An Interview with Jerusha Conner, Associate professor of Education at Villanova University

Posted by on June 8, 2014

Interviewed by Liz Shriver

Dr. Jerusha Conner, Associate Professor in the Department of Education and Counseling at Villanova University, researches education policy, student voice and youth organizing. She also practices critical service-learning in her classrooms at Villanova. Dr. Conner currently teaches Urban Education and Education Policy courses for undergraduate students across majors who are interested in gaining hands on experience in urban public education. Since her appointment, she has partnered with Strawberry Mansion High School, Germantown High School and High School of the Future in West Philadelphia. She places her students as academic coaches to support the completion of senior projects. Dr. Conner was part of a cohort of faculty from various local colleges and universities who partnered with PHENND and the School District of Philadelphia during the Partnerships in Character Education Grant and has continued this work. Last year, Dr. Conner earned the Tolle Lege Award for Teaching Excellence at Villanova University. She spoke with me about her commitment to senior projects, deep partnerships with teachers and schools and to service-learning. She also highlights her recent experiences using Youth Led Participatory Action Research (YPAR) techniques to support the senior projects program at High School of the Future.

Q: How did you get connected to High School of the Future initially?

A: Villanova had been involved with service at High School of the Future (HSOF) since the school’s inception. Kate Hayes, a Villanova alumna, who helped design the school and who led its counseling department for several years, brokered a partnership with Villanova’s Office of Service Learning. Three years ago the Director of Service Learning at Villanova asked me to collaborate with the senior projects program at HSOF through my Urban Education and Education Policy courses. The senior projects coordinator Mr. Emerson, also a Villanova alumnus, was the senior projects coordinator and he was eager to develop a collaborative relationship. We’ve worked together ever since to ensure that our students learn from and benefit each other.

Q: You’ve been teaching Urban Education and Education Policy as service-learning courses for several years, how did your course evolve this spring?

A: Up until this spring, I’ve taught Urban Ed as a critical service-learning course, which places Villanova students as senior projects coaches in Philadelphia public high schools. I have worked hard to create reciprocal service-learning arrangements, so that my students and the high school students develop a sense of interdependence. To complete the requirements of their respective courses, each set of students must learn to value, elicit, and apply the unique knowledge the other possesses.

This fall at HSOF, Mr. Emerson, our partner teacher, and I noticed that a small group of his students were having difficulty finding a topic and trajectory for their senior projects. Over the winter break, Mr. Emerson and I outlined a new course structure that would enable the Villanova students to partner with High School of the Future students to conduct joint research about education policy in Philadelphia. Their co-designed, collaborative research undertaking would serve as the seniors’ senior project and my students’ final course project. Mr. Emerson assigned five students to this group who were struggling to find a topic. These students met with my five students, a PhD student at University of the Pennsylvania named AJ, and me on Friday afternoons throughout the semester. Through this process, we created a collaborative research project focused on understanding the educational policies that were affecting the HSOF students during their senior year.

Mr. Emerson would describe the students in our group as smart and talented, but disengaged. They were students who needed extra support connecting to the purpose and goal of the senior project. At first, these young men didn’t understand why they were placed with us. But we spent the first few sessions building relationships. This helped us to establish a positive, collegial tone, and it helped both my Villanova student and HSOF students learn to trust each other and work collaboratively. In our first sessions together we began to identify the challenges the HSOF students were facing, and the ways in which these challenges might be explored through the senior project. We learned that every HSOF senior in our group was a former University City High School student and that they were having a challenging and frustrating year as a result of the closing of their school and their displacement to School of the Future. After this realization, we decided to focus the project on the effects of school closure and subsequent school merging on students and teachers at HSOF. More specifically, the HSOF students wanted to understand how the transition of new students into the building was affecting school climate, student achievement and college preparation. They began to see the value of conducting their senior project on a topic that they defined and that was important to their daily lives and immediate future.

Most of our sessions were held at HSOF. This helped our Villanova students learn about Philadelphia public high schools and helped them build relationships with the HSOF students. However, one of the biggest turning points for our project came when HSOF students came to Villanova on a weekend to make up a few hours that we missed due to snow days. We worked very hard that day to identify a research question, design our instruments and protocol, and examine the intellectual and political importance of what we might do with this project. Both the Villanova students and HSOF students began to realize that their research was important and that they could use it to make valuable contributions not just to the field, but also to policy conversations in Philadelphia.

The report they generated is truly student written, student led research. Mr. Emerson, AJ, and I provided guidance and suggestions, some of which were taken and some of which were not. The final report is authentically student written, and it contains all the elements of a research-based study that could be used to influence policy discussions. I am immensely proud of them. Everyone felt that the final product was a testament to their hard work over the course of the semester, and they were excited to share it both with peers and with decision makers in Philadelphia.

Q: What are your plans for the future of these courses?

