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Transforming High Schools:
Field Research in Youth Development

Interview with Professor Laurie Ross

What is this course all about?

This course is directly connected to the Worcester Education Partnership and the Carnegie grant that we have here at Clark through the Jacob Hiatt Center for Urban Education. I coordinate the local evaluation for Worcester. Carnegie gave this grant to transform high schools to small learning communities to seven cities in the country, of which Worcester is one. Each city can evaluate this in its own way and in Worcester, we decided to focus on how high-school students are experiencing the transition from attending large high schools to smaller communities within those high schools. I've turned that evaluation into this field research course. Students who are in the course have the opportunity to create interview tools, analyze the data they collect and produce a comprehensive report that can contribute to the betterment of the schools involved in the project and to this grant as a whole.

How many schools are participating?

We're in year two of the Carnegie grant, so over the course of the last few years, we've been able to establish communities in eight of the Worcester high schools. Participating high-school students were told about the academies while in middle school and self-selected to be part of them when they entered high school. Our ultimate goal is for all students to be part of one of these communities within their high school.

Are all the small learning communities basically the same?

No. Each academy has a name and some have a specific focus. For example, the first one to come on board was at South High called "ITA" or Information Technology Academy. This year we've added two more: one related to the arts and humanities and one related to business and social services. The whole idea of these academies is to address problems in urban education in general. Our focus is the achievement gap between minority and white students in these large impersonal high schools.

What do your students actually do when they go into these high schools?

The are involved in three areas. First, Clark students have a chance to create interview tools, get training on how to conduct an interview and then actually go do the interviews one-on-one with high school students and teachers. Second, students look at the previous semesters' data and do readings to help them create the focus group protocol for the focus group they will conduct that semester. The third part is the student researcher piece. At each of the schools, we have a team of high school students who are conducting their own research. My students facilitate the student researcher process. They visit the schools and meet with the high-school student researchers once or twice a week and work with them on helping them do their research. Also, all the student researchers across all eight participating Worcester high schools get together twice a year to share their research with each other.

Do all students in your course have to complete work in all three of the areas you described?

No. All of my students have to work on the interview piece, but those who are facilitating student research projects do not have to conduct focus groups and vice versa. The project, and the students, are operating at lots of different levels. Students with a traditional research focus are happy because they learn how to do interviews and construct tools. And students who are more interested in a participatory approach are happy because they can orient themselves more to the student researcher part. In addition, students don't just collect the data. They all enter the data in Microsoft Access and do the analysis. I teach them how to do queries and, using different quantitative and qualitative techniques, how to make matrixes and structures to analyze the data. Then they write reports which go right to the Worcester Public Schools and are used by the schools to help improve these small learning communities.

Are students evaluated on these reports?

Not just on the reports. I have the students conduct extensive literature reviews on small learning communities. Someone might look at teacher preparation, while others might look at race and ethnicity or youth voice. Once students go out into the field, I have them write reflections or "memos" to capture the themes and issues they are encountering. I have them post them on Blackboard — Clark's virtual classroom — so they can read each other's memos, and so I can evaluate them. Students are expected to complete a certain number of interviews and focus groups over the course of the semester. Finally, students are asked to work in teams of two or three to create final reports from the data they have collected from the interviews, focus groups, student researchers and all the memos.

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