This was an unusual Thanksgiving for my family. My parents have always hosted Thanksgiving at their house; it is one of the few family traditions that remains since my Grandma passed away. All was set to continue as usual this year, until last week, when my Grandpa -- the effervescent, 89 year-old patriarch of the family -- began experiencing significant back pain. It quickly became evident that the trip to my parents' house would be too much for him. Like good evaluators, we continually monitored the situation and used the data we gathered to determine what changes we could make to ensure that the family would be together and that my Grandpa would be as comfortable as possible.
We ended up bringing Thanksgiving to him. Different family members were nervous for different reasons. My parents now had to factor in a one-hour drive into their cooking schedule, and others had to adjust their travel plans. Some were skeptical about having Thanksgiving in a different location, and given that we all adore my Grandpa, we were worried about how he was feeling. Afterwards, when I reflected on how the day went, I realized that most of the questions on everyone's minds had been fairly quantifiable:
To determine the success of our Thanksgiving dinner, we could track these metrics or others, such as the number of family members who came (11) or the amount of time everyone spent at my Grandpa's house (approximately three hours). These are all important details that help us craft the story of our Thanksgiving dinner. Yet these facts could never describe the contentment on my Grandpa's face as he sat at the head of the table and listened to the family's jokes and conversations. A series of data points would never suffice to explain how happy we all were to see him acting like his usual, wonderful self because he had just had a wonderful day. No spreadsheet in the world -- and I LOVE a spreadsheet -- could have ever captured the hope that my Grandpa had after a day with much less pain and far more happiness than he had had in a few weeks.
Of course, I would never methodically evaluate our family dinner -- but isn't this exactly what we try to do when we try to measure family engagement in our schools? We host events and programs, offer services and supports, and build relationships like pros, but we struggle to figure out how we can capture the impact that we have made and share that impact with others. We count names on sign-in sheets and have participants rate their satisfaction, and we hope to show that we made a difference in our students' and families' lives. Those pieces of information are critical -- we need to track those metrics to track our progress over time and demonstrate growth in our programming and our reach within school communities. Yet, our standard documentation cannot capture the joy on a mother's face as she gets a relaxed moment to play and learn with her child or the pride that a father exudes when he has just completed his first professional resume. These are two examples from my work as a Community School Coordinator that have stayed with me to this day -- and neither came from one of my beloved spreadsheets.
This is why stakeholder voices and qualitative data are so important. Certainly, if the turkey never cooked or if no one showed up, our Thanksgiving would have been very different. However, what made Thanksgiving so special for me was watching my Grandpa's joyful reactions during dinner and hearing him speak happily on the phone for days afterward. For those of us in the field of family and community engagement, these are the types of reactions we live for and the motivation we need to keep doing the tough work. To best capture our impacts and tell our stories, we must take this mixed-methods approach, enhancing our traditional measures with rich stories and perspectives from our most important stakeholders. For me, this is what makes evaluation -- even of a Thanksgiving dinner -- most powerful, interesting, and even fun.
The Structured Solutions Announcements page has been reimagined into an issue-centered blog to illuminate critical ideas and events that affect the schools, communities, and families that we serve. This is the third post of the new blog.
In my career, I've always identified as an educator first. I have proudly rooted my analytical and consulting practices in my experiences directly serving students, families, schools, and communities. However, as my career and business have evolved, and as I gained the additional identity of "evaluator," I always felt that I did not quite fit into that community. Sure, I have training and experience in quantitative and qualitative data collection, analysis, and reporting. Sure, I work to help schools, districts, and non-profits complete evaluation projects and build out protocols and procedures for continuing this critical work. Sure, my job title has even been "Evaluator." Despite these things, something did not click for me on a deep level.
I never doubted my ability to relate to and help my clients with their evaluation needs. It was the pressure to label what I do or who I am that has caused me a lot of stress. When I attended previous conferences about research and evaluation, I always encountered career evaluators, whose methodologies were their bread and butter, and who yearned to understand the newest and most advanced statistical methodologies. That's not me, and for a long time, I thought that was a problem.
This past week, I attended the American Evaluation Association's Evaluation 2019 conference in Minneapolis. I was excited to see a number of sessions and activities related to independent consultants and to my other areas of interest in the field -- creating data dashboards and evaluating programs serving families, to name a few. I was looking forward to connecting to new people and meeting up with those whom I already knew. What I did not expect was an experience that transformed how I see myself within the evaluator community and how I can use my refined identity to better serve my clients.
Here were my key takeaways:
Thinking of my business as malleable -- as an opportunity for innovation and as a dynamic, growing entity -- is exciting. With this realization, it feels like the possibilities are endless for Structured Solutions. Thanks to AEA and the wonderful people with whom I conversed and interacted this week, I am happily embracing my new all-encompassing identity. What is your evaluation identity?
The Structured Solutions Announcements page has been reimagined into an issue-centered blog to illuminate critical ideas and events that affect the schools, communities, and families that we serve. This is the second post of the new blog.
