Now in their fourth year with the School Participatory Action Research Collaborative (SPARC) program, GFA Upper School students have the chance to give back to their community in a distinctive new way.
An initiative out of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, SPARC empowers schools to “engage in research in the service of action,” according to its mission statement. In other words, students identify issues that face their school community, then through extensive research, interviews, and analysis, determine ways in which they can effect meaningful and positive change.
At GFA, participation in SPARC takes the form of a Qualitative Research course for sophomores and juniors, led by Associate Head of School Chris Kolovos. Or rather, he points out, they take the lead, and he’s there to provide support and guidance along the way.
“Kids learn a really important set of 21st century skills: identifying an issue, studying academic literature, learning how to do real research, creating focus groups, and conducting interviews with members of their community,” Kolovos explained. “This requires putting their own perspectives aside and really listening to each other. Most importantly, they are the ones who must advocate for change, and then create change in their community.”
The yearlong course gives the students enough time to really delve into a topic. While they can focus on curriculum or other academic areas, students typically take a broader approach, choosing to examine overarching conditions of a school.
According to Dr. Michael Reichert, Executive Director of SPARC, “On a fundamental level the center is committed to the human development of the young people participating on our school teams. Questions like: ‘What kind of lives can students imagine?’ and ‘What can students be and do?’ underlie our center’s very existence and reflect a deeply felt commitment to the quality of young people’s lives.”
GFA joins six other schools in the SPARC community: Philips Exeter Academy (New Hampshire), Columbus Academy (Ohio), Lawrenceville School (New Jersey), Miss Porter’s School (Connecticut), Greenwich Academy (Connecticut), and The Bryn Mawr School (Pennsylvania).
In addition to a faculty advisor from each school, the groups also work with a graduate student from UPenn’s Graduate Education Program. Last week Reichert and GFA’s grad student advisor, Priscilla Busgamante, a Ph.D. candidate at one of the CUNY schools, came to campus to meet with the students to learn more about their topics of interest and to help with research strategies — and to point out areas in their research that need strengthening.
Their guidance gives the students tools they’ll need to prepare for the April conference at UPenn, where the school groups, their advisors, and heads of school will meet for to hear presentations and provide additional feedback and advice. Then the GFA students will use that feedback in preparing for a presentation of their findings and recommendations for GFA Upper School students.
“This is the most meaningful teaching I’ve ever done: coaching these kids along their way,” Kolovos said. “They get excited about this because they’re actually doing something that’s impacting their lives.”