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Designing Diverse, Equitable and Inclusive K-12 Schools

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All too often, we as designers find ourselves walking the halls of schools built in years past; identifying the challenges, inequities and lack of sensitivity many students are subjected to as part of their day-to-day experience within the buildings. These schools, by and large, reflect an era of singular, one-size-fits-all solutions for educating our children. But today, it is more relevant and necessary to understand the various challenges our students face and accept that all learners are different. As architects, we have an incredible opportunity, and obligation, to ensure that today’s schools are designed to be diverse, equitable and inclusive places of learning for all students. Creating K-12 educational spaces and environments that embrace all students and will set the stage for forming stronger conversations and relationships during the school day and throughout the year.

Schools are a transformational and foundational part of a child’s life. Students in the U.S. spend on average between six and seven hours a day in school and research has shown that the physical environment can have an impact on student success. More than just a place to learn history or math, schools help provide students with the soft skills needed for future success. And those soft skills include everything from collaboration and team-based project experiences to social development and relationship building; to an awareness and understanding of complex social issues such as those regarding diversity, equity and inclusion. The environments where students spend the majority of their waking hours should support all facets of development, which is why it is critical to create educational spaces that embrace all students, reflect our society and that foster diversity, equity and inclusion.

Designing for Equity Starts with Listening and Learning

The first step in designing K-12 learning environments is engaging with the surrounding community who will be utilizing the building. Each community and student body is different and what may work in one community might not work in another. A transformational school design starts with listening and learning; from holding community visioning sessions to focus groups with teachers and students to hear directly about their needs. Understanding the context, demographics and cultural needs of a neighborhood can help inform design and the role that a particular facility plays in its community. To learn, we must listen.

These conversations need to ensure all voices are heard, and to do this, partnering with consultants or advocacy groups who are ingrained within a community are excellent ways to engage the community. With Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD), we partnered with EQT By Design to help facilitate equity-centered, community engagement conversations to help root our designs in the cultural needs, values and desires of specific neighborhoods or diverse communities. Members of the community were given a platform to share the importance and role the facility plays in their community. Their voice helped define the programs and services that needed to be supported by the facility and frame the environments their children will learn and grow in. In designing the new Montbello High School at Denver Public Schools, our team heard from nearly 1,300 community members who provided input and ideas for the design of the school. We enter our design practices with empathy to further understand the impact of the built environment on all communities and create an inclusive setting. The work of this practice is ongoing, and EUA’s K-12 experts and firm at large continuously seek out opportunities to learn through internal and external panels, workshops and research. This foundation of continuing to expand our awareness further instills within our design approach an understanding that the best designs consider how to make the built environment more diverse, equitable and inclusive. 

Community engagement outside of Denver Public SchoolsCommunity engagement session for the design of the new Montbello High School.

All students should have access to the same educational opportunities and to school buildings that are safe spaces to learn, develop and foster success. Below are some examples and key areas where we have worked with districts and communities to design equitable and inclusive environments for students, teachers and staff.

Creating Inclusive Spaces for Students

A considerable area of change in school building planning and architecture is in the design of restrooms and locker rooms. Locker rooms and toilet rooms present many challenges due to the difficulty in providing supervision and surveillance in areas where privacy is required, resulting in higher chances of inappropriate behavior. Creating all-gender facilities provides a safe space for all students to feel comfortable, however they may identify.

At Middleton-Cross Plains Area School District (MCPASD), we reimagined the traditional locker room in the high school by placing a majority of the lockers out in the open and creating changing areas with single-use changing rooms, nullifying the need for gender-specific locker rooms. While physical education class can be an enjoyable break for some students, it is anxiety inducing for others. At MCPASD, we provided a solution where the locker facilities are within an open, shared, non-gender specific area. Students can stow their backpacks, grab a change of clothes if desired, and change in all-gender, single-use changing rooms with toilets and showers. By providing most of the space in open, easily supervised areas, the chances for poor behavior diminish, and student choice increases.

