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At 3 Pinellas schools, no doors, thin walls make it harder to learn

The district plans renovations to eliminate remnants of the noisy and distracting open schools design.
Fifth-grade science teacher Jessie Tripp, center, visits with students Synncere Kidd, left, and Trevaughn Hill, right, as the children transition between classes on Wednesday, Oct. 13, at Sandy Lane Elementary in Clearwater. Tripp's classroom, at right, lacks a door to separate the hall from the learning space.
Fifth-grade science teacher Jessie Tripp, center, visits with students Synncere Kidd, left, and Trevaughn Hill, right, as the children transition between classes on Wednesday, Oct. 13, at Sandy Lane Elementary in Clearwater. Tripp's classroom, at right, lacks a door to separate the hall from the learning space. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Oct. 18

CLEARWATER — Sandy Lane Elementary fifth-grader Amiliyan Dupree says her school needs classroom doors and real walls.

“We can hear literally everything from outside,” the 10-year-old said during lunch recently. “We can hear kids screaming and yelling. ... We can hear when Ms. Harold is playing Justin Bieber.”

Her classmates agreed. The distractions seem magnified, they said, when they have to take tests.

“Without doors, all of us are failing the tests,” said Trevelle Klinghammer, 11. “We just can’t focus.”

Sandy Lane is among the few remainders of Pinellas County’s long-ago experiment with the open schools concept. Built in the 1970s with no classroom walls or doors, the objective was to make it easier for teachers to collaborate and for students to work in groups with children from all classes, as their interests and skills allowed.

The collaboration and teamwork remain. But the design turned out to be mostly a bust, forcing Pinellas to spend millions overhauling the building interiors with separated, insulated classrooms. Some schools, including Eisenhower Elementary and Bardmoor Elementary, got their improvements a few years ago.

Sandy Lane, Pinellas Central and Bauder elementary schools are now on the district’s five-year construction plan for their turn.

The changes can’t come quickly enough for some of the Sandy Lane teachers.

Don’t get them wrong. They love their school, students and community.

But the 2-inch-thick metal walls that divide classrooms, added in the 1980s after a first round of complaints, have no soundproofing and don’t reach all the way to the ceiling. Most classrooms have no doors, with some teachers putting up shower curtains in the openings just to provide a sense of enclosure.

“When I’m teaching, we can hear what’s going on in all the other classrooms,” said fifth-grade language arts teacher Kate Mamot, who joined the faculty this year. “All three of us are pretty loud and engaging.”

Before coming to Sandy Lane, Mamot taught in portable classrooms with shared walls and doors. But those didn’t come close to the distraction that she’s encountered in her new environment.

“It’s one of my biggest challenges,” she said of the noise intrusion. “If I could just have a door and have some quiet, it would make my job easier.”

It’s not just the sounds from the hallways, either. The adjacent classrooms on the other side of the thin metal dividers can encroach, too.

“I can be in the middle of teaching and third grade will have some hype,” said fifth-grade math teacher Tia Harold, whose room abuts the third-grade pod. “That can be distracting for us.”

And vice versa.

“We can be disruptive when they’re testing,” said Harold, who acknowledged she can get loud. “If they have something that’s important going on, the teacher will come through and tell us to keep it down. That’s as much as we can do to combat sound.”

Of course, not everyone sees the setup through the same lens.

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Fifth-grader Kirby Simmons said having no doors isn’t a major problem for him. Disturbances, he said, come from other places.

“Sometimes we bring things to school that distract us,” the 10-year-old said. “Usually inside our classroom can be very distracting.”

The current situation is much better than it used to be, said Marcy Bennett, Sandy Lane’s special education intervention specialist. She arrived in 1984, when the school didn’t yet have the temporary walls. Her self-contained classroom for students with behavior issues was the only one with a door.

Marcy Bennett, an intervention teacher at Sandy Lane Elementary in Clearwater, shares memories of the noise and distractions students have endured during her 38-year tenure at the school. Sandy Lane is one of three schools remaining in Pinellas built in the 1970s with the once-popular no-walls concept.
Marcy Bennett, an intervention teacher at Sandy Lane Elementary in Clearwater, shares memories of the noise and distractions students have endured during her 38-year tenure at the school. Sandy Lane is one of three schools remaining in Pinellas built in the 1970s with the once-popular no-walls concept. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

“Teachers would take filing cabinets and book cases to define their areas,” Bennett recalled. “They were only 4 feet up,” making little difference.

That was at a time when the Clearwater school drew students from all across northern Pinellas County, its enrollment surpassing 900. Large classes took up all available space.

“The teachers complained about it: ‘I can hear that teacher across the way,’” Bennett said. “The kids couldn’t differentiate.”

When Sandy Lane opened in 1976, many schools across the nation were being built with the open layout model, according to Stanford education historian Larry Cuban. He wrote that the idea came in response to concerns that U.S. schools had fallen behind in areas such as math and science, and better results could come from a more hands-on, open approach.

“So many schools were adopting the physical attributes of open classrooms that some advocates wondered whether the spirit of informal education was truly being followed,” Cuban wrote.

Not long after, though, the pendulum swung in the opposite direction, with calls for a return to the basics amid concerns the cultural and political changes of the 1960s and 1970s had failed.

At Sandy Lane, the makeshift walls came in the late 1980s, Bennett said. Everybody cheered their arrival, she recalled, even though there still were no doors. After a while, though, the need for a different solution became clear.

Now Sandy Lane has fewer than 400 students, and it serves a different community with more intense educational needs.

“We need rooms with walls,” said Bennett, who retires at the end of the year. “We need kids focused. ... It’s harder for them.”

Principal Jeff Moss said he knows the change can make a difference. He needs to look no farther than the back half of his school, which has a newly rebuilt performing arts wing.

The walls in that section, completed over the summer, are double thick, with added soundproofing on the insides. A teacher can turn up the stereo with blasting music, Moss said, and on the outside passersby barely hear a peep.

“That was done right,” he said, expressing confidence that renovations to the main part of the school will be just as successful.

The plan calls for work to begin at Sandy Lane in 2023, and to be complete by fall 2024. Students will remain on campus during construction, using a combination of portable classrooms and regular classrooms that are not being worked on.

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