Design for Educational Equity

Cheryl Jacobs
Published 15 Apr 2021
File Under Learning/PK-12
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Summit Sierra School, Student Social Space, Seattle, Washington — NAC Architecture

For years, school districts have been seeking equity in the design of their school facilities. One area at the top of most educators’ minds is the opportunity gap for students of color, with a focus on African-American males who have historically been the most underserved. Many districts are tackling this subject head-on, addressing equity, inclusion, and diversity in schools in their strategic plans. Some specific approaches include hiring more educators of color and expanding ethnic study curriculum. Operationally, those two changes can bring about measurable progress for the experiences of students of color – but what can architects do who are also so closely engaged in the evolution of space for students of today and tomorrow?

What Can Architects Do?

Could the design of a school have measurable positive outcomes for children of color? If racial injustice in schools persists, despite the positive changes in school design over the past 60 years since school integration, what can architects do to help? Studies2 have documented how school facilities improve student outcomes and learning – but race and ethnic background have not received adequate attention in this field of research. If children of color are those statistically with the most barriers to success in our schools3, then architects should be working with districts to address those populations with our design solutions.

I am an architect working on public projects, and my focus on schools, healthcare, and higher-education buildings means that the emotional experiences of users and inhabitants are embedded in my consciousness. Architects like myself have always thought about how a building may affect students’ learning or teachers’ ability to teach. But it wasn’t until recently that I began to consider how school facilities should be participants in narrowing the opportunity gap. When it comes to designing and building schools, it seems imperative now more than ever to take a deep dive into how our buildings can positively shape the educational experience of the most disadvantaged learners. The facilities implications are many as we begin to tackle racial equity in schools.

Analyzing Biases

Wing Luke Elementary School Replacement, Community Meeting, Seattle Public Schools - NAC

Reboot is a research and design organization that aims to tackle issues in government, civil society, and philanthropy with an eye for analyzing biases and giving a voice to the most marginalized. In a recent article1, they explored the idea of implicit or unconscious bias (attitudes or stereotypes we unconsciously associate with others) and provided three ways to build bias checks into design research. The fact is, we designers need to help make the design process a more equitable experience for all. We need to build bias checks into our work process, creating small reminders that we all operate on auto-pilot sometimes.

Understand the Background. Research the issues, get to know the context, talk to the people involved, and hear where they are coming from. Ask what biases the design team may have about the project, place, or people, and take note of them and be aware of how they can influence decisions. Think critically about these biases and stay aware of them.

Uncover Biases with Local Involvement. Inviting community members to join the project design team will help remind designers how design decisions can potentially affect people and place. This allows a broader perspective to be shared, provides positive feedback to the design process, and establishes trust, which can take a long time to build between groups that aren’t typically aligned (i.e. architects with marginalized communities).

Clear up Assumptions with Visual Tools. Communicate and test ideas with end users by utilizing visual aids. Hopefully, the feedback received will shed light on any unconscious biases, and find positive solutions for areas needing revising.

A Call to Action for School Architects for the Next 10 Years

My other role that I take great pride in is being a parent to a first grader. Last fall when my school district, Seattle Public Schools, started addressing parents in a series of newsletters and information regarding their approach to closing the achievement gap for students of color, my ears perked up. Their strategies to increase opportunities for success in all students included “closely examining our practices and making sure students feel like they belong, experience welcoming learning environments and are safe in their identities.”

This read like a call to action for me. If architects and our allied professions could help educators with the seemingly insurmountable task of making all students feel equally welcome in schools and have their academic and social success reflect that, what a difference we could be making with our work.

Architects like to think of themselves as change makers. Can designers take on more responsibility and be the catalyst for change as school districts nationally are working to close the opportunity gap for disadvantaged students? It will take sincere, unbiased collaboration, with listening, testing, and assessing to begin to tackle this issue. What cultural norms should be reexamined? What assumptions have been made that may be wrong? What changes in facility design can we imagine to help narrow the achievement gap for students of color? We are already seeing some design strategies in action.

