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Laila Ibrahim and Amy Monroy, students participating in the YARI Project, give a virtual presentation of their research on “How do the racial and ethnic background of students and teachers affect student-teacher relationships within the classroom?” in late November. Credit: YouTube

As the coronavirus crisis and racial justice protests intensified last year, a group of nine Rhode Island students deeply impacted by these events channeled their reaction to the turmoil in an unusual way — research.

The research projects, by high schoolers at the Metropolitan Regional Career and Technical Center in Providence, commonly known as the Met High School, or more simply as “the Met,” involved much more than a typical term paper. Drawing on their own experiences, the students developed a set of research questions that were both sophisticated and original: “What advantages and disadvantages do female students of color face in schools, and how does it affect their learning journeys?” “How can historically marginalized students pursue meaningful paths and healthy careers after high school?” “How can the Providence public schools improve education for high school ESL/ELL Latinx students?” “How do the racial and ethnic backgrounds of students and teachers affect student-teacher relationships within the classroom?” And, “How do public school teachers’ impressions of students impact their education and accessibility accommodations within the classroom?”

The students were members of the Youth Action Researchers at the Intersection (YARI) Project, a program aimed at mentoring youth researchers and amplifying their voices. All of the students have learning differences, such as ADD/ADHD, dyslexia, dysgraphia, or executive function disorder. And all come from groups that are marginalized because of race, gender or low socio-economic status.

The student-led program is based on the Youth-led Participatory Action Research approach, in which students are “trained to conduct systematic research to improve their lives, their communities and the institutions intended to serve them.”

“We really wanted to base our project on something that connected us,” student Laila Ibrahim said of the first-steps taken by her all-female group. “So we sat down and we were like, all right, what do we have in common? And it was that we are all women of color that had been in white majority education at some point in our life and that had drastically impacted the way you were able to learn.”

So what happened when these students were given the space to examine and question the American education system from the perspective of their own learning experiences?

The students approached their research in four-parts: ask, look, discover and share. Once they received training on research methods and refined their questions after discussions with adult researchers, the students spent hours gathering data and sources published on their topics, then conducted a literature review of those resources. When the pandemic curtailed plans for in-person data collection, they conducted virtual focus groups and interviews with students and teachers, sending digital surveys to their peers and to educators at the Met High School; a few emailed students and teachers at other schools in the Providence area. Then they organized the gathered materials and analyzed data to find insights and patterns.

“I think the problem with the current American education system, when it comes to racial and equity, is that we kind of try to just brush over it and not acknowledge this lack of understanding.”

Laila Ibrahim, high school researcher

The YARI project is operated by KnowledgeWorks through the Students at the Center Hub with local partners from the Center for Youth and Community Leadership in Education (CYCLE), the Met High School, and the Youth Development Program at Rhode Island College (YDEV@RIC).

At the outset, the students met with mentors and support staff to map out their education journey and reflect on both the good and the trauma they experienced as a result of their disabilities, or their membership in a marginalized group, said Rolando Fernando, the project lead and director of impact and improvement at KnowledgeWorks.

“There’s a certain sense of restorative justice,” Fernando said of the discussions with students, which acknowledged and valued “what they have to say and what they bring into the conversation.”

Related: Just 3% of scientists and engineers are Black or Latina women. Here’s what teachers are doing about it.

Making sure to focus on the views of students as much as possible, the young researchers presented solutions for systemic issues within education, including such problems as accommodations for students with learning differences and students learning English, and how to recruit more educators of color. 

The project, which launched in February just prior to pandemic school closures, was initially designed to include in-person components, but coronavirus forced the program to go fully remote. Even then, it hit some challenges when one student got sick with Covid-19 early on and another eventually had to step back for health reasons.

As the events of the 2020 unfolded, the students and staff discussed race and equity, and some modified their research questions. While the students were originally meant to present their research and findings at a local exhibition, then at a research conference in Denver, due to the pandemic, the presentations — like everything else — had to be virtual. Students prepared short videos of their final project, similar to a TED Talk. A few, like student researcher Ibrahim, created artwork that represented their research in a unique way.

Students said the research process helped them understand what schools need to do to be more supportive to students of color and students with learning differences. Amy Monroy, Ibrahim’s group partner, suggested teachers, especially white teachers, need to make it a priority to learn the “different cultural backgrounds of your students” to help them feel comfortable in the classroom.

Ibrahim said white educators need to acknowledge that they don’t understand their students’ backgrounds. “I think the problem with the current American education system, when it comes to racial and equity, is that we kind of try to just brush over it and not acknowledge this lack of understanding,” Ibrahim said. “We talk about decolonizing…decolonize the education system and make it more representative of marginalized communities.”

The importance of “feeling reflected” was a running theme in almost all the students’ research presentations — brought up by the students the young researchers interviewed, and solidified by their own experiences within classrooms. In the conclusion of their presentation, Monroy and Ibrahim stressed that students shouldn’t be “othered” in education spaces. Rather, educators need to make sure students feel reflected, as when “reflected light bounces off an object in a way that turns another into itself when looked at from the right angle.”

This story about student research was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter

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