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Colter Peterson, Deseret News
Donna Spivey, who teaches first and second graders with severe disabilities at Granite Elementary School in Sandy, stands in her classroom on Friday, Aug. 9, 2019, while sunlight shines through portals installed in the roof. The skylights allow natural light to fill classrooms that are windowless, increasing energy savings and motivating students.

SANDY — In the past, Donna Spivey brought lamps from home as an alternative to the overhead fluorescent lights in her special education classroom.

Until this summer, there was no natural light in her classroom at Granite Elementary School. The classroom is in the interior of the school, which was built in the 1970s employing an open-classroom architecture that featured large, open classrooms divided by partitions or bookshelves instead of walls.

The design fell out of favor once teachers discovered it was too hard to keep students on task due to noise and other distractions. Eventually, walls were built to separate classrooms but natural lighting was sacrificed in the process.

Colter Peterson, Deseret News
Contractor Curtis Livingston displays a rendering of new light portals installed in the roof at Granite Elementary School in Sandy on Friday, Aug. 9, 2019. The portals were installed over the summer as part of a plan to revamp older schools in the district. So far 11 schools have been fitted with portals while seven more still need to be completed.

At Granite Elementary School, that's changing.

This summer, workers have installed new generation skylights in classrooms and hallways to bring in natural light.

Spivey, who teaches students with significant disabilities, said some students on the autism spectrum are affected by bright lights and the sounds that fluorescent lights make.

"This natural lighting is really going to help them if they have sensory issues. When they need to calm down I can just flip off the flourescent lights, which tend to set them off, and turn on these lights," said Spivey, who teaches first and second graders.

From the roof, the skylights look like small domes. Inside are tubes with highly reflective material that channel daylight into the ceilings of classrooms and hallways. Toggle switches enable teachers to select varying degrees of natural light in their classrooms.

While educators and administrators hope increasing natural light in the school will elevate students' and teachers' moods, there is growing evidence it boosts academic performance.

According to a recent study in Building and Environment Journal, classroom design choices such as lighting can affect a child's academic progress over a year by as much as 25 percent.

A 2003 study cited by the U.S. Department of Education says that classrooms with the most daylight had a 20 percent better learning rate in math and 26 percent improved rate in reading when compared to classrooms with little to no natural light.

In the interior classrooms of Granite Elementary School, there are no windows, so the skylights will give teachers more options to light their classrooms.

Quinn Nicolich, a fourth grade teacher who was setting up her classroom on Friday, said she hopes there will be sufficient lighting from the skylights that she can use artificial lighting sparingly.

Colter Peterson, Deseret News
Sunlight shines through portals installed in the roof of Quinn Nicolich's, left, classroom at Granite Elementary School in Sandy on Friday, Aug. 9, 2019. The skylights allow natural light to fill classrooms that are windowless, increasing energy savings and motivating students.

"I think it's going to move things along as far as transitioning from different content, we want to shift moods. If we can turn the flourescent lights on and the natural light off and vice versa to hopefully innately get that shift from the kids," she said.

Curtis Livingston, architect with Curtis Miner Architecture, said the firm is engaged in multiple projects in Canyons School District to bring more natural light into the district's schools.

"It's a softer light because its a true natural daylight spectrum. It's that light that is critical for the students and their mood. Our brains are used to that light cycle," he said.

Colter Peterson, Deseret News
Sunlight pours through new windows along the east side of Granite Elementary School in Sandy on Friday, Aug. 9, 2019. The school underwent renovations this summer to increase safety and give the aging building a face-lift.

Each skylight costs $2,500 to $3,000, which includes cutting a hole, patching the roof, framing to support the fixture and other work to support the installation.

Depending on the size of a school and a school's lighting needs, typical installations range from 80 to 120 skylights.

The distance between the top of the dome and the ceiling can vary greatly. "Sometimes it's literally 12 feet and other times it's 26 inches," depending on the structure of the existing school and placement of mechanical, plumbing and electrical systems.

The tubing can be angled to work around those systems.

"In an existing building that's pretty critical," Livingston said.

The skylights also reduce electrical costs because schools are not solely reliant on flourescent fixtures for classroom lighting. Canyons School District is working toward adding large windows and skylights to 18 elementary schools under its voter-approved school construction bonds.

Principal Ronnie Mulqueen said Granite Elementary School's teachers are putting a lot of effort into planning how to use the new skylights in conjunction with their curriculum.

She's hopeful that the addition of natural light, with the ability to regulate how much floods the classroom, will be a boon to learning and help keep kids calm.

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Mulqueen has seen a difference in students' behavior when lights are on in a classroom and they are turned off while a teacher uses a projector.

When the lights are off "it's a lot calmer. They're looking at something. There's engagement but it's a lot calmer. You flip the lights on and there's a lot more energy. I think with the natural lighting, because it's not so bright, I think we'll feel a lot calmer. I'm excited for it."

So is Spivey, who has worked with students with disabilities for more than 30 years.

"I'm just excited to see how the kids will react," she said.