The outdoor amphitheater supports community gatherings at Arthur A. Richards PreK-8 School year-round while the gym is designed as an emergency shelter during a hurricane. Image courtesy DLR Group.
The outdoor amphitheater supports community gatherings at Arthur A. Richards PreK-8 School year-round while the gym is designed as an emergency shelter during a hurricane. Image courtesy DLR Group.

The changing requirements of educational space is just one part of the crisis we face as a result of COVID-19. In the second in a series of articles about COVID-19 and educational space, Taryn Kinney writes about racial inequities in education and their intensification during the pandemic. Read Part One, “Changing Paradigms in Educational Space,” here.

Inequities Before COVID-19

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Tony Ruth’s illustration inspired by Shell Silverstein’s The Giving Tree clearly communicates why justice, not just equity, is necessary.
Tony Ruth’s illustration inspired by Shell Silverstein’s The Giving Tree clearly communicates why justice, not just equity, is necessary.

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Tony Ruth’s illustration inspired by Shell Silverstein’s The Giving Tree clearly communicates why justice, not just equity, is necessary.
Tony Ruth’s illustration inspired by Shell Silverstein’s The Giving Tree clearly communicates why justice, not just equity, is necessary.

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Tony Ruth’s illustration inspired by Shell Silverstein’s The Giving Tree clearly communicates why justice, not just equity, is necessary.
Tony Ruth’s illustration inspired by Shell Silverstein’s The Giving Tree clearly communicates why justice, not just equity, is necessary.

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Tony Ruth’s illustration inspired by Shell Silverstein’s The Giving Tree clearly communicates why justice, not just equity, is necessary.
Tony Ruth’s illustration inspired by Shell Silverstein’s The Giving Tree clearly communicates why justice, not just equity, is necessary.

Equality, the even distribution of tools and assistance to all students, has been a goal of public education since the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. Since then, our nation’s schools have strived to integrate students with diverse backgrounds, ethnicities, income levels, and needs. But just as schools were “separate and unequal” then, many remain so today. Public education has recently re-focused on the goal of equity, which is the provision of custom tools that identify and address inequality. Justice, then, looks like fixing the system to offer equal access to both tools and opportunities. In 2020, COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement again brought widespread disparities to the forefront of education. Now is a crucial moment for our society to come together, support the just education of all children, and close the equity gap.

Given the history of systematic racism, we are faced with incredible challenges to overcome. Redlining and subsequent urban shifts have effectively segregated children in many American cities. Through white flight in middle of the 20th century and in newer variations, many families, largely affluent whites, moved into higher performing districts or took their children out of public schools altogether. As a result of these relocations, the populations of many urban schools are students from low-income households. To enable students to focus on academics, schools attempt to compensate for the acute needs associated with poverty and a lack of access to other basic needs like food, housing security, health care, early childhood education, etc.

In WHOLE, Rex Miller connects these needs to the incredible stresses piled on educators and leaders of urban schools. Miller compares schools to field hospitals because educators are required to triage and create a plan of support in response to “the new level of needs showing up in public schools across America. Those needs arrive mostly through students in low-income and non-English-speaking families, and from vulnerable neighborhoods.” Not only does this lead to high staff turnover and teachers leaving the profession in droves, but it also results in inconsistent support being provided to our most vulnerable children. Title One federal funds are available to schools in which more than forty percent of their students are from low-income families. This funding is crucial, but it is far from enough to fund successful efforts. The misalignment between needs and supports leads to an inaccurate perception that these schools are low-performing.

In an effort to desegregate schools within urban areas, many school districts opted for specialty programs or magnet offerings to provide choices to families. Through transfer processes or a lottery system, this option allows students access to schools with specialty programs at perceived high-performing campuses. These schools often educate mostly kids from high-income families, which means they regularly enroll low numbers of BIPOC students.

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George Floyd at Jack Yates High School. Photo by Lynn Gallien via The Washington Post.
George Floyd at Jack Yates High School. Photo by Lynn Gallien via The Washington Post.

The Washington Post recently ran a series on George Floyd’s experience at Yates High School in Houston. It follows the cycle described above where a once-revered community school becomes underfunded and its teachers and staff overly burdened. When desegregation started in Houston Independent School District (HISD), enrollment was about 50% white. In 1989, when Floyd started school, it was 15% white. Today, of HISD’s 210,000 students in the seventh largest school district and the most diverse city in the country, 8.7% of students are white and 75% are economically-disadvantaged. U.S. News & World Reports has ranked three HISD high schools in the top one hundred best schools in the nation, but the district also has some of the lowest performing schools. Our educational system fails students of color like Floyd because the resources were not allocated justly to meet actual needs.