Wilson High School, Flexible CTE space connects to Shared Learning Zone, Tacoma, Washington — NAC Architecture

Some solutions can be small moves with large impacts. Classroom design, especially in middle and high school, is based on a traditional one-size-fits-all model with students in chairs listening to the teacher deliver information. This arrangement supports assessments and individual learning, but what if collaboration and peer-learning was the first priority? A classroom for differentiated, integrated, culturally-responsive learning might have a variety of seating options, opportunities to stand, and with a centralized focus for a shared and democratic classroom experience. No front or back of the classroom. Everyone accounted for, everyone a participant in a concentric community of learning.

Some solutions may require changes to instructional approach. Could more traditional English Language Learners spaces take on a more expanded role, to become language learning and immersion environments for all students, with an emphasis on cross-cultural appreciation and language familiarity?

Some solutions may be much broader than just the learning environment. How might the school site design help revitalize a neighborhood that lacks outdoor space for play, garden space for growing food, or other community gathering needs? How might a school district engage with parents of historically underserved student populations to find out what services on campus might help support students and their families? We are beginning to see school food banks or clothing pick-up spots, but these spaces have not yet made it into standard programming. More consistent partnering with community support organizations is needed to help scaffold a student's experience beyond the classroom.

Some solutions might relate to the school day and student supervision. Does the school have sufficient space to provide after school care and activities for students? This solution should extend to non-school days and summers. Historically underserved students may come from families struggling to afford full-time care for students during summer and other school breaks. If districts can work with partner organizations on permanent, shared facilities that offer programs during those times, then the school begins to play a much more holistic role in a community in terms of opportunity and success for its most struggling students. Those spaces should not be overlooked even if they are flexible double-use ones. Educational Specifications should strive to consider the whole child, the whole day.

Architects from NAC volunteer with young students at the Bureau of Fearless Ideas in Seattle, teaching them that anyone - yes anyone! - can be an architect. BFI offers after school care for underserved students free of charge. Read more. This rewarding experience has recently led to an AIA Diversity Recognition Program.


When it comes to the issue of school design and how to specifically improve outcomes for marginalized students, the area is still emerging. Architecture for Equity is in its infancy. First, we must begin with examining who the designers are. Second, overhaul the design process and make it more inclusive. Third, examine the current space assumptions for a school and analyze how they may not be serving the whole population. While it may not be possible to get everyone at the table, it is vital to get the right people, early – quality not quantity. The bridge-builders, the school mentors, the community advocates. If those individuals can join the design team and partner with the architects and district on understanding the school’s culture, challenges, and strengths, then the design process will benefit enormously.

In Part 2 of this discussion, I will talk to educators about their experience working towards a more equitable and welcoming school environment, and report on my interview findings to share a variety of new perspectives.

Additional Resources

Further resources for Architects looking to reexamine the way in which they design so a more equitable result can be achieved:

  • Reflex Design Collective is a group of interdisciplinary designers who can be tapped to help engage in a participatory design process, equity training, organizational transformation, and much more.
  • The Equity Design Collaborative aims to grow the field of Equity Design in order to disrupt white dominant cultural ways of working, redesign systems of oppression, and design for liberation.
  • EQxD is an architecture-based group working with the AIA to increase women and people of color in our profession.


1 Wispelwey, Erin. (2017). Everyone is Biased: How Reboot Builds Bias Checks into Design Research [Blog post]. Retrieved from: everyone-biased-reboot-builds-bias-checks- design-research/

2 PennState Center for Evaluation and Education Policy Analysis, College of Education (2015). The Importance of School Facilities in Improving Student Outcomes [Blog post]. Retrieved from: 2015/06/07/the-importance-of-school-facilities- in-improving-student-outcomes/

3 Halikias, Dimitrios, and Reeves, Richard V. (2017). Race gaps in SAT scores highlight inequality and hinder upward mobility [Blog post]. Retrieved from: race-gaps-in-sat-scores-highlight-inequality- and-hinder-upward-mobility/


How can the built environment promote critical thinking and a growth mindset approach to learning, while inspiring students to succeed?