A: The experience of incorporating Youth Led Participatory Action Research (YPAR) in to this course was extremely powerful and gratifying. It felt as if we at Villanova were making a contribution to education policy conversations and impacting a broader community in addition to building meaningful relationships with the individual students with whom we partnered.

We made a difference by helping HSOF seniors create excellent senior projects, but we also worked together to create authentic research that has broad implications. Through this process, we all learned to recognize ourselves and one another as scholars.

Implementing YPAR was hard, but deeply rewarding. YPAR challenges traditional assumptions of who can do research, who has a legitimate voice and who holds knowledge. YPAR disrupts conventional status hierarchies; it challenges the service provider-recipient split that is so common in service-learning, and it forces us to come to new understandings about the power to produce actionable research and knowledge. Once we defined our research question, we set ambitious goals to make sure that our findings reached policymakers and could potentially influence the reform agenda in the School District of Philadelphia. Each of the HSOF students have younger cousins or siblings in the school system, whose educational experiences they would like to be better than their own. These younger students inspired us; they served as a reminder to us of why we cannot stand by as “reform” happens, but instead why we should interrogate the reforms and expose their unintended consequences.

I would like to continue to incorporate YPAR into my service-learning courses because I saw the impact that it can have. My Villanova students appeared more invested in the project and empowered by the work than any previous class I have taught. One student wrote in his course review that the learning he did was the most organic learning he had ever done. He was learning by doing. This experience challenged them to become change agents and citizens now, instead of waiting until after graduation to assume these mantles. As educators, we often talk about preparing our students to make meaningful contributions to society. Through this YPAR project, we asked both the Villanova and the HSOF students to embrace their civic duty and responsibility now, while they are students. This is something I would like to continue to ask of the students with whom I work because I saw how powerful and transformative this kind of invitation could be.

Q: How has incorporating YPAR affected your own academic work?

A: This work proved vital to my practice as a teacher educator. Every Friday this semester I honed my own skills as an educator and as a researcher. I came face to face with the challenges that confront public school educators right now in Philadelphia. This semester I was more vulnerable than I have been in a long time: my students saw me struggle with snow days, with resource constraints, with student confusion and frustration, with the unexpected. If I’m going to be teaching Urban Education, I need to have these kinds of experiences. I need to continue not just partnering with Philadelphia schools and school teachers, but teaching now, in a moment of crisis, filled with the tensions, challenges, joys that come along with it. Teaching YPAR and engaging in this form of “service-learning” keeps me growing professionally and places me in a position of being a strong ally to Philadelphia public school teachers and students. If we can build strong relationships and trust, our impact can continue to build.

I also have to share how important it was to have AJ Schierra, a doctoral student of Dr. Rand Quinn at the University of Pennsylvania, Graduate School of Education, involved throughout this project. AJ decided to partner with us on this project in order to support the former University City students he knew the previous year, prior to the transition. He was a teacher at University City before it was closed. It was so valuable in building trust for the five HSOF students to have a familiar face working on the project with them. Because they trusted him, we were able to dig in to the work faster and go deeper. He helped me build appropriate scaffolding, he was a sounding board in planning each session, and he had a real knack for drawing out students and making them feel respected. He wanted to see his former students succeed, while also gaining experience with YPAR. But I think we all, myself included, learned a great deal from him, and I was very grateful for his commitment.

Q: What were the learning outcomes you saw for your students and HSOF students?

A: I saw a significant impact on the way that this group of students viewed their power and purpose as researchers and citizens. Three of the four HSOF authors and one of my Villanova students recently went on an advocacy trip to Washington DC with the Philadelphia Student Union and other activists to speak out about the impact of public school closures. They were with youth and teachers from all over the country. Though these HSOF students were not involved in the protests against school closures last year, they have felt the impact of it deeply. With their research in hand, these students now feel empowered to become part of this fight and to add their research as evidence. I do think that this really shifted possibilities for them. It was exciting to see them learn to speak up, with confidence, as scholars and stakeholders. AJ and Mr. Emerson saw their students becoming politicized. Mr. Emerson would tell you that he saw them become engaged in the work that they were doing and embracing roles as leaders.

As for my students, I think they learned to do policy analysis, not just theorize about it. It was the first time for all of them that they were involved in conducting their own social science research: designing protocols, conducting interviews, analyzing and coding data, writing a literature review. They also experienced the difference between charity and change-oriented service arrangements, and they learned from that about solidarity and social justice. They learned to examine root causes, to value others’ perspectives, and to work across the lines that typically divide us. They learned lessons that I hope will continue to orient them and influence their future trajectories as leaders, critical thinkers, and change agents.

More in "K-16 Partnerships"

Stay Current in Philly's Higher Education and Nonprofit Sector

We compile a weekly email with local events, resources, national conferences, calls for proposals, grant, volunteer and job opportunities in the higher education and nonprofit sectors.