May 22, 2019

Upper School Social Research Course Culminates Successful First Year

CSBGL students Olivia Ryan’18 and juniors Rekha Marar, Himaja Reddy, Mercedes Crestanello, Julia Gurevitz, Samantha Kass and senior, Maisy Kelemen present in the end-of-year conference at UPenn (Courtesy/Beckett Broh)

For the past ten years, The University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education has run a research consortium of faculty and students called the Center for the Study of Boys and Girls’ Lives, CSBGL, in partnership with about ten independent schools in the United States. The mission of this collaboration is “to systematically mobilize student insights and voices to improve school culture, policy and practice,” according the center’s website ( Youth Participatory Action research, a way of thinking about research, is the main focus of this program.

While mostly East coast schools have been involved in this program, this year, the Columbus Academy became a member school. Seven students participated in a social research course affiliated with CSBGL, co-led by Diversity Director, Beckett Broh and Ethics and Community Director, Tim Leet.

Our Academy students presented their research, conducted over the course of the school year, at the end-of-year Roundtable conference held from April 22-23 at the University of Pennsylvania. In addition, they presented to students on May 2 and 3, and the Academy Board of Trustees on May 10.

Senior Maisy Kelemen and junior Samantha Kass teamed up to research academic competition, focusing in on the experience of it at this school and its effect on students’ sense of connectivity. Through data analysis, surveys, and focus groups, they discovered female students experienced competition in a more negative manner than male students. In addition, they found the greatest source of competition for students to be self-motivated, with students competing with each other, not because of each other. There was also significant discrepancy between the students’ perception of their own competitiveness and that of their peers: honing in on pluralistic ignorance, where one thinks they are very different from their peers even if they actually act similarly, the two observed that while students think they are not competitive, they view their peers oppositely.

The team of senior Olivia Ryan and juniors Mercedes Crestanello, Julia Gurevitz, Rekha Marar, and Himaja Reddy looked into the identity and experience of racial and ethnic groups at Academy. With similar research procedures like the ones performed by Kass and Kelemen, they had some insightful findings regarding racial identity at our school. Using survey data, they came to the broad conclusion of “The Academy Bubble,” in which students view racism as a problem in the United States, but not at Columbus Academy. Through focus groups, they found that students of color and white students experience racism differently, marginalization is understood and thus experienced differently among racial groups, and privilege is marginalizing, especially to white students.

Dr. Broh discussed highlights of the program in its first year at Academy.

On joining the program:

We decided to join for a lot of different reasons, but, fundamentally, we know that being able to conduct research is a form of critical thinking that is really important and that we value a lot here. It was just a great opportunity to that and also be connected to the other schools, like us, who are doing this as well.  

The idea of this program is that while the adults in a community have a lot of expertise, because we’ve been trained in teaching and education, the students are really the experts on their own school experience. You know the school from the student’s perspective better than anybody else. So by allowing students to do research on their schools, it most benefits the students, because it’s from your perspective and, ultimately, it’s intended to help the student experience. That alone is great, in that it’s going to help our school grow in really terrific ways.

On interacting with other independent schools and the University of Pennsylvania:

Being with other schools does a few things for us. One, it helps us think about our school by seeing schools that might do things differently. Also, at the end of year presentation where all the schools come together and students present the research they’ve done, we all get to hear what the other schools and students have been thinking about and what is important to students at those schools and what they learned about their schools. We really benefit from having access to this knowledge about students at independent schools. 

Through Penn, we are assigned a PhD student research assistant who can help us think about research and methodology issues. We would meet with her almost weekly throughout the course to get her support and insights into the project. We also have the support of the center itself, so any data they have that we might want to use, we have access to and can use to help understand our research. Of course the conference at the end of the year is a big part of the course.

On the trajectory of the course:

For being the first year, we didn’t really have a clear sense of what the curriculum was going to look like. It turned out fantastic, and I credit the students with jumping in and taking on leadership roles and really owning their work in the class. 

For the first month or so, we did a bunch of different activities from school observations to personal reflections about their own school experience to develop what we called the Exploratory Survey, which all upper school students took in late September. From that, they analyzed the data and found things that bubbled up. These two topics of academic competition and racial identity both came up from the Exploratory Survey.

After the first few months of the course, the students take over on the projects and Mr. Leet and I then serve the role of guiding the projects. They’re in control of the work they are doing: they keep track of what they need to get done, do they need to read another article, do they need to work on the survey. They make those choices for themselves, and I think that’s a really big part of the experience for the students. It’s really different from any other class they’ve taken here at Academy, in that it’s not just learn something and take a test. It’s really about creating something, and they have to make a lot of decisions about what they learn and learn how to create it well.

On performing social research at Academy:

I think we have a very strong foundation for sciences, social and natural. Also, I think our school cares about ethics and character and equity and justice. We care about the social environment of our school. We care beyond how they are doing academically. And so, I think we have this great foundation of talented students who have great skills, and we have an environment  which we care very much about being a better school for our students. 

On the benefits of the program:

We had a lot of goals for the class, which all came true. One was experiencing a research project and social research, and all the elements included in that – statistics, graphics, and how to run a focus group. They learned tons of research skills. I also hope that they experienced so real-world professional skills that they’re going to be developing in life and needing to use, such as teamwork and collaboration, deciding who’s going to do what, is it equitable across the team, and not waiting for other people to make decisions for you, but take charge and ownership of that work. I think that’s the biggest part for the students – it’s that sense of how much they grew as people in the course. 

In addition, as the diversity director of this school, I learned so much from my students’ research: what students are experiencing at this school, and what’s hard for them. 

On course plans for next year:

We’ve seen enrollment double from this year’s class to next year’s. It’s a really project-intense course, so we’ll probably see the numbers cap at around 15, which is right around the number of students who’ve signed up or next year’s course. We’re excited more students have taken interest in the course.

Congratulations to Dr. Broh, Mr. Leet, seniors Maisy Kelemen and Olivia Ryan, and juniors Mercedes Crestanello, Julia Gurevitz, Samantha Kass, Rekha Marar, and Himaja Reddy on a successful first year of social research with CSBGL!