Pay teachers for the powerful impact they have on the economy and leadership of our future. They have the strongest ability to influence the lives and trajectory of many. Higher teacher salaries would attract the best and the brightest to the teaching profession to help young learners. Teachers should earn what their professional counterparts earn, and should receive performance bonuses for exceptional work. This would encourage professionals to move in and out of the classroom for real-world instruction.
As a part of my interview series about the things that should be done to improve the US educational system I had the pleasure to interview Angela Whitaker-Williams, Principal for K-12 Education Austin Studio of Perkins and Will.
Angela believes great design is about people, relationships, context, and experience. She enjoys learning about her clients’ drivers and implementing a flexible, timeless design framework that maximizes the programmatic opportunities, positively impacts the community, and creates amazing learning spaces.
Outside the office, Angela loves photography, scuba, and improv. She’s even been known to take the stage at a local improv cafè every now and then! Angela was also the first in her family to graduate from college with a bachelor’s degree and later a master’s.
She believes quality education is a precious gift of opportunity, so she focuses on educational design to extend those opportunities. She strives to continue to learn every day from the students she designs for, the clients she serves, and the talented team that surrounds her.
A native Texan, Angela lives in Round Rock with her high school sweetheart and husband of 27 years, their twin children, two rescue dogs, and a turtle named Slider. In her spare time, Angela enjoys baking elaborate birthday cakes for her family and wedding cakes for friends. She is active in her twins’ Scouts troops and typically has two to three home improvements projects as well as three loads of laundry going at all times.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?
As a young child, I loved spending time in a garage full of tools — designing, building, and making. Although I wasn’t thinking about architecture, these hours developed my understanding of what it means to sketch ideas, strategize the use of materials, and transition a concept into reality. What brought me to education design specifically is the belief that quality education is a precious gift of opportunity, and I want to create a built environment that can extend those opportunities.
Please share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career and what lesson you learned from it.
A year or so out of college, I had an internship for a seven-person firm in Houston, when by circumstance, I was put in an incredibly difficult position. Four of the men that ran the practice were best friends and had raised their kids together — they were very close. Each of them had a specialized role in the practice: business development, design, quality assurance, and technical architecture. The leader in technical architecture had passed away one morning unexpectedly, putting us all into shock and overwhelming amounts of grief — especially for the three other partners. A month following his loss, we were nearing a project deadline for a high school.
I had just started out and wasn’t yet a licensed architect, but felt a tremendous amount of responsibility as the partners took time to grieve. Understanding the importance of our work, I called in all of the consultants on the project and asked them for their support to make this project a success, out of respect to my late mentor. I asked them to teach me how to coordinate their work in honor of the principal who had passed, who would have normally handled the coordination. They all agreed and spent additional time with me and one another. Later, after I left for graduate school, I heard that the high school was not only built successfully, but was also one of the smoothest projects the firm had ever completed.
I learned a great lesson from this experience, as it taught me to prioritize my colleague’s emotional needs while still ensuring a job gets accomplished. It opened my eyes to a world of mentors beyond my office, and I realized that it’s important, and okay, to be vulnerable and ask for help when needed. I also quickly learned that when I feel as though I’ve been put in a situation that is over my head, I can find resources and rise to the occasion. Since learning that life lesson, I have built an army of mentors with different backgrounds and experiences. I use these same ideas today when managing my own team. I promote their learning and give them intentional challenges paired with great mentors so that they too have the opportunity to grow quickly. I create a safe space that values learning, experimenting, and success.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that project will help people?
Yes! The first is the Austin Community College Highland Campus. This is an adaptive reuse of a defunct 1970s mall into a higher education campus, surrounded by a mixed-use development. The project is multifaceted in its ability to serve people. It is designed to be a melting pot of creative programs set up for interdisciplinary opportunities that could not have happened when these programs were scattered across the district. It creates connections between TV, radio, film, animation, gaming, theater, fine arts, photography, and culinary just to name a few. The project also includes a large multifunctional lab for local industry training. Designed toward LEED Gold certification, the renovation makes new use of the site and introduces high efficiency systems in order to become a more sustainable economic engine. The site has a rich history of education and began as the St. John’s encampment, a place for vocational, educational, and religious gatherings for the African American population in the 1880s. After the St. John’s orphanage burned, the land was sold and later became a mall. This project returns that land to its original use of providing education for all, telling the rich history of the land and the opportunities education has provided.
I’m also working on the Eastside Early College High School and International High School at the Original Anderson High School, which was the only African American High School in Austin until it was closed by court order to desegregate in the early 1970s. The new campus is an early college program and includes an International school for students who are new to the U.S. It is designed to embrace stories of culture and heritage while pulling forward an environmental science and green school program that is as sustainable as the building and its stories.
