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Emily Ruehs; William “Buddy” Scarborough; Carolina Calvillo; Michael De Anda Muñiz; Jesse Holzman, University of Illinois-Chicago
The University of Illinois-Chicago (UIC) Sociology Department has public sociology at the core of its mission: faculty and students reach out to the community, engage in collaborative research with local organizations, and present accessible sociological information to people beyond the academy. As graduate students, we embrace this mission. When Dennis Kass, a teacher at Little Village Lawndale High School (LVLHS), contacted the department and requested that we partner with his students, we felt that this was an exciting opportunity to share our skills with the community. The LVLHS students live in neighborhoods in South Side Chicago and are predominantly from low-income Latino families. The school was founded in 2005 in response to a protest movement by parents who believed their children were receiving a second-rate education. The neighborhood school at that time was overcrowded and lacked a college-track curriculum so LVLHS was founded, with a strong commitment to social justice and equality in education.
As a teacher at LVLHS, Kass wanted to create a challenging and stimulating academic environment for his students. He created an honors sociology class for 20 college-bound students. His vision was to have students develop and conduct research projects. He hoped that the end goal would be to present their findings at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association. And in 2013, one student from Kass's class had research accepted for presentation and gave a paper at the ASA Annual Meeting in New York. Based on this initial success, Kass hoped to expand the program to more students.
To increase the number of students conducting research he needed an academic partner, which is why he reached out to UIC Sociology Department Chair Barbara Risman to request assistance. Risman contacted us, and we happily volunteered to partner with Kass. We agreed to attend the sociology class at least once a week and to work with small groups of students to develop research projects. We assisted students in brainstorming sociological questions, completing a literature review, developing surveys and interview guides, locating research participants, teaching them how to do analyses, and writing the final product. The goal for each group of students was to complete an entire project within a semester in order to submit it for consideration to the 2014 ASA meetings. We succeeded and they have submitted papers and are awaiting decisions. In the meantime, we are now applying for funds to make their dream to attend a professional conference possible (see below for more information).
The projects the students have undertaken are intellectually demanding and cover a wide range of interesting topics. Students looked both within their own school and to the community to study a variety of social problems including the changing experiences of LGBTQ students in Chicago Public Schools, the strategies of resilience used by sex workers, the struggles of undocumented women facing divorce, and the academic performance of Latina female students. These high school students have worked hard throughout the fall semester to meet the demanding timeline required for their projects. They worked diligently during their five weekly class meetings, after school and during vacation. Over the December holiday break, students worked overtime, trying to wrap up their projects by the ASA submission due date. Seven of them completed their projects on time and submitted them. We were impressed to say the least.
While our work with LVLHS is still underway, we are already pleased with the positive impact the partnership has had on both the high school students and our university community. First, the demanding requirements of research have helped prepare these high school students for the level of work that will be expected in college. They have read difficult material, analyzed quantitative and qualitative data, developed critical thinking skills, and written high quality papers. Throughout these tasks, they have learned essential skills applicable to the college classroom. Second, our partnership with them has exposed them to university culture. Many of these students hope to be first-generation college students, so more exposure to campus life enhances their knowledge of college culture.
Beyond the research experience, attending a prestigious academic conference will provide students with further exposure to academic life, expanding their cultural and social capital. Perhaps they will even begin to imagine the possibility of becoming sociologists themselves. In addition, students reported that the research was immensely valuable for their personal growth. When reflecting on their experiences, students spoke of being deeply moved by the words of their participants. The two young women who interviewed divorced, undocumented women, for example, commented on being moved to action in their own lives. Their research gave them further motivation to attend college and build stable careers to help their communities.
This partnership has the potential to benefit our university community as well. We found that our relationship with the high school students helped our own pedagogical development. As we often teach college students that come from Chicago Public Schools, we were able to gain a better understanding of the background of many of our students.
Aside from the personal growth as teachers, these types of partnerships can be beneficial for sociology departments as well. For these high school students a major in sociology, is now something they can envision before they even enter college. Looking forward, we hope to discover more ways for sociology departments to partner with high schools. We are currently beginning conversations about the possibility of these honor sociology courses being used for sociology credit at UIC, helping to support underprivileged students in their college goals.
While this partnership has been tremendously successful so far, the work is not over. The next hurdle the students face is to find financial resources to attend the ASA conference. The vast majority of these students come from low-income families unable to contribute enough money to cover the cost of flights, hotels, and conference fees. Students are currently working on fundraising, and a program is in place in which parents can contribute small sums of money on a weekly or monthly basis. We are also seeking grant funds and donations from supportive sociologists are also welcome. If you wish to help these students pay for their plane fare and hotel costs, you can do so by donating at soc.uic.edu and clicking on the donate button. Be sure to direct your donation to the Sociology General Fund and then send a note to Barbara Risman at firstname.lastname@example.org to let her know your contribution is to help these high school students attend the ASA Annual Meeting. We will set up a meeting in San Francisco where donors can meet them, if interested.
As graduate students, we have had an overwhelmingly positive experience. We encourage other sociology programs to look into how they can partner and collaborate with high schools to encourage student research. We also believe that ASA and its vast community should work to consciously support these partnerships in general, and, in particular, the high school students from LVLHS. How could our discipline help these students? To start, we propose that ASA waive the registration fee for underprivileged high school students (see the ASA Forum article in this issue).