I am pleased to be able to visit schools to better understand how they are organized, what strategies they integrate and the impacts on students. I have designed or co-designed school-based case study protocols with several major initiatives including the Civic Mission of Schools’ focus on civic education, the Mississippi Center for Education Innovation’s focus on school transformation, the Ministry of Trinidad and Tobago’s focus on student councils, America’s Promise Alliance’s focus on service-learning and the Special Olympics Project Unify’s focus on social inclusion.
In each instance I began by determining the purpose of the case studies asking the organization which of the following describe their reason(s) for conducting a case study:
- Understand the school’s evolution (mission, programming and progress toward goals);
- Explore research questions;
- Gain perspective (from students, teachers, staff, administrators, families and/or communities);
- Validate a particular strategy;
- Identify effective practices, policies, infrastructure and capacity;
- Identify models/options for others school’s to consider, adopt and/or adapt (design, implementation, integration and sustainability); and
- Examine outcomes and impacts on individuals, the school and the community.
The organization’s response to these options then allows me to organize the units we need to examine and the corresponding methodology to achieve desired results.
One of the consistent challenges is to balance the need to examine the essential issues, practices, policies, partnerships and outcomes/impacts with the opportunity to discover other elements of school life that can also inform the case study and surface implications to deepen and broaden effective strategies.
In our case studies we have maintained fidelity to examine the most salient elements of the school to accurately and adequately respond to the purpose of the case study, that is always number one. But a close second is to be aware of other school-based activities that are informative about the school’s climate, strategies and impacts.
From my experience as we walk the halls of schools we find posters, slogans, awards and missions statements on the walls identifying the school’s priorities. In an elementary school in Missoula, Montana we found posters expressing the Expectations of students in the various school areas (classroom, cafeteria, rest rooms and library) that led to a conversation about how students co-create the expectations and commit to meeting them. This discovery was an important part of our analysis and report demonstrating how to effectively engage our youngest students in setting the school’s expectations.
As we walked the campus of Trevor Brown High School in Tempe Arizona we encountered the student council advisor who shared that previously students with intellectual disabilities were on the student council and that she would make an increased effort to provide similar formal leadership opportunities for diverse students. Again this discovery demonstrated the school’s commitment to social inclusion and the opportunity to implement a past strategy; including the confidence that the student council advisor had to ensure more diverse students were engaged on the student council.
Visiting a high school in North Carolina to examine their civic education strategies we learned due to the bell ringing between classes about the school wide “bell ringer” strategy through which students spend the first 10 minutes of each class each day responding to a question posed in the class the day before. This exercise provided an opportunity for students to take leadership and teachers to have additional time for planning between periods. We included information on the “bell ringer” strategy in the case study report and know other schools have adopted/adapted a similar strategy in their school.
The lesson is that when visiting schools and conducting case studies we need to focus on the units of schooling that respond to the purpose of the research and also need to be open to and seek out other activities going on in the school that inform our analysis. Widening our view of school life allows us to examine and discover activities that have impacts on student development.
In my interactions in schools I find that many students have similar experiences as they focus on a specific content area and often discover other lessons that have implications for their development, aspirations and life.