are sitting on furniture that triggers fatigue won't be able to perform up to their abilities.

    Schools should have seating that allows students to have correct posture when typing, using a mouse or viewing a monitor. Seating should be adjustable and cushioned to provide sufficient support. Computer monitors should be directly in front of a user, and the user's eyes should be in a line with a point on the screen two to three inches below the top of the monitor.

  • Maintenance

    Students and staff feel better about their school when it is clean and maintained properly. But maintenance budgets often are among the first to get hit when institutions face tight budgets. Schools that have a comprehensive maintenance program with effectively trained workers are better able to maximize the effectiveness of their maintenance efforts.

    Computer programs can help maintenance departments schedule and monitor the various types of cleanings and inspections that must take place over the course of a school year.

  • Indoor air quality

    Students can't perform well if their surroundings are making them ill. Mold and other pollutants can make children sick. The Environmental Protection Agency says that about half of the nation's 115,000 schools have problems linked to air quality. Students are especially at risk because they spend long hours in school buildings, and poor air quality affects children more severely than adults.

    Pollutants can come from outdoor air, growth within a heating or cooling system, materials that contain volatile organic compounds, or emissions from laboratories or cleaning processes.

    Schools can reduce the risk of poor air quality by improving ventilation and exhaust systems, using potentially hazardous supplies and equipment only when students are not present, and better controlling the materials that are introduced into the environment.

  • Safety

    Unless students and teachers feel safe in a school, they will not be able to focus on learning. By creating a non-threatening environment, schools can provide a climate that allows students to realize their potential.

    Schools can enhance security by limiting access to their facilities — locking all doors except the main entrance. Communications systems such as intercoms or hand-held radios give teachers the ability to stay in touch with the administrative office or colleagues. Some schools determine that more stringent controls such as video surveillance or metal detectors are needed to provide the desired level of security.

  • Restrooms

    Restrooms that are poorly maintained and prone to malfunction and vandalism can affect how students and staff members view the school. Flowing water, disease-causing germs and equipment that is often the target of vandalism make restrooms a troublesome area for schools.

    Schools can diminish the likelihood of restroom problems by installing vandal-resistant equipment, such as automatic flush toilets; designing restrooms so that students can be monitored easily; and using materials and equipment that discourage the growth of bacteria.

  • Roofs

    Strictly speaking, roofs are not part of the indoor learning environment, but without one, a school would not have much of an indoor environment. A leaking roof allows moisture to seep into a building; often it cannot be detected until it has extensively damages walls, ceilings and equipment. Moisture from leaks also can lead to the growth of dangerous mold, which can cause sickness and disease among students and staff.

    Regular roofing inspections — experts recommend twice a year — can help workers detect tears, worn spots and other signs of deterioration. By the time a leak begins dripping into a classroom, it may be too late to avoid major repairs.

SIDEBAR: NOTABLE

  • 30 TO 35
    Recommended ambient noise level, in decibels, in an unoccupied classroom.

    Source: American National Standards Institute (ANSI)

  • 77
    Percentage of instructional classrooms in U.S. public schools with Internet access.

    Source: National Center for Education Statistics

  • 10 million
    Number of school days missed by students each year because of asthma.

    Source: Environmental Protection Agency

  • 15:1
    Projected pupil/teacher ratio in public elementary and secondary schools, 2001.

    Source: National Center for Education Statistics

Kennedy is staff writer for AS&U.
Architect for the University of Minnesota project is Stanius Johnson Architects, Inc. The National University project was done by Architects/Delawie Wilkes Rodrigues Barker.