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Creating Inclusive Learning Spaces: Designing for Equity at Southside Elementary School

Updated: Dec 29, 2023

In 2023, Madison Metropolitan School District opened up a new elementary school on the Southside of Madison, right next to Badger Rock Middle School, currently called Southside Elementary School. This school replaces Allis Elementary, housed closer to Madison’s far Eastside, which served mainly Southside Madison families. With Allis based on the East side, most students had long bus and car rides to school. Now, the Southside of Madison has its own community-based school and a school they were central in creating.


EQT By Design, in partnership with Urban Assets and the Madison Metropolitan School District, engaged with Southside of Madison residents to design their school through our community-centered equity engagements. Our part in this project started in 2020 and into the first quarter of 2021. The first question we asked ourselves was, “What would a strong programming curriculum be at the elementary school level?” As the district attendance lines for this school were drawn, we designed our engagements, deciding that doing engagements at Frank Alice and virtually would ensure accessibility for as many families as possible. These engagements aimed to understand what people really wanted in a school.


Through these engagements, intersecting key areas arose. We learned about what people wanted from a cultural perspective regarding the use of art, language, and history, and in seeing it as a “show me, don't tell me,” I belong here. The other big theme that arose was how we can honor the past while serving the future. How can you embrace culture in iconic ways, racially, ethnically, and linguistically? How can groups reflect themselves in the space and being of the school? How can we see that show up in the schools using color, recognizing and lifting up people from the past, and showcasing student art?


A colorful gym, with the first class signing an I-beam overhead

Then, we wanted people to close their eyes and asked what they imagined. We wanted to hear how they thought about the physical attributes of the design in their mind. Such as how do you make school and community cohesive, but also you need to have it separate, right? When you're doing school, you're doing school; when you're doing community, you're doing community? So, how do you use the space where people eat? How are they thinking about height and sizing? If you have a person of small stature, how might they feel going into and around the halls? Are the walls big and intimidating? What materials are the walls made of, and how do they feel? We wanted to hear about how you can create safe spaces and how a space feels visually and physically safe.


This led us to the broader experience and feeling in the space, such as acoustics and other sensory experiences, to remember the array of lived experiences, such as for children on the autism spectrum. A space where people, or small groups, can have quiet zones or furniture that makes you want to sit in and use it, where gathering is convenient and feels joyful and safe. A building where it is easy to navigate, feel safe, know where you want to go, and feel good as you move through it.


Then, regarding the physical site itself, it was important to make it easy and safe to get to the school to be dropped off and picked up. The weather doesn’t affect whether you walk, park your car, or take a bus. 


Another piece is Badger Rock and Rooted, which are already on that site. So what was the relationship in the connection going to be with Badger Rock and Rooted? We wanted to identify some opportunities for bridging critical community resources and making the connections more cohesive, not less.


Displays of student art, flourishing in the hall

The last piece is what we wanted to know from a community-specific perspective: what would make people spend time in the space? Such as community sports resources, wellness, and social and emotional needs. Is there a welcoming center? What kinds of things can people do there in that space as community members? For example, is there evening and weekend programming that meets the needs of families? What kinds of entertainment could be in the space? And how could you showcase what's happening in the community and at the school that is welcoming to the community to experience it and to demonstrate the space isn't just for parents and kids.


After we engaged the community, we broke down the information to present it to the architects in a digestible way that would translate into cohesive design concepts. We did this by translating the experiential and sensing information — what does that mean when discussing space, color, and design? We took that information and explained it in tangible, practical ways. We also consulted with them about what a space meant for not only surviving but thriving looked like for the community. So, the space becomes and feels inclusive. It comes down to well-being, thinking about how to avoid minimizing the needs of different demographic groups, and helping people understand how all of it was important and beneficial for everyone, not just the traditional student. We wanted to ensure they thought about all these different ways students and the community show up in space.


We worked with the architects to help them understand what kinds of reflections they needed to design to resonate so the community knew they were listened to when they entered the building. Now, in 2023, students at Southside Elementary are experiencing their first school year in the building, their building. And we’re already seeing positive effects with record attendance numbers. Students have a place where they can thrive. The future is bright on the Southside of Madison, where community members have a community school to call their own.

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