What if students wanted to explore their school culture and social dynamics through quantitative and qualitative research, and then use their research to effect change? At Dwight-Englewood, Upper School students are doing just that through a partnership with the Center for the Study of Boys’ and Girls’ Lives (CSBGL).
Through an Upper School elective course that uses an approach called Youth Participatory Action Research (YPAR), a group of D-E juniors and seniors this past year conducted a massive research project called “Social Group Dynamics.” Guided by Clinton L. Carbon, D-E’s director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs and the teacher of the yearlong course, students came up with the idea of the study, developed protocols, solicited responses from students throughout the Upper School, gathered data, analyzed trends, and wrote a report that administrators can use to make informed decisions and programmatic and curricular changes to create a more welcoming, inclusive, safe, and affirming school culture.
Social science research by students for students — it’s a concept that has piqued the interest of students like Kai Marcel ’15, who took the YPAR class. He says, “It’s important for schools to have programs like YPAR because the students are the ones with the real potential to change the hidden curriculums and social cultures of their schools, and YPAR gives students a direct way to do that.”
YPAR gained a foothold at D-E in 2010, when the school became a member of the Center, an organization that states it is “committed to helping schools engage in research in the service of action.” CSBGL was originally established as the Center for the Study of Boys Lives — back in 2001 — by Michael Reichert, Ph.D., then a school psychologist working at the all-boys Haverford School in Pennsylvania, and his University of Pennsylvania advisor, Peter Kuriloff, a fellow of the American Psychological Association in School Psychology. It eventually expanded its purview to include girls as well, and it currently has eight member schools. D-E first partnered with CSBGL when Head of School Dr. Rodney V. De Jarnett, who had been involved with the organization at his previous school, saw the potential benefits for D-E. Upper School Principal Joseph Algrant and Director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs Clinton L. Carbon concurred, took the lead on the relationship, and have been working with a researcher and urban education expert at CSBGL, Dr. Joseph Nelson.
CSBGL provides the structure and support system for member schools. In the YPAR approach, students think of the questions and design the project, while the school coordinator and the assigned research associate teach them how to conduct the research. Having the students drive the project “pushes them to be very empirical and scientific in their methods, to be evidence-based,” says Dr. Nelson. “It’s a school change model that’s very applied, as the research products are very specific and local to the institutions, which is theoretically the best way to institute change.”
Dr. Nelson notes, “It also raises their critical consciousness of the school and helps them to develop as researchers, both in quantitative and qualitative methods. There is also the social justice aspect, as they are addressing issues of equity and opportunity and diversity within their school.”
The Projects at D-E
D-E’s first work with CSBGL was the “Upper School Identity Project ” of 2011-12, conducted as an extracurricular opportunity in which four students joined forces with four adults: Algrant, Carbon, Ethics Department Chair Joseph Murphy, and former class dean and learning specialist P. Alex Shaurette. A survey was sent to all members of the Upper School asking them to describe who they were and how they would characterize D-E. “There were 200-300 responses that we had to analyze to construct the portrait of the school community and the sense of experience,” says Dr. Nelson. Questions that arose included: “How do we incorporate more social programming that illuminates the diversity of school community, highlighting students whose experiences are a bit more marginalized? What’s the intervention we can introduce to minimize this experience?”
That first project was followed by “Gender and Leadership” in 2012-13 and then “Perceptions of Student Success” in 2013-14. It was last year that the research project went from being an extracurricular activity to an academic class with Clinton L. Carbon — trained by CSBGL — as its teacher. Head of School Dr. De Jarnett states, “The advantage is that [students] have time to do the work, and we give them credit for the good academic work.” The model is still evolving, notes Dr. Nelson: “Starting the 2015-16 school year, YPAR will be a course with two-year projects [first year for implementation, second for action] as the norm for all schools, to account for how the product could benefit from more analyses.”
Value to the School
Both administrators and students see the value for the school in conducting a close examination of school culture and how it is experienced by students. Algrant says that the first study “continues to guide my thinking in almost all areas of school life. I refer to that report frequently, and although it did not come with recommendations, it presented a very poignant and true picture of our school.” He notes, “The project this year, in conjunction with those from the last couple of years, do point us in a direction to improve the culture of student life in the school. This [year] was the first time that the project ended with specific recommendations, which is a tribute to the progress that the program has made.” Carbon notes that the recommendations were created as a final step of the project and were directed toward individuals who are in a position to work toward change:
- Head of School — To create more all-school events where students and families can mix outside their preferred social groups and engage with the breadth of diversity in the school community.
- Upper School Principal — To work closely with the Office of Multicultural Affairs to make the Upper School community more aware of the effect of the major social identifiers on social groups (in particular religion, socioeconomics, and race/ethnicity). With increased awareness, the researchers look to the school to educate students to look beyond those identifiers when selecting friends.
- Deans (through the Upper School Principal) — To create more activities at all class levels to promote opportunities for students to get to know classmates beyond current social groups.
- Faculty (through the Upper School Principal) — To seek and provide additional training for advisors to enhance the advisory program and its ability to offer students additional ways to open their social groups.
- Student Government (through its President) — To increase the number and quality of activities where students can meet other students and establish friends other than the ones they make in classes, sports, arts, school-provided transportation, and other activities. Efforts to implement some of these recommendations have already begun.
“Aside from being immersed in the scientific method, students feel that YPAR is important for the way it changes their views about themselves and their community. “
Value to the Student
Students as individuals attest to the benefits of this kind of research, particularly as an exciting academic passion. Sophia Kim ’16 was inspired to take the YPAR class this past year after having been interviewed as part of a previous study and being struck by how compelling the research questions were. She says, “From this experience of doing a complete research project, I learned so much about the research process, and the amount of collaboration that it takes to take on a project of this volume.”
According to Nelson, five D-E alumni have gone on to pursue similar research in college, including Alexa Reinfeld ’14 at the University of Pennsylvania and Zachary Hodges ’11 at Columbia University.
Like professional scientists, student researchers must take what they’ve learned and be able to articulate their findings. In addition to presenting their work to the school community, including the Board of Trustees and faculty and staff, students participate in a “Roundtable” event with the eight other CSBGL member schools each spring.
Participant Kai Marcel ’15 says of the event, “It was genuinely very uplifting to see so many inspiring, driven students who were so enthusiastic about trying to make the world and their schools better. Every person who’s there contributes to the experience, and it was great to see how our thoughts and ideas were both similar and different.”
Aside from being immersed in the scientific method, students feel that YPAR is important for the way it changes their views about themselves and their community. Sophia says, “To me personally, the contribution that we’ve made to the school as a whole didn’t seem apparent when actually conducting the study. However, when we identified themes in the data (in the forms of interviews and surveys) we collected, the significance of the research that we were doing became apparent. We were exploring the dynamic of the school, observing trends, and asking ourselves, ’How can we be better? What can we do? How can we help our school become a better place?”
—Research for this article contributed by Terecille Basa-Ong ’03