Closing up the wide open spaces

July 30, 1992

Open space classrooms hit the education scene about 20 years ago and elicited reactions similar to those reserved for sushi or jazz music. People loved them or hated them.

While some thought the design -- a wide area shared by "pods" of several teachers and classes -- was innovative and invigorating, others considered the concept the Edsel of education policies.

This summer, walls are being erected to end the open space design in Belle Grove Elementary in Brooklyn Park; walls will also be put up in a couple of other open-space elementaries in Anne Arundel County, in Severna Park and Glen Burnie. It's the end of an era, some educators say.

Not so in some other jurisdictions, however. Most Howard County schools maintain a "modified" open space design with movable partitions in some areas. The suburb was just coming of age and constructing schools when the concept came into vogue. Yet even in Rouse's futuristic Columbia, where a well-educated populace considered themselves trend-setters, the trend drew mixed reviews. "We had to defend it," said school board chairwoman Deborah D. Kendig, "and we've modified it."

Other school systems that consider themselves "traditional" -- Baltimore, Carroll and Harford counties among them -- never really embraced open space schools, and thus don't have to build many partitions now in retreat. Open space plans were never as popular in Maryland as they were in California and Florida, among other states.

Teachers and parents were most opposed to schools without walls because they considered them too noisy, although noise probably unnerved the adults more than the children. Teachers also missed the walls because they had fewer places to shelve books or to post materials. Some benefits accrued that might not have been expected though: An administrator in Baltimore County recalls his tenure at an open space high school in Essex as his most enjoyable stint in teaching because he learned a lot by watching his colleagues. It also made it easier for him to observe teachers when he chaired a department.

Actually, had the concept debuted now, it would probably have been welcomed just as readily because the perceived benefits sound so right for these times: shared resources, greater teacher accountability, a return to one-room schoolhouse fundamentals.

The coming and going of open space classes, though, should not be viewed as vindication by those who never thought the concept worthy in the first place. The last thing the community could afford is for educators to stop searching for new approaches to deliver learning.

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