New building lets there be light

Architects, principal hope to give the mostly low-income, minority students an extra boost
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If the power of light can make students learn, the kids at Glendale Middle School may have a shot at becoming academic superstars.

The new $16 million building, which opens today, is designed to incorporate as much sunshine into the classrooms as possible. Rather than building a windowless tomb, the architects aimed to bathe the students in light.

Students in classrooms with a large amount of daylight scored as much as 18 percent higher on tests compared with students exposed to little light, according to a 1999 study of Colorado and Washington schools.

At a school with a majority of low-income, minority students, Principal Ernie Nix hopes to launch them toward higher education, perhaps at the University of Utah, the school staring back at them through broad, tall windows as they browse the library's shelves.

"My community deserves it - nothing but the best," he said of the school.

In rebuilding Salt Lake City schools, the district has made an effort to increase daylight and make the learning environment as positive as possible. At Glendale, that's accomplished through windows along the length of the classroom walls and light "shelves" outside windows that bounce daylight into the room and shade the classroom from direct sun. All the main classrooms are on the perimeter of the building to take advantage of light and views.

Along the hallways and the commons a ribbon of high windows cascades natural light into the school. It's a conscious move toward energy efficiency but an attempt to impact learning.

"You need the building for enclosure, but you don't want to stay enclosed," said Stephen Smith, the principal architect who designed the new school with GSBS Architects.

But it's not just the daylight that makes the building special. The weaving ribbons of color on the floor, which snake outside through the concrete, are a metaphor for the overwhelming diversity the students represent.

"We're a microcosm of the world," said Nix, whose students are about 90 percent nonwhite.

Students are painting hundreds of squares for a huge mural in the commons that will create a map of the world.

The neighborhood has taken notice of Glendale, stopping by all summer to peek inside. Even the teachers are struck by the results.

"The first time I saw it, I was gobsmacked," said Collette Cornwall, an eighth-grade science teacher. "It's just beautiful."

For two years, the school had left the neighborhood and occupied an older district building as the construction took place on the old school site. Now the school has finally come home.

"This school belongs to the Glendale neighborhood," Nix said.


* JULIA LYON can be contacted at or 801-257-8748.