The Disparity in School Design — and the Responsibility we Have to Fix it

The Disparity in School Design

Should you take the time to analyze the range of educational architecture that stands throughout the country — the design, condition, aesthetics and overall function of our school buildings — you’ll notice very quickly that significant disparities exist from school district to school district. This is important because recent studies have revealed distinct relationships between the quality of school buildings, the level of community engagement, and the overall performance of our students.

Consider the following school district examples that demonstrate the disparities found in today’s K-12 building designs and conditions.

School District A: The “ideal” school district

Situated in an affluent community, District A is one of the most highly regarded, top performing school districts in the country. Due to high levels of consistent funding over time, District A students receive their education in beautiful, modernized facilities with smart building systems, endless technical resources, and unique amenities. They have access to flexibly designed classrooms that receive abundant natural light, fully equipped media centers and computer labs with state-of-the-art technology, and well-maintained playgrounds and recreational fields for free and organized play.

Additionally, District A offers exceptional after school activities including athletic programs, band and orchestra classes, a variety of clubs, and even mentoring opportunities with local non-profits and community organizations. And let’s not forget about pride because boy does District A have lots of it. In every District A building, pride is evident throughout the hallways with dynamic visual elements reflecting the school colors, mascot, and inspirational quotes.

Opportunity is certainly knocking at every door in District A, which evidently sets District A students up for great success when they arrive at their respective schools.

School District B: The “complacent” school district

Like most school districts in the country, District B is doing “fine.” District B students attend school every day in buildings that may not be brand-new, but for the most part, they’re renovated, clean, and moderately maintained. They may still sit in boxy classrooms filled with rigid rows of old desks, but they’re also getting new smart boards installed soon, which they’re really excited about.

District B’s High School also has a nice organic turf field that gets tons of great use from their varsity football team. However, the community rarely attends District B’s Friday night football games, which ends up having a negative effect on the school’s spirit.

District B doesn’t live with abundance, but they also don’t necessarily live without. And while there may not be any “glaring” issues present for students at District B, when compared to District A, some obvious discrepancies can be seen.

School District C: The disadvantaged school district

Unfortunately, District C is made up of old, rundown buildings with leaky roofs, broken heating and ventilation systems, and even duct taped windows in certain parts of their facilities. District C students aren’t given personal laptops or up-to-date textbooks. Instead, they’re sitting in crowded classrooms using outdated resources that are failing to keep up with 21st century learning.

All of this contributes to lower rates of success for District C students. Their unsafe, dilapidated building conditions often cause them to experience more chronic absenteeism and lower graduation rates.

Even worse, District C is not the outlier.

The Government Accountability Office estimates that approximately 36,000 schools nationwide currently need to update or replace their heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems. And in 2017, the American Society of Civil Engineers graded Americas’ school infrastructure with a D+.

Much of this unfortunate disparity in building quality and design is largely due to gaps in funding. The 2019 Local School Finance Study, conducted by the Public School Forum of North Carolina, found that the ten highest spending counties spent on average $3,200 per student, compared to $755 by the ten lowest spending counties, leaving a significant gap of $2,445 per student. Gaps like this appear all throughout the country.

Bridging the Gap

These hyperbolic depictions of District A, B and C are designed to emphasize the inequality that exists among school building design today. In a perfect world, we all want our children to attend schools like those in District A. We all want our students to walk through school buildings that are inspiring and uplifting; that encourage curiosity and collaboration; that spark creativity and motivation; and that serve as an inviting launch pad into their futures.

While we may not live in a “perfect world,” we do have the power to encourage and implement changes that can have positive effects on students no matter where they attend school. One way we can start to make a difference is in re-imagining how our schools and communities interact with one another.

What if all schools became more outward facing? What if it became ‘the rule,’ not ‘the exception,’ for schools to partner with the community on a regular basis? What if community leaders became vital, sought after resources for schools to tap into? What if business owners, healthcare providers, local artists or even successful realtors were able to become part of the school curriculum?

Designing Spaces for Community Engagement

Traditionally speaking, an architect isn’t expected to solve socioeconomic problems. Often, we’re simply called to provide solutions for the more technical, building-related issues.

At CPL, however, we believe architects and engineers have a responsibility to be stewards of positive change for our schools and communities. We view our role as one that uses design as a vehicle to make schools more outward facing, encourage community engagement, and instill a sense of pride and ownership for students.

Our design philosophy stems from a desire to introduce more inclusive practices that engage diverse communities and address historical disparities in the education system. We view the school building design process as a powerful tool that can help break negative cycles and inspire long-term, community engagement within school districts. Now more than ever, District B and C students desperately need this cycle to be broken so that student achievement can be elevated across the board.


A true advocate for new ideas and innovation, Chris' passion for K-12 design has always been a key driver in his efforts to outfit students with creative spaces for learning and development. For nearly 20 years, he has continually refined his work to reflect the latest trends in designing flexible spaces for individualized learning.

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