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The Harvard Family Research Project separated from the Harvard Graduate School of Education to become the Global Family Research Project as of January 1, 2017. It is no longer affiliated with Harvard University.

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The purpose of our yearlong school reform project was to carry out a program of research which we and others call “participatory evaluation” (Weiss & Greene, 1992; Patton, 1994; Lather, 1991). Our goal was to facilitate school reform by including in the evaluation the experiences and perspectives of students, staff, parents, and community members, and by encouraging mutual inquiry, analysis, and decision making among all constituencies. The site was a middle school in New York City which has a large Latino immigrant population. This school's inclusion of community service activities in its curriculum indicated to us its commitment to progressive learning. Already dedicated to investigating the effect of its curriculum, the school held regular meetings and retreats for staff and faculty to discuss the impact of community service experiences on students. The assistant principal and community service coordinator actively facilitated a self-reflective atmosphere conducive to a collaborative inquiry process. We believe that this was critical to the success of our project.

Unearthing Local Evaluative Questions
In order to ensure that our inquiry was responsive to local needs, we used interviews, focus groups, and observations to discover students', parents', and staff questions about school reform. Across groups, the dominant question was to what extent does students' engagement in community service enrich their academic achievement and how?

Contextual Issues and Findings
The urgency of this question arose due to pressures emanating from city and state educational testing requirements. School staff and parents wanted to know whether the skills students acquired in community service fulfilled some of the academic requirements mandated by the state. Given the mission of the school, we and the staff recognized that traditional paper and pencil measures could not fully or adequately assess skills learned in alternative, innovative, educational environments (such as those acquired in community service).

In order to address this question, we observed students engaged in community service with the intention of deciphering the academic skills and experiences they gained. We focused on the overlap between community service activities and academic activities—that is, on the concrete skills that students displayed during community service. Three coherent categories emerged: leadership abilities, communication skills, and political/social awareness.

Student Inquiry and Participatory Evaluation
We became active collaborators with a group of students and their teacher who were involved in a police community service project whose goal was to learn how relationships could be improved between the local police precinct and adolescents from the community. Through our collaborative effort, students refined their research skills, designed and disseminated their own questionnaire, analyzed their data, and wrote a scholarly paper, which they presented at the March 1995 Ethnography Forum at the University of Pennsylvania, School of Education. This allowed them to experience success from their efforts at social change and gave them a strong sense of personal efficacy. This outcome also demonstrated how participatory research benefits those who become subjects (vs. objects) in their own issues of inquiry.

Further Reading

Lather, P. (1991). Getting smart: Feminist research and pedagogy with/in the postmodern. In Deconstructing/deconstructive inquiry: The politics of knowing and being known (pp. 86-101). New York: Routledge Press.

Patton, M. (1994). Developmental evaluation. Evaluation Practice 15(3), 311-319.

Weiss, H. B., & Greene, J. C. (1992, February & May). An empowerment partnership for family support and education programs and evaluations. Family Science Review, 5(1 & 2).

Staff Inquiry and Participatory Evaluation
The assistant principal organized staff meetings to discuss our findings. Equally important, she followed through on the suggestions made by researchers and staffers. We utilized these meetings to encourage teachers to discover new ways of integrating the identified student skills of leadership, communication, and political/social awareness in both academic and community service settings. Two important teacher initiatives resulted: teachers proposed changing report cards to reflect students' new skills in leadership, communication skills, and political/social awareness; and they began to discuss possible curriculum changes. We observed a great deal of excitement among teachers, who appeared motivated by these new challenges.

These outcomes would not have been achieved had mutual trust, open communication, and a sense of shared goals not existed throughout the course of the research project. We sought to create a sustained conversation about curriculum and assessment through our analysis of community service projects. We encouraged the staff to take ownership of the results and mold them to suit their own developing institutional needs. We recognized from the beginning that the school was already a self-reflective entity, seeking to improve its services to the community. As the inquiry process unfolded, we witnessed a deepening of its ability to be self-reflective because, having been a part of the participatory research, its staff had now gained new tools and knowledge which would enable them to carry out their original mission more effectively. We view this as a goal for participatory research.

Jennifer Pastor
Rosemarie A. Roberts
Graduate School & University Center of the City University of New York
33 West 42nd Street, Box 325
New York, NY 10026

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