Making the CASE for equity in schools

Making the CASE for equity in schools

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Research center in College of Education impacts area districts
Executive director Shelley Zion (seated, second from right) and College of Education Professor Adam Alvarez (seated, second from left) are joined by Ph.D. students who conduct research within CASE, the Center for Access, Success and Equity.

Even in the best school districts, obstacles to equal education and opportunities can hide far below the surface

To help districts unearth and address these issues, the Center for Access, Success and Equity (CASE) in Rowan University’s College of Education has forged equity-focused research practice partnerships with several school districts — one of CASE’s three research areas. CASE is establishing research as central to the College of Education in three ways — through partnerships with districts, through grant-funded research and through the College’s Ph.D. program.

“I can’t speak enough about our experience with CASE,” said Piera Gravenor, superintendent of Delsea Regional School District, which has worked with CASE for the last two years.

During the first year, Shelley Zion, CASE executive director, met with the school administrative team, faculty team and student voice team to uncover equity issues. The second year, Zion, Adam Alvarez, assistant professor of urban education, Department of Language, Literacy, and Sociocultural Education, and a group of candidates from the College’s Ph.D. in Education program conducted an equity audit of the district.

“We first looked at their existing data — test scores, discipline data, teacher satisfaction, climate data, placement data and other information, and then we conducted a survey of faculty and staff, students, and families and community members,” Zion said. This information will be used to implement changes to impact outcomes, Zion noted.

“Equity matters for schools regardless of context,” Alvarez said. “We talk a lot about why equity matters in urban schools, but sometimes we forget that outlying areas — suburban areas, rural areas, for example — also contend with social, historical and political forces that frame many of the equity issues we see in schools and society.”

At the heart of it, teams are exploring how to fashion a school climate where more students have a successful experience, “where teachers feel more successful in working with students from different racial, cultural backgrounds, where the administrators feel supported by superintendents and board members to supply the resources that everyone needs,” he said. “At multiple levels equity matters, and I am seeing that in progress here.”

Targeted research

The Ph.D. students also performed individual research projects to dig deeper into specific questions, researching areas such as college access, placement data for African American girls, special education topics and curricular issues.

Ph.D. student Dan Tulino focused on critical literacies in English language arts and history. “In any district, I think it’s an important skill for students to learn, and to learn how to engage with the class and for teachers to engage with their students in class,” he said. “We never want to live with the idea that it’s just the way things are or it’s always been this way. We want to challenge that. If there are issues affecting you or people keep being marginalized or oppressed within our classrooms, schools and communities, we need to actively engage in those issues and try to overcome them, as we make social activists out of our students.”

Natoya Coleman, also a Ph.D. student, analyzed instructional methods for high school English classes.

“Students deserve to have opportunities where they are critically engaging in texts,” she said. “The traditional instructional methods include practices that are oppressive in nature because they don’t allow students to engage and examine what they’re reading and working on. But when we incorporate critical methods in our instruction, it allows them to have a conversation around the text, as opposed to just taking the text as is and accepting it as the truth.”

Ph.D. student Eshe Price’s research interests focus on intersectional analysis of student outcomes, with a specific focus on race, gender and class, to examine issues of equity and access.

“I think it’s important because we use a lot of quantitative data to inform decisions that we make about students’ educational experiences, and I think the way it’s currently being analyzed is very singular and you miss a lot of information,” she said.

Gravenor is deeply appreciative of the students’ work to provide an objective analysis of the district. “I look at them as amazing fonts of data and information for us,” she said, adding that she’s committed to the effort.

“During every in-service day, we have something about equity,” she said. “I tell faculty and staff that my ultimate goal for them is just to arrive with an open heart and an open mind, and I hope that the data and audit information that we receive will help us build a case that we may not know everything that we think we know.”

Two school districts are entering their third year with the partnership, four are entering their second year and two districts are starting this year. CASE also has provided professional development for approximately 100 districts in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

Three-pronged approach

The Ph.D. program will admit its fourth cohort in September.

“Unlike most other Ph.D. programs around the country, ours is incredibly diverse,” Zion said. Students are supported to perform research from the beginning of the program. “So they are publishing, working on grants, are in research fellowships and are embedded in that apprenticeship toward being researchers who can apply their research to practice.”

Grant-funded research is supported by public and private entities. CASE has 12 funded projects totaling more than $2.8 million.

“All of those projects are centered in local settings, the districts or schools, and faculty then are working in those schools to uncover and explore some areas of theory and practice that will inform what we do in schools to make them more accessible and equitable,” Zion said.

“When I think about the work with CASE, I think about it as centering research and making real the tag line of the College of Education, which is ‘Access, Success and Equity...Turning Research Into Practice,’” Zion said.