Current educational funding structures exacerbate inequities and deserve new attention from policy makers and citizens alike. Three aspects of funding need to be re-examined: property taxes, standardized test scores, and external private funding.

In many states, schools receive funding tied to the value of the properties located within their boundaries. When community disinvestment occurs, property values decrease, and schools lose tax revenue. This tax model doesn’t take into consideration the income of families and often allocates the fewest resources to children with the greatest needs.

Standardized test performance also needs to be reconsidered. While testing is not inherently bad, it is only one measurement at a single point in time, with no context of the starting point, abilities, or external determinants. A teacher from a Central Texas school district recently shared with me that she had a student start fourth grade who did not speak English, had never been to school, and didn’t know how to write his name. This same student was expected to take standardized tests the following month. His teacher would be evaluated based on his performance and the school's funding would be impacted. Some may look at test scores and claim that schools are failing, but they don’t tell the whole story.

Lastly, private funding is starting to fill the gaps at some schools, but this kind of funding is not allocated equitably. The magnet school option described above allows parents to group and raise money to support their children's school through a Parent Teacher Association/Organization (PTA/O). A recent episode of Nice White Parents highlights this process, and I have lived it. I went on magnet tours like those that Chana Joffe-Walt describes, with parents affluent enough to take off work in the middle of the day. I was able to choose between schools that offered programs in STEM, Montessori, three kinds of language immersion, and many others. I bragged about the amazing options that I had for my children, not realizing what lay beneath the surface of these options. Many specialized programs have additional funding sources from their own PTA/O or third-party organizations. Annual galas and other fundraisers raise enough to cover full teacher salaries and specialty program materials. By funding my children's school directly, I was deciding that my kids deserve these benefits and kids elsewhere do not. If we focus our funds in some schools and not others, whether through taxes, test scores, or private funds, how can each child succeed? And especially when children arrive at school with a variety of experiences, needs, and resources?

COVID-19 Magnifies Inequities

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The efforts of Dallas ISD cafeteria workers were recognized in the April 20, 2020 issue of "Time." Image via the Dallas Morning News.
The efforts of Dallas ISD cafeteria workers were recognized in the April 20, 2020 issue of "Time." Image via the Dallas Morning News.

In a nationwide survey conducted last summer, DLR Group found that pre-existing inequities were magnified when COVID-19 forced public schools to close nearly a year ago. Since then, these institutions have gone above and beyond to reach their students outside of their buildings. Districts invested heavily in providing devices for and Wi-Fi connectivity to their learners. Issues of food security arose: Dallas ISD quickly set up forty-seven grab-and-go sites for food distribution and handed out nearly “650,000 [meals] in a single day.” Public schools even served families that were not enrolled in their district, i.e.: learners who attend charter schools or smaller private schools. Educators have long been aware of the stark differences in home safety and access to resources. Because COVID-19 forced learning to occur outside of a school building, these gaps were made visible to the broader public for the first time.

While the spring 2020 semester highlighted basic shortcomings, in contrast the fall semester has brought light to another kind of inequity—that of unequal learning supports. Due to compounded hardships of COVID-19 and the need for an engaged adult to be available for supervision, more than 250,000 students have not returned to Texas public schools this year, based on data from the Texas Education Agency and Department of State Health Services.  The majority of these students are between pre-kindergarten to first grade, and their absences are disproportionally occurring in school districts with more low-income families. These early grade levels are crucial times to compensate for the lack of quality early childhood education options for low-income families.

Existing inequities are further exacerbated with the rise of private learning pods. In order for working parents to have dedicated hours to work without child care responsibilities, some have organized small groups of students to learn together. Some parents have additionally hired tutors or even accredited teachers to lead their pods through the remote learning offered by their school district.  Alternatively, parents of means have withdrawn their children from public school entirely and moved to private schools that are offering in-person learning in smaller environments or even outdoor, nature-based programs.

