Warm classrooms create concern

Alamosa's elementary schools leave students and staff roasting, and building defects may be to blame. From the Alamosa Valley Courier. Read the followup here.

Hot enough for ya? Alamosa School District officials are working hard to address concerns over too-hot classrooms at three Alamosa school buildings.

The classrooms, on the south side of the second floor of the elementary school buildings, as well as some windowless interior classrooms at Ortega Middle School, have been criticized by some teachers and parents for climbing to high temperatures in August and May.

"It's a big deal because it's certainly uncomfortable during those first couple weeks of the school year," said Neil Hammer, Alamosa School Board secretary. "Students have gotten along though, and keep learning."

Though specific temperature data is hard to come by, most agree the problem is worst in the five-year-old elementary school buildings.

"The main reason is it's our only school where the classrooms are facing directly south," said Hammer. "It's been an issue right from the beginning. Each year they try different things, and now we're taking it a step further by going outside to find a long-term solution."

School officials discussed various possibilities for cooling the classrooms at the August 17 meeting, including obtaining additional blinds or sunshades, or installing air conditioning or swamp coolers.

The first step in finding a solution is data gathering. District officials will install two types of window blinds in two classrooms, one classroom in each elementary school building.

Teachers will then gather temperature data in the rooms with the blinds and compare it to temperatures recorded in classrooms without added shading.

"Bless their hearts, the teachers have been kind enough to work with us," said Alamosa Schools Superintendent Rob Alejo. "In order to get the most accurate information, we're going to ask them to please not open their blinds."

Alejo said the blinds are on order and may arrive within the next 10 days.

School officials also toured the buildings on Tuesday with a representative from Honeywell, a company that sells cooling and heating systems, to evaluate the facilities and HVAC systems. After a review, Honeywell will provide a recommendation report to the district.

"Money is not falling off trees for any of our districts in Colorado," said Alejo. "We need to identify how much of an expenditure the district is in a position to expend."

The elementary school buildings, designed by Fort Collins-based Neenan Architecture, are LEED Gold certified, meaning they were built with environmentally-friendly principles as measured by the U.S. Green Energy Council.

Neenan's website about the Alamosa Elementary School Campus reads in part: "Neenan found that the building could be designed without air conditioning-and still be comfortable."

Alejo said that the building's cooling system functions by drawing in cool air through the night, then circulating that air through the day, while expelling hot air.

The long southern exposures were designed to maximize natural light.

"We got complaints from teachers the first year," said Hammer. "The building plans were that the windows would block the heat, but it just hasn't happened."

Elementary school faculty have taken numerous steps to address the issue in previous years, said Christy McBee, principal of grades 3 through 5.

"We rearranged the schedule so that students in those classrooms are taking specials [elective classes such as art and gym] in the afternoon" when the rooms are hottest, said McBee.

"But teachers have to play their part as well by pulling the blinds down and keeping the windows shut. Some of our steps have been [for teachers] to do the things they're supposed to do as the buildings were designed."

It can be difficult to strike the right balance of form and function, said Alejo.

"A lot of thought goes into making a building aesthetically pleasing," Alejo said. "Personally, I like the sunlight. I like windows. I don't fault the architecture."

Hot classrooms have not generally been a concern in the Valley, said Lori Smith, principal for kindergarten through second grade.

Overheating is a growing local concern, said Alejo.

"I think our climate has changed," Alejo said. "We're taking on warmer temperatures than we may have 10, 12, 15 years ago."

The windowless interior classrooms at Ortega Middle School cannot be cooled by blinds, said Alejo, but he anticipates that the building's nearly-completed white-colored roof will reflect much of the heat.

"The greenhouse effect is taking place in the whole world," said Smith. "Those are things we did not plan for."