Locker room and hand washing stationSheboygan Falls Middle School features lockers in the open with access to facilities.

Multi-fixture toilet rooms also present similar challenges. As a result, more and more districts in states across the US are electing to forgo multi-fixture toilet rooms and replace with single-use, all-gender toilet compartments, in combination with all-gender, communal, and open handwashing and hygiene areas. In Wisconsin, the State Administrative code does not yet allow this solution to count towards the code fixture requirements. In order to provide options and choice to all students, EUA designs all toilet room facilities with 1-2 single-use, all-gender toilet rooms in addition to the code required multi-fixture, gender specific toilet rooms.

At a minimum, schools should be designed and updated to meet ADA compliance. But to design with a holistic view of accessibility, it often requires by going beyond ADA guidelines and utilizing approaches such as Universal Design and human-centered design. Through this, we are able to create inclusive and flexible spaces that accommodate the needs and abilities of all students, to ensure they are part of the student body. For instance, at MCPASD's Pope Farm Elementary School and Middleton High School, we designed social stairs as part of the student common areas to extend and support learning outside the classroom and throughout the school. These features not only provide an alternative venue for a class or multiple classes to gather, but they also provide a social respite for students to gather. Care was taken in designing these social stairs to ensure all students are included. Areas notched out on the top and bottom of the stairs incorporate wheelchair access into the terraces, not next to or on the side, making certain all students feel a sense of belonging and integrated with their classmates

Elementary School cafeteria with social stairs and connecting bridgeSocial stairs at MCPASD Pope Farm Elementary School featuring inclusive design and integrated notches for wheelchair access.

Spaces Setup for Student Success

On the path to equitable schools, how do we ensure spaces are designed to set up all students for success? Not every child comes from a supportive home life, or they may lack access to basic needs at home, such as clean clothes, a warm shower, nutrition, or basic toiletry and hygiene supplies. This presents additional hurdles and can make entering school every day an anxiety-inducing experience for some students.

At MCPASD and MMSD, our teams have focused on designing “soft-landing” spaces for students who may be facing challenges at home. “Soft-landings” are designated spaces within the school that provide students with a non-threatening, supportive refuge throughout the school day. At MCPASD, this room is connected to the life-skills classroom, which includes a washer/dryer, access to a bathroom and shower, kitchen areas for eating meals or to recharge, and a free store stocked with various necessities. This allows students the ability to wash clothes or take a shower or address basic health needs. Strategic placement of the soft-landing areas, away from the main entrance or corridor, can help reduce the stigma for students accessing these spaces, and provides an alternative venue to meet with counselors, social workers or other support staff. Accommodating students with access to supplies and facilities they might not otherwise have access to helps ease their acclimation to the school day.

School dining facilities are also areas where we are focusing on alternative solutions for all students. Walking into a large cafeteria can be intimidating and nerve-wracking for some students because these areas put students in a high-exposure environment. Sometimes, just the overall volume and stimulation is too much for some students to handle. For the Monona Grove School District, we replaced the idea of a large cafeteria, holding 300 students, and instead created smaller satellite cafés to each serve 100 students. At Verona Area High School, designed for over 2,000 students, we created dining options of varying scales and levels of exposure, ranging from large, open commons, a smaller mezzanine dining area, and small, adjacent bridges and break-out areas. By providing scale options for the cafeterias, students and teachers enjoy a more comfortable setting that helps foster collaboration and relationship-building.

Dining commons with high school students sitting at tablesMultiple dining settings at Verona High School’s new commons allows for students to have a choice in which environment meets their comfortable levels and needs.

