Supporting college readiness in Yakima and beyond
Her arthritic hands sorted the cherries as she spoke about dreams to her daughter, Henedina Tavares. These dreams didn’t involve back-breaking physical work or living paycheck to paycheck. Similar conversations played out with parents and children throughout their community, instilling in these young people a drive to achieve. Yet, when these same students went to high school with the highest aspirations of any students, they were the least likely to access the courses they needed to go to college.
Tavares grew up in Sunnyside, Washington, about a half-hour from Yakima. The daughter of immigrants, she’s now a first-generation Ph.D. student at the University of Washington focused on Educational Leadership and Policy Studies.
Having internalized the migration stories of her parents and grandparents and having seen how capitalism has broken down their bodies, she wants to manifest something different.
"I always knew I would work with immigrant and Spanish-speaking families to imagine a new world," she says.
Making Crucial Connections
"Quantitative data tells us what the problem is but doesn't say why it's happening so that we can pinpoint and address the root causes," says Jenée Myers Twitchell, Washington STEM's chief policy and impact officer and a UW College of Education alumna. As part of Washington STEM's work to create pathways to high-paying technology-centered jobs for historically excluded students, they and their regional and school district partners wanted to learn more about a pattern of inequity in the Yakima Valley.
Tavares would turn out to be just the researcher they needed. The University of Washington’s Unite:Ed, an alliance of community and education partners, connected Tavares with Washington STEM through its Community Partner Fellows (CFP) program.
“Our Community Partner Fellows program helps us grow our partners' capacity for community-based research,” says Unite:Ed’s director, Dana Arviso. “It also provides an opportunity for our Ph.D. students to gain real world experience while applying their research skills.”
Since its inception in 2018, the program has placed more than 34 University of Washington College of Education doctoral students into community organizations advancing educational justice. Based on individual research and practice interests, CFPs have helped to bridge opportunity gaps in college readiness, after-school programs, mental health services, digital engagement and more.
Tavares joined Washington STEM in the fall of 2020 as its second Unite:Ed CFP to date. Together with the Washington STEM team, she spent the next two years supporting their research-practice partnership (RPP) Dual Credit Equity Project with Eisenhower High School in Yakima. Specifically, they wanted to discover why, in a school where 70 percent of the student body identifies as Latinx and 25 percent are categorized as English language learners, these same students were the least likely to access dual credit courses, including advanced placement (AP) classes. In addition to being an inexpensive way to earn college credit while in high school, these courses also increase the likelihood that students will go on to college.
"When we looked at three different data sets, we saw that Latinx students and students of color were not receiving the same dual credit experience as white students," says Tavares. "Also, Latinx males were overrepresented in course offerings that pipelined them into agricultural fields while white students took career and technical education courses that led to family-sustaining wage careers in technology, healthcare and engineering."
To understand this data better, Tavares conducted staff and student surveys to find out where students learned about dual credit courses. The responses showed a disconnect between school staff and students.
"We learned that the staff had lower aspirations for some students," says Tavares. "They believed only 53 percent of students at the school wanted to go on to some form of postsecondary education. But when we asked the students, 80-90 percent had postsecondary aspirations."
When they broke the responses down further, they discovered that Spanish-speaking students had the highest aspirations of all but the least dual credit knowledge. In addition, students said that teachers were their number one source of information about dual credit options.
"We didn't know what methodologies we would use or exactly what we would need for our inquiry," says Myers Twitchell. "It was co-developed over time with staff, families and students. By starting with quantitative, then mixed-method and then qualitative data, you work with communities to understand the root cause."
Myers Twitchell describes how quantitative data can be misinterpreted. For example, when staff members first saw the numbers, some assumed that certain students didn't want to attend college.
You have to do this work in a space of trust. Discovering that we have biases working in the background is hard for any of us to process.
Still, when qualitative data paints an alternative picture, getting people to understand another reality takes time. Tavares partnered with a lead administrator to help school staff members work through the findings. After several sessions, some came to stark realizations. "They recognized that they were placing a lot of blame on families," says Tavares. "These kids did want to go to college, and their teachers weren't telling them enough."
