If fire hadn't gutted Oquirrh Elementary School, remodeling crews probably would have done it in the not-too-distant future.

That's because Utah school districts have all but abandoned the open-school concept and have been working as fast as their budgets allow to switch them to the traditional classroom environment."There are both life-safety and educational issues involved," said Bob Day, the Jordan School District's administrator of auxiliary services. "If you have walls, naturally they tend to retard a fire."

Utah's two largest districts - Granite and Jordan - are both systematically retrofitting all of their open schools. Oquirrh was among the eight in Jordan slated for conversion within the next five years.

Briant Farnsworth, assistant superintendent for elementary school services in the Granite School District, said changes in educational philosophy had a lot to do with the decision to convert the buildings.

The open or semi-open school concept - where two or more teachers work together with multiple classes in large, open settings - spread from England to the United States in the early 1970s. The architectural model was used in about two dozen, mostly elementary, schools in Salt Lake County.

But like bell bottoms, disco and other fads of that era, team-teaching and open schools lost a lot of their popularity in succeeding years. Today, open schools are no longer being built, and the 15 that remain in the Jordan and Granite districts are being converted at a cost of between $750,000 and $1.5 million each.

Day said work will begin this summer on two of Jordan's eight open schools: Majestic, 7430 S. 1700 West, and Canyon View, 3050 E. 7800 South.

Jim Day (no relation), director of school facilities in the Granite District, said Frost Elementary, 3444 W. 4400 South, is next in line for retrofitting in Granite, to be followed by Farnsworth, 3751 S. 4225 West.

The process was under way long before Oquirrh burned down and was driven more by the teaching-environment issue than life safety, Jim Day said.

Farnsworth said open schools evolved out of a philosophy that an open and shared teaching environment would increase productivity. While some teachers still like that kind of environment, many others do not, he said.

In a shared setting, teachers must coordinate their work so that their classes don't conflict. Music and reading, for example, don't mix. In the traditional single classroom, a teacher has more flexibility.

Also, Farnsworth said some students had difficulty concentrating in open classes because there was so much else going on around them. Open schools were never very popular with parents, he added.

However, Farnsworth said some teachers in the remaining open schools are resisting the change because they have learned to thrive in the setting. Having taught in an open school himself, Farnsworth said, "They are really very nice and very effective environments."

From his perspective, Bob Day can't wait to see them go the way of mood rings. "We would wall them all up tomorrow if we had the money," he said.

School officials in both districts stress that open schools are safe. In fact, a fire in an open school is likely to be detected even faster than in a traditional configuration where closed spaces may conceal flames and smoke a longer time, they said.

If the Oquirrh fire had occurred on a school day, "it probably wouldn't have gotten away from us," Bob Day said.

Farnsworth agreed, saying, "What we're hearing is that if there had been people in Oquirrh, the structure would not have been lost."

And Farnsworth added that schools are well-prepared in case of fire. Regular fire drills have trained teachers and children to evacuate a building within a minute to a minute and half, he said.