Under the 'green' roof, Radnor's retooled school

Each grade gets its own floor at the new middle school, with a newly structured learning plan.

Posted: September 06, 2007

Walking into the high-ceilinged lobby of the bright and shiny new Radnor Middle School in Wayne for the first time yesterday, eighth grader Dan McCone had the reaction that every principal, parent and school board member would hope for.

"The first thought I have is, 'Wow!' " McCone said. "At first I was kind of sad that I had to leave the old building. It was really familiar. But now that I've seen the new one, I'm glad. I just hope I don't get lost."

Several other area school districts are also having their "wow" moments this fall, opening new buildings after years of planning. Among them are Abington and Spring-Ford in Pennsylvania and Burlington Township, Camden, and North Hanover Township in New Jersey.

But the $48 million middle school in Radnor has an unusual feature: plants on the roof that produce oxygen, reduce stormwater runoff, and keep the building's temperature down.

The "green" roof - the first on a public school in the region - is part of the district's promise to create an environmentally friendly building, officials said. Radnor is one of only a few dozen districts in Pennsylvania and New Jersey that have sought certification from the U.S. Green Building Council for their schools' environmentally beneficial features.

Those include geothermal heating and cooling provided by 144 wells sunk 500 feet into the earth, saving fuel. There are recycled materials in carpets, ceiling tiles, counters and tackboards; the lobby floor has recycled glass shards embedded in it, instead of granite chips. Classrooms have heat and motion sensors that turn off lights.

The building's fluorescent bulbs reproduce the colors of natural light, because research shows that students and teachers do better work that way. In each classroom, the carbon dioxide level is monitored, and more fresh air is piped in if it gets too high. Heating and cooling machinery is housed in a closet outside each classroom, making it quieter.

"The end goal - the intent - is not only to be environmentally conscious, but to provide the best, most healthy learning environment for kids," said Leo Bernabei, the district's operations director.

As happy as they are about the building's "green" features, district administrators are even happier that after holding classes for decades in a building that opened in 1923, the district's 850 middle school students and their teachers now have a school designed to match current teaching methods and philosophy.

Studies show that students do better when they are part of a smaller learning community within a school. As a result, three of the four floors in the new school's academic wing hold one grade apiece. The grades are subdivided into areas called "pods" - two on each floor, each with five classrooms. Most students in each grade are assigned to teams of between 100 and 110. They attend all core academic classes in their pod, and there is space enough for the whole team to meet together in a large carpeted common area carved out of the hallway. The teachers in each pod work with the same team of students and share planning time each day.

Dot Conaboy, a sixth-grade language-arts and social-studies teacher, said as she set up her classroom last week that "having the pod [common] area right here is going to be a big plus for projects where we need to spread out a little bit more. And we can now join two or more classes together when we want to - that will be really nice."

Each team has laptop computers stored in the common area; each classroom has wireless Internet, cable TV for educational channels, overhead liquid crystal display projectors, and screens.

Each grade also has a double-sized classroom especially designed for a group of 30 to 40 students and two teachers whose academic life is arranged around a theme that the children study, rather than separate language-arts, math, science and social-studies classes. There are no letter grades and few tests; participants are assessed mostly by their work on long-term projects. Students volunteer and are picked by lottery.

Said Tom Rendulich, a sixth-grade teacher: "We couldn't ask for anything better - we have everything we need and more. . . . It's perfect."

The building also impressed eighth grader Julian Meier. "It's a lot brighter and has lots more space," he said. "Even the smell is new. It's great."

Conaboy liked the ambience as well. In her room at the old middle school, she said, "I had a brick wall for a view. Now, I have trees, sunlight and blue skies - it is just gorgeous. I love it."

Eighth grader Noelle Ely said she liked the round cafeteria tables - "we can talk to each other better." But the lockers, she said, were too small, the pod common areas were "kind of elementary school," and the bland color schemes in the hallways reminded her of "the King of Prussia mall on a bad day." Still, she rendered her overall judgment: "Pretty cool."

The new school sits on 12 acres just a few blocks from downtown Wayne. For more than a decade, a debate raged over whether to build it there or outside of the town, with more athletic fields. Public sentiment favored the downtown site, which had been home to most of the district's educational buildings until the late 1950s.

Despite its obvious drawbacks, many township residents mourn the loss of the old middle school building, a longtime fixture of life in Wayne. "We went to our first dance there and had our first taste of freedom, walking into Wayne" after school, said Laura Foran, a middle school attendance secretary who was a student there in the 1970s.

Foran said she was glad her son, a sixth grader at the new middle school this fall, would also be able to stroll into Wayne at the end of the day. The town center, she said, "was our lives - a kind of miniature adulthood for us. I hope it will be the same for him. He'll have his own memories here that he can look back on."


Radnor Middle School At a Glance

Cost: $48 million.

Size: Four-story academic wing; total area of 195,000 square feet.

Site size: 12 acres, including the district's administration building.

Enrollment: 850.

Capacity: 1,150.

Environmental features

  • A "green roof" with plants that absorb stormwater, keep the building cool, and give off oxygen.
  • Recycled materials in flooring, carpets, ceiling tiles, counters and tackboards.
  • Heat and motion sensors that turn off classroom lights in empty rooms, and light sensors that shut off lights when there's enough natural light.
  • Classroom carbon dioxide monitors that trigger the piping in of more fresh air if the level is too high.

Educational features

  • One grade per floor. Teams of 100 or so that have core academic classes within a five-classroom "pod." Each pod has its own common meeting space.
  • Some rooms are designed for smaller teams of 30 to 40 students who stay together for most of the day and study a theme all year long.

Contact staff writer Dan Hardy at 610-701-7638 or dhardy@phillynews.com.

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