As a high school principal, Bruce McDade is in charge of student learning, morale and safety. So he has become adept at interior design.

Bathroom mirrors? In his school, they are 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 ones that block glare but still permit plenty of indirect light.

In schools, style is gaining substance. From the width of the corridors to the depth of classroom sinks, the smallest detail is viewed as a way to foster an academic advantage.

Advocates of improved school design, however, have work to do. They must show elected leaders and taxpayers that such attention to detail does not drive costs out of reach.

At Manassas Park High School, scores in algebra, geometry and writing have jumped since 1999, when students moved into a building with more light, versatility and open spaces. McDade said the school's physical features have contributed to those scores.

"That's exactly the message," McDade said. "The design of this building does in fact have a measurable effect on student achievement and student behavior."

Studies support what educators consider to be common sense: Students do better when they hear well, see well and are not packed into tight spaces. Noise, light, air quality, cold and heat have all been found to influence behavior.

Yet no comprehensive research ties smart 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:

* What do parents and teachers want?

* How can the community help design the school, then have access to it once it's built?

* What kind of layout would students find so engaging that it would make them eager to show up?

"Let's not build warehouses for them," said Ronald Bogle, president of the American Architectural Foundation and former president of the Oklahoma City Board of Education. "Let's create environments that are uplifting, that are exciting, that are interesting."

That sounds great to policymakers, until the talk turns to money. Leaders are under pressure to ease crowding and ensure safety, which means enhanced design is often seen as a luxury.

Bogle, whose foundation is leading a national drive to improve school design, said success stories need not be more expensive. The nation spends roughly $30 billion a year on school construction, he said, and "good design can be accomplished at the same price as bad design."

In St. Paul, Minn., architects designed John A. Johnson Achievement Plus Elementary School with ideas and money from community groups. A YMCA was incorporated into the school. It also offers medical services, adult education, family support and housing assistance.

The point is to help children overcome any barrier that could affect their academic success.

"It's all about results," said Pat Quinn, executive director of operations for the St. Paul public schools. "You run a great risk if you spend your time chasing fads. What you chase has to be a proven method of teaching, and that has to be incorporated into the design."

At the Manassas Park school, 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 informal gathering areas, where the staircases are equipped with computer ports.

"You really feel like a professional here," said history teacher Teresa Rayhel, who was attracted by the school's design. "It's a different feeling than your typical school."

The halls are wide to keep students from banging into one another with their book bags. The sinks in cooking classes are unusually deep to prevent messes. The chairs in the science labs have backs because teachers knew the stools were not popular.

Students notice these things.

"We've been instilled a sense of pride in our school, and not just for sports and academics, but also for the building itself," said Kelsey West, a 17-year-old senior. "This is an amazingly designed building, and we all don't mind coming to school here."

At $21 million, which includes the cost of a final wing completed in 2004, the school is within the typical price range for a high school. Some features saved money. The school has no auditorium, but its common area doubles as a cafeteria and a place for class performances.

What is needed nationwide, Bogle said, is awareness that such schools exist. Many of today's leaders have old ideas because they attended schools built decades ago, he said.

Rigid state policies on construction also keep communities from exploring fresh designs, said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center in Newark. Even the most eager school reformers often don't consider the importance of building design, he said.

As he put it, "We're just beginning to get our collective mind around that."

Above, students walk beneath teacher resource rooms, known as pods, between classes at Manassas Park High School. At left, Rebecca Adams teaches chemistry in a classroom with recessed lights and ergonomically improved lab benches. The building was opened in 1999.