As a high school principal, Bruce McDade was in charge of student learning, morale, and safety. So, naturally, he became adept at interior design.

Bathroom mirrors? In the high school where McDade was principal for five years, they’re located in the hallways, where image-conscious teenagers can be supervised when they cluster to check their appearance.

Classroom chairs? They are 26 inches wide, two inches roomier than normal, to keep students comfortable.

And, oh yes, the window shades. McDade and his team went with special shades that block glare but still permit plenty of indirect light.

In today’s schools, style is taking on substance. From the width of the corridors to the depth of the classroom sinks, the smallest detail is coming to be viewed as a way to foster an academic advantage.

Advocates of fresh school design, however, have work to do. They must show elected leaders and taxpayers that such attention to detail matters–without driving costs out of reach.

At Manassas Park High School in northern Virginia, scores in algebra, geometry, and writing have jumped since 1999, when students moved into a new building featuring light, versatility, and open spaces. McDade says he has no doubt the school’s physical features have contributed to those scores.

“That’s exactly the message,” said McDade, the school’s principal until this fall, when he became associate superintendent for curriculum and technology for the Manassas Park City Schools. “The design of this building does, in fact, have a measurable effect on student achievement and student behavior.”

To be sure, designing smarter buildings isn’t the only step toward improving student achievement, McDade says; schools also must have dedicated teachers.

At Manassas Park High, teachers have private work and storage spaces. In their offices, they sit next to instructors from other subjects to encourage conversations across disciplines. They have the option of holding classes in various locations, including the school’s informal gathering areas, where the staircases are equipped with computer ports. “You really feel like a professional here,” said social studies teacher Teresa Rayhel, who was wooed by the school’s design. “It’s a different feeling than your typical school.” Providing educators with smarter spaces to work and teach has helped the school division attract and retain better teachers–a factor McDade says is critical to boosting student achievement in any school. What’s more, he says, the customizable spaces built into the school have enabled teachers to be more creative in how they use their classrooms and other learning environments.

“You can’t account for the difference a teacher makes,” he noted.

Taking these attributes into consideration, McDade says Manassas “feels like it has a leg up” on its neighbor school districts, including more affluent Fairfax and Loudon counties–two of the nation’s wealthiest school districts–when it comes to recruiting new teachers. Studies support what McDade and other educators consider to be common sense: Students do better in school when they hear well, see well, and are not packed into tight spaces. Noise, light, air quality, cold, and heat all have been found to influence behavior. Yet there is no comprehensive research that ties smart school design to achievement, said Judy Marks, associate director for the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities. “We have examples of kids whose schools were dark and dank and crumbly, and when their new school opened, morale increased, the community came together, teachers stayed longer. Even the football team got better,” Marks said. “There are those anecdotal stories that can give you a glimpse, but trying to look for solid research on that is a little trickier.”

Clearly, though, the conversation about school construction is changing, as shown during a recent meeting of architects, mayors, city planners, and school leaders from 38 states.

School leaders are gradually asking new questions: