Nathan Hale High Schoo, Seattle, has a national reputation as a successful model of school reform and personalized learning, and a radio station that�s recognized as one the best in the country.

But teachers and students have toiled for years in a classic’s 1960s industrially built, hard-to-navigate school, one with dark blue and red lockers, tiny windows and falling ceiling tiles. That’s changing as the school undergoes a major eco-renovation as part of the Seattle Public Schools Building Excellence III (BEX III) construction levy that runs through 2012.

Set in a valley and surrounded by a park and bordered by two branches of Thornton Creek with one branch running through the Seattle site, Nathan Hale’s renovation is one of several SPS renovations that fall under Washington’s new Sustainable Schools regulations, a standard that equates to LEED Silver.

SPS made sustainability a priority years ago, and the district realizes that building sustainably not only saves energy and money but provides many learning opportunities, said Don Gillmore, SPS Building Excellence Program Manager. “It allows us to teach students about the importance of conserving natural resources, how we lessen environmental damage, and how upgrading our mechanical systems play a significant role in conserving energy.”

Nathan Hale is undergoing a phased renovation while students attend classes. The first phase opened in September and the final phase is expected to be completed in 2011. The newly opened east wing houses a new library, a new radio station, a new fitness room and two new art studios.

The 14,000 sq ft wing has soaring ceilings, window walls in each classroom and skylights that provide a significant amount of natural light. The wing is heated and cooled by a ground source heat pump consisting of 45 300-feet deep wells, SPS’ second such installation. The new library has the district’s first radiant floor heating and its first fan-assisted natural ventilation system, said Ian Kell, senior project manager for the DKA/Heery construction management team on BEX III.

While such sustainable features are often only measured in cost or energy savings, at Nathan Hale the sustainable features can be measured on a human scale and were designed to create a better learning environment. Seattle’s Mahlum Architects achieved this by creating a school design based upon input from teachers, students, SPS personnel and community members.

When compared to the old space, the new library is a perfect example of how design directly impacts the quality of learning.

Huge by most school library standards, the old library was perfect for large groups but not for individuals. The outdated book collection lined the outside walls in an unorganized manner, discouraging browsing and resulted in an abysmal check out rate, said Deb Gallagher, librarian.

“Every day students would drag chairs over to sit by the two windows, which provided the library’s only natural light,” she said. To provide technology instruction, Gallagher cobbled together computer stations in the only space available – right at the entrance to the library, which was on the second floor and over the teacher’s parking lot.

In the new library natural light enters from every direction – north, east, west and down from several skylights. Various education studies show that natural lighting increases student awareness, attendance, mood and performance. At Hale, that’s evident in the new wing.

“Mahlum has a taken a claustrophobic industrial building to a light filled place of learning,” said Jill Kurfirst, project manager with DKA Architects, which is overseeing BEX III construction of phase one. “The new building replaces old factory-like windows with windows that move up and fill the full extent of the space below the existing structural T Beams to celebrate the light and the structure of the roof. (The result) is uplifting.”

Students think so too. “The new library is full of light, and I want to spend all my time in there,” said Tania Butterworth, a senior.