At MMSD, we designed the new Capital High School, a 200-student charter school that focuses on personalized learning in a smaller learning setting. 

rendering of lounge space with high school students interactingCapital High School rendering at Madison Metropolitan School District. “Many of the students who attend have been disengaged in school and are eager to re-engage in learning that supports their interests and goals.” [Quinn Craugh, Principal] 

It was paramount to not only design spaces where students could pursue their interests, but also to create a warm, welcoming environment and family atmosphere. The high school also provides multi-tiered levels of support; a soft-landing component was incorporated into the design, as well as a food bank and daycare center for student parents or expecting students. By creating a school where learners can feel secure and supported, students are able to fully engage in their learning and education.

Representation throughout a school building is incredibly important. Showing images of diverse learners and role models that reflect the student body is an easy, yet powerful way to show representation. For the Baraboo School District, an art piece was created and installed at the renovated middle school by indigenous artists from the HoChunk Nation. At MMSD, many of their facilities were very old, and the environments within didn’t reflect the student body or its diversity. For the newly renovated high school projects, it was critical for the renovated spaces to reflect the students that attend them. EUA held multiple student engagement sessions with the students to understand what they wanted their learning environments to be and how they wanted to be represented.

local ho-chunk artist mural and art installation at entrance of schoolMural designed by a Ho-Chunk artist, installed at Baraboo Jack Young Middle School.

rendering of library makerspace with canoe and native landscape art
Milwaukee Public Schools Frederick J. Gaenslen Library was renovated to be a stimulating and tactile environment to support children with disabilities.

Designing for Curriculum Needs + Student Futures 

Understanding that success after high school can look different for each student, districts, now more than ever, recognize that they need to support all paths, not just one for college. The curriculum in schools today continues to expand to provide more options and exposure to a variety of different paths such as construction, culinary and aviation. Many courses offer advanced certification that reduce the amount of education needed after high school, or even allow direct entry into some trades. Because of the nature of these curriculums, we have helped many schools bolster their career and technical education spaces into fully professional environments like those which students would encounter in the workforce. Classrooms include professional kitchens, advanced manufacturing spaces, healthcare environments and enhanced art spaces. Incorporating a robust mix of these learning environments can help students be successful on a multitude of pathways post-high school.

High school fabrication lab with students working at machinesCross-disciplinary Fabrication Lab at Menomonee Falls High School.

Tech education classroom with students operating machineryTechnical education classroom at Elkhorn Area High School.

Culinary arts lab with cooking demonstrationCulinary arts lab at Kewaunee High School.

One area where we as architects can have a dramatic impact on inclusivity is in the design of how student services are delivered in schools. For far too long, students have been pulled out of their learning environments to receive special services, creating a stigma around receiving needed support or intervention. At EUA, our design philosophy focuses on bringing the services to the student, and to accomplish that, the physical spaces need to support integrated delivery of services. We design classrooms into Small Learning Communities (SLC’s) with flexible spaces that provide areas for student intervention or support directly adjacent to the classroom. This might be a Small Group Instruction (SGI) area or break-out collaboration areas, small libraries or exploratory spaces. Following the fundamental ideas of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), these spaces are designed to meet the needs of all students, including those with specific learning challenges. They provide collaborative areas for individual and group work, and allow students to pursue their own learning interests and goals.  

Collaboration space outside classroomsFlexible learning spaces at Monona Grove School District, Granite Ridge Elementary School.

Open classroom with moveable glass walls into central collaboration areasFlexible and open classrooms and breakout areas for collaboration or student services at Oconomowoc Area School District, Meadow View Elementary School.

Making Diversity, Equity + Inclusion Integral to Our Design Process

While all these strategies can help create more equitable and inclusive schools, this process needs to be a holistic and integrated way of thinking about design. The more we, as designers, develop our cultural capacity and empathy, the more we can design with a lens of creating systems of equity for all students, educators, staff and community members.

What ways have you seen schools or built environments support diversity, equity and inclusion?

Chris Michaud, RA, LEED AP
Senior Design Architect : Associate

Chris is a Senior Designer Architect and Associate in our Learning Environment Studio. He is passionate about designing dynamic learning environments to create transformational experiences for students, staff and communities.

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