Lastly, I’d like to mention the LBJ Medical Early College High School. This is a renovation of an existing high school to create the K-12 apex of a health science program that begins in kindergarten. It is designed to pair healthcare mentors at Dell Medical School with students in a hands-on, interactive simulation health science environment. The school currently has a high percentage of economically disadvantaged students and is seen as an opportunity to provide a pathway out of poverty while supporting the large need for healthcare workers in the region.
Can you briefly share with our readers why you are authority in the education field?
I am the founding Principal of Perkins and Will’s Austin studio, and a key member of the Austin studio’s leadership team. My experience is in the design of educational facilities. Over the past 28 years, I have collaborated with countless education leaders working to design learning spaces for kindergarten through graduate schools across the state of Texas. I have seen schools evolve from analog to digital and rote memorization to experience. It has been fascinating being part of the facilitation of transforming the physical space to align with new and future pedagogies.
From your point of view, how would you rate the results of the U.S. education system?
People often rate the results of the U.S. educational system on test scores or other metrics, but I think the results are deeper than what can be quantified through standardized testing. We must look at success in education as the ability to achieve future goals and discover careers that support our families. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development 2020, at 46.36 percent, the United States is sixth in the world for the percentage of students who have completed some kind of tertiary education (two-year, four year, or vocational programs). This type of success is an indicator that primary education is providing successful foundations for secondary education.
Similarly, according to the Bloomberg Innovation Index, the United States ranks first in the world in patent activity and high-tech density. This index considers research and development, patent activity, tertiary education in STEM, manufacturing value add, productivity, high-tech dentistry, and researcher concentration. While the U.S. is not first in the world in these rankings among countries who are selective on who is educated, it is clear that the overall U.S. educational system takes on all the challenges and endeavors in order to offer K-12 education to all for free. It is not limited by parental ability to pay, provide transportation, or uniforms. If you just judge by test scores to compare the U.S. to the rest of the world, you have to remember that their scores only test the wealthy, top tier of learners. In the U.S. educational system, we open the world of opportunity with no barriers of finance or ability, including a robust special education system. This belief that education is an opportunity for all makes it by far the best system in the world.
Can you identify 5 areas of the U.S. education system that are going really great?
- Free Education For All: the U.S. system educates all individuals regardless of economic, social, mental or physical abilities.
- More Than Just Learning: the U.S. system supports child safety, nutrition, health screenings, social emotional learning, counseling, technology access, and many whole child aspects other countries do not consider.
- Early Childhood: the U.S. has made great strides in early childhood programs that have paid off in student readiness in elementary schools as well as support for special needs students.
- Decentralized: the U.S. public school system is largely ruled by local school boards who have the ability to adjust learning to the needs of the community. While large scale expectations are set at both the federal and state levels.
- Launch Point: the U.S. public school system has established multiple pathways to student success and provides launch points to tertiary education and careers such as advanced placement, dual credit, mentorships, career, and technology education.
Can you identify the 5 key areas of the U.S. education system that should be prioritized for improvement? Can you explain why those are so critical?
There is always room for improvement, and the areas I’ve identified are listed out below:
- Understand and Solve Basic Needs First: For some children, the education system is the only place that they are fed, hugged, spoken to, or loved. While school may not have been created for this purpose, learning can’t happen before basic needs are met. Schools need more funding for nurses, counselors, and a large community of support.
- Graduation Rates: Any graduation rate below 100 percent is not good enough. Schools need the funding and staff to support students early. We need to deliberately focus on those who are behind the curve rather than mitigating graduation rates in high school. This includes broad screening for special needs at an early age where their trajectory can make a large difference. Additionally, graduation rates are often not a learning problem, but a confidence of basic needs problem. Self confidence can be built or torn down in schools. Teachers need special training on social and emotional learning for all students.
- Disparity of Achievement Gaps Between Schools and Regions: Public school funding, at least in Texas, is based on property values thereby allowing more affluent areas more financial support and fast growth areas no support to preposition for growth. Political and financial operations of schools need to look for ways to achieve equity that follows the child. Equity does not mean equal, it means what each community needs to be successful. Low income communities or communities with language barriers may need more to provide equity.
- Personalization of Learning: Every child learns at their own pace, not based on age groupings traditional to schools. Learning needs to be personalized for learning styles, career interest, and abilities. Student stress is high for both high performers and struggling learners. New metrics need to be established that acknowledge that a student does not have to be great at everything to be successful. These expectations would include personalized goals for success and project portfolios rather than grade point averages and test scores.
- Multiple Viewpoints/Histories: Learning needs to incorporate a diversity of stories so that women and people of color are also captured in history as great leaders and inspiration. Students need opportunity to express their multiple viewpoints and cultural elements within their work to make personal connections to it.
How is the U.S. doing with regard to engaging young people in STEM? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
In some classes, STEM subjects are only taught by theory and not hands-on learning. This causes the subjects to become stale and results in disinterest from students over time, even if the work is not necessarily difficult for them. Theory is objective with a right or wrong answer, but STEM needs to be taught as an open-ended world of possibilities within the hands of the learner to increase engagement. Studies have even shown that exposure to foundations of STEM early in life can foster the natural inclination to question, build, and explore.