Most of us have been raised to believe that school is the great equalizer, the ticket to success in life, or the escape from the circumstances into which you were born. For many people, this adage has undoubtedly been true. This principle is what drew me into education -- that providing high-quality educational opportunities could help those who had fewer advantages given to them in life and could thereby inspire and uplift future generations. I have worked to provide direct educational and wrap-around services to students and families and supported and coached school teams trying to do the same for their communities.
However, the more time I spend in urban education, and the more I read about and study the history of it, the less I am convinced of this idealism. Certainly, I still believe that schools have the potential to be incredible hubs of learning, caring, and growing -- for students, staff, and families alike. However, for communities and populations whose opportunity to take advantage of "the great equalizer" has been quietly and systematically squandered by discriminatory and self-serving policies (For a primer, read James Ryan's Five Miles Away, A World Apart), schools simply cannot overcome the influence of these social and political forces and their resultant effects alone. Of course, I still wholeheartedly believe in the power of family and community engagement, in the promise of community schools, and in the hope that dedicated and compassionate professionals bring to the students and families they serve. Yet, we must address the root causes of the challenges faced in order to see systemic change in our educational systems across the country.
Yesterday, basketball star LeBron James made a landmark announcement that works to address these root causes for students at his I Promise School here in Ohio. In partnership with a boutique hotel chain, the Lebron James Family Foundation will be renovating a historic building near the school's campus in order to provide transitional housing for families of students at I Promise who are experiencing homelessness. For those families, this is a game-changer.
In the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, the definition of homelessness has a much wider reach than some could imagine. According to the law, those designated as "homeless" refers to "... individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence." This could include:
Due to the wide variety of conditions that could qualify a person or family as homeless, it is often difficult to get an accurate estimate of the scope of the problem. A report from HUD estimated that on a single night in early 2018, over 552,000 people experienced homelessness, an increase from the previous year. One-third of this identified homeless population consisted of families with children. However, it is likely that this estimate was unable to capture the full range of individuals and families without safe, permanent housing, especially those who are staying with friends or family.
The effects of being homeless on children and youth are numerous and significant. Julianelle and Foscarinis (2003) write that the McKinney-Vento Act works to protect these students from unnecessary disruption and mobility, which can lead to inconsistent social connections and educational supports. We know that students who are homeless are also likely to live in poverty, and this combination of traumatic situations can only amplify their effects; Murphy and Tobin (2011) discuss the wide range of effects that homeless students experience. These include: health issues from less-than-ideal sleeping conditions and environments, reduced access to proper medical care, or an inadequate food supply; mental health issues stemming from an increase risk of being a victim of violence, a lack of stable social supports, and the stress of not having a stable or permanent home; and academic issues as a result of potential developmental delays; frequently changing schools; and high rates of chronic absenteeism.
To mitigate some of these many risk factors, McKinney-Vento enables homeless students to stay in the school they attended before becoming homeless, even if they are temporarily living in a different area; receive transportation to and from their temporary residence to that school; enroll into school right away, even if they do not have all of the necessary documents; and access supports at the school level, such as a designated liaison. Certainly, schools and districts have some control over the extent to which the McKinney-Vento regulations are implemented, and we can only hope that they err on the side of increased supports to this vulnerable population.
The Community Schools movement is another effort to help stabilize families and students in order to facilitate greater access to and success with educational opportunities. Partnerships with community organizations and agencies, as well as rich and mutual home-school relationships are ways in which community schools work to mitigate challenges and support students and families. For example, school-based coordinators can partner with and connect families to local organizations that focus on issues of housing and family stability, or they could spearhead efforts within the school to provide extra supports to students experiencing housing instability or homelessness.
All of these efforts are admirable and helpful. Yet, I still ask, "What more could schools possibly do?" Although schools can support their students and families and connect them to community resources, it is very difficult for schools to address root causes of complex issues like poverty or homelessness. I have seen some criticism that LeBron is being hailed as a hero while school districts that may want to support their students more comprehensively often do not have the funds to do so. I argue instead that no matter how much funding schools get, it is unlikely that they could ever provide a stabilizing intervention like the one that LeBron James just promised to the most vulnerable families at the I Promise School.
We should use this initiative of an example of what could happen if agencies worked together more effectively, if true efforts were made to alleviate the damages done by years of discriminatory policy, and if compassion -- not politics -- was what ruled collective decision-making in education and society. From an evaluator standpoint, LeBron has created a beautiful natural experiment. I do hope that there is research done to study the trajectories of these students and families, as they get settled in their new homes and later on in their lives. From a human standpoint, I am simply thankful that LeBron has chosen to use his personal money to make what I know is an immeasurable impact on the lives of these young people and their families.
The goal of this blog is to highlight relevant issues that impact students, families, and communities and spark engaging discussions about how to address those issues through evaluation.