In contrast, a local public teacher shared stories with me of grandparents having to supervise multiple children simultaneously, even though senior citizens have difficulty navigating technology-based learning. Additionally, special education classes and courses for English language learners are more difficult to teach remotely. The longer these learners go without direct access to educators, the more learners risk falling behind, especially if children were already behind before the pandemic. School districts across the country are starting to see significant data that students are falling behind at unprecedented levels with potential long-term impacts and declines in graduation rates.

While there is frustration with the variety of ways learning has been offered at school this fall, there’s undoubtably a new appreciation for teachers and schools, and a new understanding of the holistic support they can provide given sufficient funding, training, and supports. Now, more than ever, stakeholders are starting to recognize the tremendous role schools play in supporting the broader communities they serve.

Opportunities Ahead

COVID-19 is a magnifier of long-standing inequities not only in our educational system, but also in our society as a whole. We don't appropriately fund our public schools to bear the burden of feeding, clothing, and providing mental and physical health services for our kids. Even in high-performing suburban districts with fewer low-income students, achievement gaps across race and income levels are significant. Our current system allows some learners to succeed while others fall further behind. We must see the opportunity of this worldwide experience as a catalyst for change. We must rethink the school environment and expand networks of support to prepare learners for their futures. For example: There is now solid research about how to better reach young learners from low-income families, and there are also proven results from Inquiry-Based Learning and passion-driven learning models. Architects have the responsibility to give form to these effective pedagogies when designing educational space.

Examples of alternative models to better serve and educate our children have emerged—some before COVID-19 and some because of COVID-19. In addition to providing free meals, Dallas ISD reached families with limited mobility through agreements with its public transit system and Lyft. In response to the unprecedented absenteeism for learners at the younger grade levels, KIPP Newark, a free public charter school, has started offering night kindergarten classes; simply shifting school time to alternate with parents work hours greatly improved their attendance. Meredith Eger, KIPP Newark’s lead teacher, commented that many of the kids that were first to join had "missed school all of September and most of October.” Not every school can fund two shifts of teachers, but what if community partners can? Partnerships with local organizations that are already engaged could yield an additional layer of support. The 8-to-3 school day has long been the standard, but the hybrid learning model that was widely implemented during the pandemic has shown that some students are more engaged learners at different points in the day.

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A campus approach for Arthur A. Richards PreK-8 School on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands with outdoor covered walkways supports incorporation of the culture and heritage of the islands with sustainable design. Image courtesy DLR Group.
A campus approach for Arthur A. Richards PreK-8 School on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands with outdoor covered walkways supports incorporation of the culture and heritage of the islands with sustainable design. Image courtesy DLR Group.

How do we utilize forms of learning that arose due to COVID-19 to create the school of the future? Employers could, for example, increase their engagement through mentorships and actual on-the-job experience. Districts and businesses across the country are exploring extending learning beyond the walls of a school to help learners be prepared for the future job market. Some educational spaces might be hosted within corporate headquarters or civic institutions; this type of collaboration would be an investment to develop future, skilled workers, which benefits everyone. For example, in 1996 the Omaha Zoo and Aquarium began a partnership with their local school district to share resources. Both institutions found that learners were highly engaged in this program, which created a strong foundation for success in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) career pathways. Now the zoo offers two schools: one for 3-5 year olds and one for juniors and seniors in high school. Building stronger connections across geographic, racial, and economic boundaries strengthens networks. Through this effort, we can bridge the inequities highlighted by COVID-19 and provide funding appropriately.

After reviewing hundreds of research articles, my colleague Anton Blewett found that students with high needs are impacted twice as much by facilities in poor condition when compared with average learners and that they achieve even greater academic gains in evidence-based environments. Utilizing this research, we must actively work to right the wrongs of communities that still suffer disproportionately from pollution, lack of access to health care and healthy foods, and the effects of global warming. As both designers and citizens of our communities, we have a responsibility to search out and listen to historically underrepresented voices. The design process can provide a safe way to have the challenging conversations that will build stronger connections.

Precedent Projects

We can learn from examples of responsive designs for educational space that center concerns of care and equity. DLR Group recently completed an educational facilities master plan for the U.S. Virgin Islands that will rebuild schools devastated four years ago when two category five hurricanes devasted the islands. These new schools are designed to be resilient community resources that use less energy through passive ventilation design and are available during and after a storm for shelter and access to services.

