Attleboro High School: Lighting the way for 21st century campuses

One recent study found that over one school year, students who were exposed to more sunlight during their school day displayed 26 percent higher reading outcomes and 20 percent higher math outcomes.
By: and | January 19, 2022
Attleboro High School was designed to optimize the use of natural light throughout the campus.

“A room is not a room without natural light,” — Louis Khan, architect

James E. Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance and senior partner in the law firm Samels Associate. Arlene Lieberman is senior consultant of The Education Alliance and senior associate, Samels Associates

James E. Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance and senior partner in the law firm Samels Associates. Arlene Lieberman is senior consultant of The Education Alliance and senior associate, Samels Associates.

Over the past several months, we conducted a research investigation of the role natural light plays in contemporary campus design and construction. Fortunately, our national network of campus design colleagues provided a broad range of technical and experiential resources.

Remarkably, the most impactful and sustainable research targeted the effect of natural light in the intellectual, emotional, and physical development of school children.

Indeed, the preponderance of industry thought leaders recognize that natural light plays a key part in mood, motivation, awakened focus, and positive attitude. Importantly, light improves test taking, GPA, class rank, reading comprehension, retention, math and verbal proficiency; timely and successful completion of a college degree; and placement and advancement in a chosen career. Learning and light have always been connected. Think “enlightened”.

Beyond these demonstrable learning and behavioral outcomes, natural light reduces utility expense and, as a result, conserves energy which can be fractionalized and allocated to prime time energy demand.

This cost avoidance results in the preservation of Planet Earth’s ecosystem by reducing carbon emissions generated by the utility industry. This reduction can sometimes be transformed into carbon credit exchange and tax incentives.

Enter the new Attleboro High School campus in Massachusetts. Uniquely, the Attleboro design process focuses on optimizing the use of natural light in classrooms, libraries, labs, cafeteria, and athletics. This frame of reference and design perspective provides a dramatic WOW sense of arrival on campus.

Attleboro Public Schools’ Architects offered this perspective on the role played by natural light on design thinking and design learning:

“Natural light and views to the exterior were a priority for multiple reasons when designing the new Attleboro High School. The school features a “daylight harvesting” system that measures the amount of natural light entering the room and adjusts the amount of artificial lighting in the room accordingly. This both reduces the electrical use in the building and lowers utility costs.  It has also been shown to result in a better learning environment for students.  Students display longer attention spans and have better attendance and behavior performance under these conditions, which directly translates to better testing performance.”

Significantly, the Attleboro campus plan incorporates state-of-the-art systems to manage environmental conditions, air ventilation, temperature control, acoustics, and most impactful, controls, levels, and spaces for lighting.

At least one recent research study observed that over one school year, students who were exposed to more sunlight during their school day displayed 26 percent higher reading outcomes and 20 percent higher math outcomes than those in less sunny classrooms. Other campus design research investigations have shown that replacing artificial lighting with blue-light bulbs accelerates cognitive development.

A descriptive prelude to Henry Plummer’s, Architecture of Natural Light provides this cogent and incisive reflection: “Shelter and natural light are fundamental elements of architecture. The first is concerned with protection from natural elements; the second with the creative and sometimes spiritual interaction between the man-made and the natural worlds. One is solid and static, the other illuminates and animates.”

For teenagers, natural light exposure resets the circadian cycle of sleep based on the natural secretion of melatonin – resulting in longer, deeper sleep, daytime alertness, and peak performance.

Mental health commentators indicate that more than one out of three students feel depressed and anxious to reconnect with other students, faculty, and staff. In these dark times, anything and everything that can lighten students’ moods should be employed. Providing natural light in both learning and living space can be a game-changer for campus-bound students.

In the midst of this Black Swan Pandemic, we learned that natural light helps students’ resilience and resourcefulness in the face of sometimes daunting feelings of isolation and anxiety.

Attleboro Public School Superintendent David Sawyer put it nicely this way:

To maximize the opportunity provided in an educational setting, schools must be designed not only to support the intended instructional practices of a given space, but to nurture the learners themselves as biological realities. Light has been used as a metaphor for learning since at least ancient times for a host of reasons, not the least of which being that like most things that grow, our natural development is stunted by its absence.

James E. Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance and senior partner in the law firm, Samels Associates, Attorneys at Law. Arlene Lieberman is senior consultant of The Education Alliance and senior associate, Samels Associates, Attorneys at Law.

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