School design adds to problems

Published 12:01 am Friday, March 28, 2008

A recent trip to Natchez High School reminded me of the residual consequences of bright ideas that fail to live up to their expectations.

Much has been written in recent weeks about the problems of the Natchez-Adams School District.

Most people agree that the area schools are not improving as demonstrated by annual test scores.

Email newsletter signup

A small, vocal group of citizens has targeted the district superintendent and his administration as the problem.

Others, including me, see the lack of parental involvement in the schools as one area in sore need of attention.

Improving something as complicated as a school system requires a multi-faceted approach. There is not just one thing that will magically fix our schools.

But some of the school district’s problems, particularly at the high school, may predate even this superintendent’s graduation from high school.

The 1960s witnessed one of the most dramatic educational reform movements in U.S. history involving the introduction of middle schools, community education and open plan schools.

With funding from the Ford Foundation, a group of educational innovators called the Educational Facilities Laboratory collectively changed the face of schools across the country, including Natchez.

School construction was dominated by ideas of flexibility and freedom.

Classrooms were open, desks were not lined up in neat rows, teachers taught more than one class.

It was a hopeful architecture — one that trusted in the ideals of society. It relied on good students, creative teachers and the highest standards of education.

It did not take into account a future filled with school shootings, discipline problems and a teen culture dominated by television, cell phones and the Internet.

If you have ever visited Natchez High School, then you have seen how the 1960s school, in many respects, hasn’t adapted to 21st-century life.

My visit to the campus this week provided first-hand evidence of how this building type is failing our schools.

The NHS campus is made up of a series of square pods. Each pod has four classrooms and each classroom has direct access to an outside courtyard.

It is a porous campus that must be a nightmare for teachers and school officials to monitor and control.

As I turned the corners of a pod Wednesday, I bumped into two students standing on the edge of campus text messaging friends. A few steps into a courtyard found students horsing around outside a classroom, providing a distraction for other classes in session. As I made my way to the center of campus, I witnessed two other students making faces in the window of another classroom.

Before the 1960s, the school model was that of a hallway flanked by a row of classrooms on either side. Braden School and Margaret Martin are two fine examples of this style. Such a building took only one administrator to watch over the entire school.

Unfortunately Natchez High is an architecture filled with nooks and crannies.

Multiple access points, multiple hallways and multiple hideaways requires an army of eyes to watch and maintain discipline.

Without these multiple eyes, students are given greater opportunities to skip class and be a distraction for other students — in effect make it harder for teachers to teach and student to learn.

And that is one more thing that the school system does not need. Unfortunately it is not something that is easy or inexpensive to change.

ben hillyer is the Web editor at the Natchez Democrat. He can be reached at