"You have to do this work in a space of trust," Myers Twitchell says. "Discovering that we have biases working in the background is hard for any of us to process."
Facilitating Real-Life Magic
Part of the research involved asking "magic wand" questions about what adults, teachers and the school could do to help students better understand their options for dual credit courses. Students suggested more in-depth and accessible information. Rather than just 15-minute advising once a month, what about having dedicated advisory/homeroom time and providing information in the language the student speaks? Students also requested details about rigorous courses in earlier grades and hands-on help filling out forms. Staff members asked for more professional development about career pathways, training in financial aid options and ways to promote the dual credit courses.
In the fall of 2021, Washington STEM expanded the pilot study to include four other schools across Washington State to understand persistent inequities in college and career readiness intersecting with race, income, gender, and geography. "We're only going forward from here," says Myers Twitchell. "In the past four-and-a-half years, we've increased the data literacy of many partners across the state, and folks are ready to dig deeper into the root causes." To meet this demand across all its regions, Washington STEM is securing more grant money to train more people to do this kind of research in an open-source way.
They’ve also created an Equitable Dual Credit Toolkit in partnership with Eisenhower High School and the Washington State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) to help other schools make similar progress. In addition, Washington STEM used information from the project to propose and author a bill that went through the state legislature and passed into law requiring more transparency in reporting dual credit data.
Without Tavares' background and the relationship between Unite:Ed and Washington STEM, all this progress would not have been possible. "As an organization, one of our values is experiential learning," says Myers Twitchell. This includes working to connect employers from around the state with qualified employees. Bringing in current Ph.D. students with fresh perspectives and the most current methods allows Washington STEM to actively practice what they recommend.
"Because of the cross-collaboration between the University of Washington and Washington STEM and the research interests of Henedina, we could move forward," says Min Hwangbo, Washington STEM's impact director and another alumnus of the University of Washington's College of Education.
“What I appreciate about this research is that it's not just a study,” says Arviso. “We're leveraging a lot of impact from this, including educating people who work in philanthropy to direct more funding towards education, removing barriers built into statewide policy, and advancing professional development for teachers and district leaders in ways that increase racial equity.”
Families Share Their Vision
Missing in all of this, though, according to administrators, educators and students, were the voices of families. That led to a complementary study Tavares spearheaded as part of her dissertation from the fall of 2021 through the spring of 2022.
I don't start with asking about dual credit. I start by asking them to tell me their hopes and dreams for their child's education.
"With the support of school administrators and the Washington STEM team, I was back in Yakima, having baseline conversations with families," says Tavares. Less formal than an interview, Tavares uses the methodology of "pláticas," the Spanish word for "talks." "I don't start with asking about dual credit," she says. "I start by asking them to tell me their hopes and dreams for their child's education."
The pláticas add another layer to the data about how much families care about their children's education. It also helps teachers and administrators to understand that work obligations don't allow some families to be as visible or engaged with the school district as they might like. In addition, it brings other things to light, like families feeling unwelcome because of a lack of relationships with the school or a language barrier when materials come home in English.
For Tavares, the most exciting part is bringing parents together with one another to explore collective possibilities. "Quantitative data is useful, but there is something about being in community and listening to families talk about their lived experience," she says. "The data tells us about inequities in accessing dual credit opportunities and knowledge, and then when we worked with parents and families, they collectively came up with recommendations schools could act on, saying 'this is how we reimagine the narrative for our children.'"
That narrative is all about a better future, not just for their children but for everyone. “There’s been a political storyline that immigrants come here and have nothing to offer,” says Tavares. “But parents are saying, ‘No, our children’s educations will show otherwise.’ Parents talk about dreams and a better life but embedded in that is the idea that it’s only meaningful if they are helping others and supporting the community.”
Charleen Wilcox, Director for Marketing & Communciations, firstname.lastname@example.org