Grad students modify Chicago research to address host site’s COVID-19 concerns

Laura Ruth Johnson
Laura Ruth Johnson

During this strange era of COVID-19, the adage about “the best-laid plans” has proven itself more than a cliché.

For Dean Laurie Elish-Piper and Laura Ruth Johnson, an associate professor in the Department of Educational Technology, Research and Assessment, their work that began last summer to develop a research-practice partnership with Chicago’s Youth Connection Charter School (YCCS) has taken just that turn.

But – to quote another cliché – they and some of the NIU College of Education graduate students involved are now making lemonade from lemons within the project intended to create positive outcomes for high school students from vulnerable, underserved populations no longer enrolled in their neighborhood schools.

“COVID-19 is something that schools, and all of us, have not had to address before,” says Johnson, who has served since 2015 on the board of directors for YCSS, a network of 19 schools on the south and west sides of Chicago that primarily serves African American and Latino students classified as dropouts.

And to make matters worse, she adds, “certain communities are definitely being hit harder.”

“In Chicago, the African-American community accounts for about 67 percent of the deaths and 29 percent of the population. YCCS staff members have lost family members and friends to the virus,” she Johnson, the YCCS board secretary. “A lot of the inequities that are already existing in our society are going to be exacerbated – communities struggling economically and having limited access to food; students living in unstable and unsafe homes or suffering from depression and not having access to services.”

Johnson and the graduate students realized quickly that they needed to shift their projects, which involved meeting with YCCS leaders to identify specific needs, conducting research that would address those areas and then creating models to effect immediate and lasting change.

Kristine Webster
Kristine Webster

Graduate students Kristine Webster, Darius Jackson and Luis Lopez all have pivoted to help YCCS respond to urgent issues caused by COVID-19.

Nancy Prange, meanwhile, is waiting until the statewide stay-at-home order is lifted to resume her engaged study on communities grappling with food insecurity – something Johnson promises will “become more relevant than ever in the months to come.”

Webster, a doctoral student in Educational Psychology, was planning to help YCCS with strategies to engage, or re-engage, its students who have endured personal and cultural trauma.

The director of Learning and Teaching for Sycamore School District 427 is already familiar with such endeavors and hopes her still-pending research will equip her with even more tools.

“I’ve had some experience with some of our high school kids who have made some difficult choices that were not the wisest and that have prohibited them from being on any high school campus,” Webster says.

“Once a kid leaves school, it’s difficult to get them back,” she says. “I’m interested in what we could do as an education system to get to these students earlier and to keep them out of my office.”

With COVID-19, however, Webster has turned her attention to helping YCCS create a 24/7 hotline connecting students and their families to wraparound social services.

It’s an effort she compares to “building a plane as we’re flying it.”

“They’re just trying to get that up and off the ground,” she says. “When you’re talking about students who are already having a difficult time engaging, and you take the structure of school away, that makes it really difficult. They have so many social and emotional needs.”

Among those are food, help with homework, questions about the virus and health care itself and a safe space to talk about their feelings.

“We just had our first meeting Thursday morning to discuss how my research can support what they’re doing,” Webster says. “My goal is to help free them up and to support them in any way I can.”

She will simultaneously collect data on how the hotline is used – identifying trends of what is being requested – and also will monitor student engagement during the pandemic to measure how it compares to normal operations.

“Any of the data I’m collecting will help them decide where they should be directing their efforts in how they can best support kids in the fall when we transition back,” she says.

Yet the findings should also prove valuable beyond the return to “normalcy,” she adds, especially for schools that serve people of color which are affected disproportionately by pandemics and other disasters.

“This pandemic is really affecting these communities in a disproportionate way, and it’s not the first time. To these communities, it’s not new,” Webster says, mentioning hurricanes Katrina and Maria as examples.

“That doesn’t even take into consideration what these communities are living with every day. These issues are prevalent on a daily basis, and when you have a disaster, it just turns the spotlight on that,” she adds. “While I hope we never have another pandemic, we will have other disasters, and this research will inform us and add to our base of knowledge.”

COVID-19 presents that opportunity.

“I want my research to have an impact on these kids long after I’m gone,” she says.

“How do we use this moment in time to make this intervention last? What can we do with this moment in time that’s really caused us to pay attention to what’s going on to have a long-term impact in addition to situational? How do we as educators and administrators be part of the change? How do we keep the conversation going in ways to address the disparities?”

Darius Jackson
Darius Jackson

Jackson understands from personal experience the need to differentiate – and has devoted his life to making sure that happens.

“I grew up in Harvey, Illinois, and I recognized that some of the things our teachers were teaching us was great stuff, but it just didn’t connect because it was so far away from our culture. It was so far away from the things in our natural lives,” says Jackson, who is pursuing his Ed.D. in Curriculum and Instruction.

“When I was in third-grade, our teacher totally translated our math lecture for us. We were shooting dice and playing cards in class to learn math,” he adds.

“From then on, I said, ‘Oh my goodness, this guy is onto something, because something clicked with me. He made one of the worst subjects for most people – math – into one of the favorite subjects,” he adds. “I knew when I was in third-grade that I was going to get my Ph.D., and that that it was going to be in something on cultural responsiveness.”

His plan at YCCS had been to meet students at their homes to “learn about their cultures and the things they do outside of school to understand them as people, and to use that information to understand how they can be successful in the classroom.”

Now Jackson – an instructor in the College of Education and at the NIU Center for Black Studies – is working to help YCCS communicate about COVID-19 in a language that resonates with students.

“We’ve noticed there’s a lot of information about COVID-19 going out. It seems like every day, there’s something new,” he says. “We’ve learned that some of the information is, unfortunately, incorrect, and we’re also learning that, in these students’ communities, the information they are getting is either late or delayed, or that people are not necessarily reading it.”

For example, he’s heard of a person who went to the hospital to report symptoms of the virus but was rerouted to another health care facility for having the wrong insurance.

He died before he made it to the second facility, says Jackson, who believes that better information would have prevented the man from wasting previous time. “We’re finding out that those seconds can cost you your life,” he says.

Others are homeless, he says, which seriously complicates shelter-in-place orders. Others live in homes that aren’t safe. Others need food. Where can they turn?

“We’re going to educate students with that information on their own social media platforms. I’m going to post a video on what we’ve educated them on, and they are going to educate their peers and their communities,” he says.

“We’re also making sure this is all done through the lens of cultural responsiveness,” he adds, “and we’re making sure the students have the freedom to speak through their cultural language. The way in which students talk to their peers is very different than the way in which they would write a paper for the teacher – the slang they’re using; the grammar and spelling errors.”

He will review their posts before they go online – for two reasons.

“They can use slang and respectful profanity,” he says. “But before we correct anything, we’re asking the students to educate us. Did you intentionally spell this word this way, or is this a mistake? We’re being educated in a way that’s helping us to understand their culture, and that we can later translate that to their academics.”

Data collected from the posts will generate an important glossary.

“We’ll have a whole new vocabulary we can use with our students in the classroom that’s culturally responsive,” Jackson says. “Then, the students can understand and better learn with the same lesson plans we already had for them. My prediction is that academically, their grades are going to shoot up.”

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