For a recent project with a high percentage of students who experience homelessness, NAC Architecture completed extensive observation and interviews with students, parents, and teachers to understand how the built environment could ensure learners have their basic needs met to be ready to learn. They heard that small nooks allow individual learning breaks and included them in the design for an early learning center. Additionally, providing windows between a classroom and an adjacent space allows the learner privacy for self-expression to process trauma and still allows teacher observation for safety. In response to students needs beyond academics, many school districts are now providing spaces within their schools to ensure families have access to outside social service providers and other resources.

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“A Children’s Mural” by Raul Valdez and Sánchez Elementary students in existing school library. Image courtesy McKissack & McKissack.
“A Children’s Mural” by Raul Valdez and Sánchez Elementary students in existing school library. Image courtesy McKissack & McKissack.

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“A Children’s Mural” by Raul Valdez and Sánchez Elementary students in existing school library. Image courtesy McKissack & McKissack.
“A Children’s Mural” by Raul Valdez and Sánchez Elementary students in existing school library. Image courtesy McKissack & McKissack.

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The celebrated mural anchors the school through a double height space that connects the library on the second floor with an open collaboration area on the first floor. Image courtesy McKinney York Architects.
The celebrated mural anchors the school through a double height space that connects the library on the second floor with an open collaboration area on the first floor. Image courtesy McKinney York Architects.

For a recent project in an historically underserved community in Austin, McKinney York Architects facilitated extensive community engagement meetings to support three existing elementary schools coming together in a modernized Sánchez Elementary. The core value of Culture and Community was identified by the campus committee and the existing campus artwork and artifacts from all three schools became a driver for the design. The intentional preservation and relocation of A Children’s Mural, a large mural painted by Raul Valdez and hundreds of Sánchez students, celebrates the importance of the community’s identity through their artwork and facilitates art as a learning tool.    

DLR Group has also developed a Design Agency framework for inclusive community engagement that incorporates the Social Determinants of Health, a holistic method of assessing human well-being. To do so, we explore the six identified determinants—economic stability, neighborhood and physical environment, education, food, community and social context, and health care system—at the three scales in which equity impacts school ecosystems—neighborhood, school site, and individual experience. We then translate this information into meaningful recommendations for future investments. This establishes a baseline understanding around issues of equity and opportunity in each community where we work. In our projects, we’re pushing the boundaries of collaboration across institutions and communities to do what is best for families, children, and the professionals who have the largest impact on our children—teachers.

Three Next Steps

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The health care industry recognizes these six broad determinants have significant health outcomes. Understanding the challenges and opportunities within these categories informs our design processes. Image courtesy DLR Group.
The health care industry recognizes these six broad determinants have significant health outcomes. Understanding the challenges and opportunities within these categories informs our design processes. Image courtesy DLR Group.

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During a recent master planning process with a school district outside of Chicago, stakeholders were asked to identify variables in each category of the Social Determinants of Health at three different scales—community, school, and individual user level.
During a recent master planning process with a school district outside of Chicago, stakeholders were asked to identify variables in each category of the Social Determinants of Health at three different scales—community, school, and individual user level.

COVID-19 has made even more visible the inequities that exist in America. Three significant shifts in education must occur if we are to build a just future. First, Miller states in WHOLE that early investment in quality education has an incredible return on investment; it doubles every 5.5 years “in value through better outcomes in education, health, sociability, economic productivity, stable families, and reduced crime.” Early childhood education should be funded for learners with high needs. Research shows that teachers have the highest single impact on learning outcomes. Therefore, support for continued personal learning and social emotional needs of our educators must be a top priority. If we consider that “the collective life-time earning power of each class a teacher will teach is estimated at $61 million or more,” then teacher salaries must reflect their potential for positive outcomes in our society. Second, we must actively acknowledge and undo systems that place BIPOC learners at a disadvantage, both within educational systems and in our society. Third, communities and business alike benefit from engaged learners that are building skills to prepare them for their futures. A broad coalition of community non-profits, institutions, and businesses should unite to create more authentic inquiry-based and applied learning environments.

We now have a chance to prioritize the success of students today and in the future. To do this, we must invest in each child and teacher, dismantle racist systems of the past, and create new opportunities for individuals to find fulfillment.  

Taryn Kinney, AIA, LEED AP, K-12 Studio Leader, and Principal at DLR Group, is a native Texan who has successfully led the strategy, visioning, planning, and design of more than 4,000,000 square feet of learning space nationally and internationally. Kinney designs experiences for her clients that empower them to create and implement exceptional learning environments.

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