Increased engagement in STEM with real world experiences like field trips at a young age are key to creating further career interest motivation. I believe that public-private partnerships and mentors can bring STEM into light as a profession. STEM has the ability to open the minds of youth with open ended, hands-on experiences. If taught in ways that let students experiment, it opens doors to inventions, patents, and great careers — that’s why STEM jobs are increasing in the innovation economy at almost twice the rate of non-STEM jobs.
Can you articulate to our readers why it’s so important to engage girls and women in STEM subjects?
Statistically, girls are more successful at math and science at an earlier age, however, their interest in STEM often wanes as they grow older. I can honestly say that as a girl in high school who took accelerated math and sciences, as well as technology classes. I graduated at the top of my class and even started college as a civil engineering major — making me one of two women in the freshman class of 1,000 civil engineers. Three weeks into the semester at a top engineering university, I started to look for a new major. It was not that the work was hard; I had placed out of many of my intro classes and had A’s in every class — I was bored by the topics, presentation format, and the rigidity of it. It did not offer the opportunity to be creative or social, it was closed off for all interaction in large lecture classes without projects. As such, I decided to move to environmental design for STEAM, which gave me the opportunity to explore the type of creativity I craved. At the time, there were only five women in my class of 500 architecture students, but the work was all project-based and applied, which catered to my social and creative nature.
Engaging a group of diverse students, including women, into STEAM subjects adds diversity of viewpoint that can lead to a higher level of innovation in our economy than ever before. STEAM/STEM careers desperately need the communication, multitasking, and creative skills that added diversity can bring. Engaging women in STEAM/STEM will maximize innovation, creativity, and competitiveness.
How is the U.S. doing with regard to engaging girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?
Overall, the number of women in STEM has been increasing, but not at the same rate that jobs in STEM are increasing. I suggest the following:
- Create connections with real-world mentors that are women in STEM fields.
- Teach real histories of women in STEM.
- Encourage girls in their STEM success at an early age.
- Make STEM a hands-on social and creative experience to give girls a voice.
As an education professional, where do you stand in the debate whether there should be a focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) or on STEAM (STEM plus the arts like humanities, language arts, dance, drama, music, visual arts, design and new media)? Can you explain why you feel the way you do?
Asan architect and designer, I feel it should be full STEAM ahead! STEM works on the scientific method, but including the arts adds the design process, and increases opportunities to be creative. The design process is less concerned with right or wrong, pass or fail dichotomies as it is with being an iterative process of continual improvement. The design process taps into culture, beauty, and expression. Pairing the arts with STEM opens learning to a broad variety of talents and modes of experience and experimentation. Even product designers in leading technology fields have realized the importance of design. Products like the iPhone that work well and have beauty are the most in-demand.
If you had the power to influence or change the entire U.S. educational infrastructure what five things would you implement to improve and reform our education system? Can you please share a story or example for each?
If I had the power to influence the U.S. educational system the top reforms would include:
- Pay teachers for the powerful impact they have on the economy and leadership of our future. They have the strongest ability to influence the lives and trajectory of many. Higher teacher salaries would attract the best and the brightest to the teaching profession to help young learners. Teachers should earn what their professional counterparts earn, and should receive performance bonuses for exceptional work. This would encourage professionals to move in and out of the classroom for real-world instruction.
- Share what is best. High performing teachers and best practices should be shared at a national level so that all schools — regardless of resources — have the reach to be continually learning and growing.
- Stop unfunded mandates at both the state and federal level. Every time a new metric is handed to public schools, it is not funded, and those funds must be found at the sacrifice of the classroom.
- Support the whole child without the stress of required perfection across all topics. Celebrate students’ strengths to build upon careers that suit their natural talents. Set up scholarships and college access rules that include those with a narrow strength focus. The next STEM genius may not be a “straight A” writer, but deserves the chance to be a great engineer or scientist.
- Include those who work directly with students and parents in educational reforms as they see it all and work with it on the dining room table.
- Invest in school infrastructure. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, 73 percent of school buildings in the U.S. were built prior to 1969, with many containing hazardous materials like lead and asbestos. Educationally, these buildings do not have the power, technology, storage, or collaboration zones needed for project-based STEAM learning.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I am the mother of twins who both have different learning styles. When they feel overwhelmed by being different in a one-size-fits-most system, I tell them, “You do not have to be great at everything. You do have to try in all areas; but you only have to be great at what you were made to do.” This is my way of getting them to focus on building their talents and skills deeply as an individual rather than just losing all self-confidence in the areas of struggle and coming out empty handed.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
- LinkedIn URL: https://www.linkedin.com/company/perkins-will/
- Twitter Handle: @perkinswill_ATX
- Instagram: @perkinswill_ATX