Crown Heights School, Brooklyn New York. Architect: Robert A M Stern Architects, Interiors: Gensler.
Crown Heights School, Brooklyn New York. Architect: Robert A M Stern Architects, Interiors: Gensler.

Why Understanding the BIPOC Student Experience Is Critical to the Future of Education

Editor's Note: This blog was originally published on April 8, 2021 and has been updated with additional findings from the research report.

By gaining a deeper understanding of the unique BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) student experience, we can design learning spaces that feel safe and engaging for everyone. Classroom and school design alone cannot eliminate systemic and structural disadvantages in the education system, but by including BIPOC students as stakeholders in the design process and considering the nuances of their experiences, we can create spaces that give students a sense of agency.

This critical feedback from BIPOC students is captured in our 2021 research initiative, “Education and the BIPOC Experience: Amplifying Student Voices in New York City High Schools,” which was supported by a grant from the Gensler Research Institute’s recently established Center for Research on Equity and the Built Environment.

This research endeavor started with the preconceived notion that our experience in designing schools was inclusive of all students, but we realized the need to understand the nuances of the lived experience of BIPOC students. The survey responses point to a deep need to disrupt design philosophy to ensure we are creating equitable education spaces for all students.

We surveyed New York City students from 18 high schools, primarily public, to learn more about their school perceptions. The survey was organized into four main categories, which covered demographics, safety, belonging, and experience. We also asked students to compare two schools based on their physical appearance and share their impressions.

We learned that safety and belonging in educational spaces play an essential role in the lives of BIPOC students attending school in an urban setting. Many factors shape their student experience that extend beyond the classroom itself, including the safety of the surrounding neighborhood and the length and nature of students’ commutes.

Caption: KIPP Bronx Charter High School, New York. Exterior Photograph © Albert Vecerka / Esto.

Our research reinforced that a vast array of design decisions that architects and interior designers make can subconsciously amplify perceptions of the wealth disparity that is inherent in the design of the different schools. For example, materials, colors, seating arrangements, and window treatments, are all design factors that contribute to students’ comfort levels and success in the classroom.

Here are responses from students when asked to compare different schools:

One [school] looks very professional, where those who attend succeed, whereas the [other] one feels very restricted and [those who attend] don't get far in life.”
—Senior from Queens, identifies as Hispanic or LatinX
“I believe that [one] school has more successful students. I believe it is the windows that give that idea to me.”
—Senior from Brooklyn, identifies as Black
“One [is for] high achieving students, [the other is for] the average student. My first impression was that the first one had a [large] budget to use (meaning there are more opportunities for programs and internships), and the second one had an average one.”
—Sophomore from Brooklyn, identifies as Hispanic or Latinx
“One building looks well-funded, which makes me think that the students who go there must be 'well-funded' themselves.... I'd assume the education within the building is top-notch, which also means the atmosphere might be competitive. The [other] school seems like your average high school.... I'd think that the students there are people who I could get along with, more average folk. I would want to go to the [first] school because it seems like a quality school. However, feel like I would fit in better with the students [at the other] school.”
—Sophomore from Brooklyn, identifies as Black
Dwight-Englewood Middle School, Englewood, New Jersey. Photograph © Robert Deitchler / Gensler.

Our Urban Education report findings reinforce that while embracing innovation is important, education design needs to strike a balance between high design and familiarity to prioritize creating a comfortable environment for all students.

Here are three insights for designers and educators to consider to create learning environments that enhance the BIPOC student experience:

1. Designer thinking is part of the problem.

The way architects design may unintentionally amplify wealth disparity. We should more strongly consider the diversity of our clients and our project types. This leads us to explore what more we can do to create an inclusive school. We believe that the next phase of educational design will embody far more empathy and be inclusive of diverse student experiences.

2. Listen to stakeholders more closely.

Student perception of classroom space and school buildings is more nuanced than most designers may realize. A substantial part of our research involved learning which subtleties of the student experience we should be examining. Our survey findings taught us that the BIPOC student experience is likely shaped more by an individual’s sense of safety and belonging than by the physical environment.

3. As designers of learning environments, we must be teachable.

As we further our research, we intend to focus on the relationship between safety and belonging to ensure we are creating equitable education spaces. Our research intends to elevate marginalized voices and enhance the BIPOC student educational experience by listening to student responses rather than prescribing new best practices.

Our research intends to elevate marginalized voices and enhance the BIPOC student educational experience by listening to student responses rather than prescribing new best practices.

In the summer of 2020, the Gensler Research Institute established the Center for Research on Equity and the Built Environment, focused specifically on funding research dedicated to addressing systemic racism, unconscious bias, and social justice. The Center funded 15 projects beginning in the summer of 2020 and another round of projects in April 2021. This blog reviews preliminary findings from a grant entitled “Urban Education: Understanding the Complexities and the Impact on BIPOC Lives.”

For any media inquiries, please contact Kimberly Beals at .

Stella Donovan
Stella is a research communications specialist with the Gensler Research Institute. Contact her at .
Sara Silvestri
As a designer and Community Impact leader in Gensler's New York’s office, Sara focuses on creating spaces that support cultural institutions, education, and nonprofits. Her work is driven by designing for equality and inclusivity. Contact her at .
Margot Kleinman
Margot is an architect in Gensler’s Washington, D.C. office who focuses on community-oriented projects relating to transportation, urban planning, and senior living. She is passionate about creating equitable spaces for all to use. Contact her at .
Phillip Redpath
Phillip is a versatile job captain in Gensler's New York office who is involved in projects that promote civic engagement, in practice areas that include education, performing arts, and aviation. His work is focused on creating spaces that bring people together and build a sense of community. Contact him at .
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