Designing for Equity

Designing for Equity

What does it mean to design for equity? According to the National Equity Project, an organization dedicated to transforming “the experiences, outcomes, and life options” for children who are growing up in historically underserved communities, “it means every child receives what they need to develop to their full academic potential.” As architects, we are challenged to discern that need before we produce the first sketch for a new or renovated school; it’s one that changes with every project and every community where we work.

“Equity is an underlying concept before we even have a building program,” Perkins Eastman Associate Principal Ann Neeriemer says. “Teaching and learning should be for every student.” After holding several visioning sessions with students, staff, leadership, other community stakeholders, she explains, the design team helps establish a set of guiding principles to reflect these diverse viewpoints. Throughout the design and construction process, these design principles help to ensure that the needs and priorities of all stakeholders are being addressed. Adapting the design in response is important throughout every step – it’s not just something that happens at the beginning of a project. “We ideally want school communities to be designing with us, as collaborative partners in the process,” Neeriemer says.

In Washington, DC, for example, “Design teams have a lot of freedom to design in response to the unique needs of each community” for the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS), Neeriemer says. Ron Brown College Preparatory High School, an all-boys public high school in Washington, DC (pictured at top), opened in 2015 as part of a citywide school initiative called Empowering Males of Color. Among other design approaches outlined in our Insights blog, the school answered the call to nurture young men of color with “a space where they can actually respect each other and provide positive feedback to each other, and receive praise from their peers, receive praise from adults, to get used to actually giving and receiving that which is too few and far between for young men of their age,” Principal Benjamin Williams said. The renovated school features two “hearts”:

One wing has a soaring, double-height library to inspire achievement:

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The other has Fraternity Hall, where students meet each morning for bonding and support:

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“How Does Connection to Place Inspire Success?”

C.W. Harris Elementary School, featured in the video below, was also renovated to provide welcoming, safe, and accessible spaces to its diverse student and teacher population in DC’s underserved 7th Ward, east of the Anacostia River. “Strong academics are related to a commitment to social justice,” former Principal Heather Hairston said at the time the school was being designed in 2018. “We want our students to leave knowing their voice matters, that they have a place, a say, to make a difference in the world.”

In Germantown, MD, Perkins Eastman is designing the new Neelsville Middle School for its racially and culturally diverse student population, including a large cohort of students who are English language learners. The school also has a majority of students qualifying for meal assistance, an indicator of economic poverty. The new school, which is currently under construction, is set to have excellent acoustics, which is important for students learning English as their second language. Ample daylighting with nature views is therefore emphasized here, as are calm, open environments that resist overcrowding and stress, while high-quality ventilation systems keep CO2 levels low to improve attention and cognition. Student-centered classrooms will allow for multiple desk and table arrangements, easy-to-access materials and storage, and comfortable furnishings. Such flexible spaces encourage feelings of inclusion and an enthusiasm for learning—factors that have been shown to result in higher test scores, graduation rates, and college retention.

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In Northern California, Perkins Eastman is serving as the bridging architect on a major renovation McClymonds High School, a historic center of West Oakland’s African American community whose illustrious alumni include Medal of Honor recipient and basketball legend Bill Russell, longtime US Representative Ron Dellums, and musician MC Hammer. The work includes specifying a robust air filtration system to provide quality indoor air and protect students from pollutants that come from a nearby industrial zone, smoke caused by regional wildfires, and airborne pathogens such as COVID. With the participation of students in the school’s engineering and entrepreneurship programs, the new project also calls for a host of other improvements, including major improvements in spaces to support women’s athletics and environments to support advanced programs in robotics, music production, and digital media. Perkins Eastman’s work helps lay the foundation for investments that can have a transformational impact on the school’s students and the community as a whole.

McClymonds High School plan for renovation

One of our first forays into equitable design in education was in the early Aughts, when the Hetrick Martin Institute (HMI) hired Perkins Eastman to design and plan the space for a new permanent home for the Harvey Milk School. The institute had founded the school in 1985 as a safe space for LGBTQ teens to attend high school and avoid the jeers and bullying they might otherwise face in mainstream schools.

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The hallway leading to the art room includes frames to display students’ work. The school is designed with primary colors to promote vibrancy and creativity.

The classrooms are intentionally small to reinforce the school’s supportive environment, and a full commercial kitchen allows HMI to provide after-school activities and social support for students and their families. Harvey Milk also provides a more robust creative program than many other public schools offer, so the design includes spaces such as a darkroom and an expansive art room so students can pursue expression in all its forms. (This project, along with McClymonds High School and a health care facility in Los Angeles, were profiled in an Insights post about equitable design.)

Our mission to achieve equity in each project, Neeriemer emphasizes, is taking broad parameters calling for high-quality and high-performance learning environments and finding out how to apply them in ways that address the specific needs and desires of each school’s population. “Listen to what students actually say, not what you think they mean, or paraphrasing what they say,” she says. “Everything will surprise you.”