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Digging for data on immigrant children's needs

By J.M. Berger

Even well-intentioned school interventions rely too much on gut feelings about how to help students, according to Eric Dearing, associate professor of developmental and educational psychology. As he sees it, that encourages a “haphazard and extemporaneous” approach to solving problems and improving students’ learning environments.

Dearing aims to help change that with “Student Support in High-poverty Elementary Schools and the Achievement of Immigrant Children,” an ambitious research project supported by a $150,000 Foundation for Child Development grant. He is harnessing mountains of data from City Connects, the Lynch School hub for student support resources that evaluates individual children’s needs and links their families to tailored intervention, prevention, and enrichment services in their schools and communities.

City Connects provided individualized help to more than 5,000 students in underserved schools during the 2010–2011 school year, according to its summer 2012 progress report.

The program has demonstrated results:  Students at participating schools earned about 1 percent higher grade point averages, had chronic absenteeism rates of about 12 percent compared to 16 percent, and dropped out half as often as students in a comparison group, according to the progress report.

But averages are a blunt tool for evaluating a program centered on individualized care. Dearing intends to evaluate different types of intervention and student-specific results for 5,000 students from immigrant families who have received services from the program—zeroing in on what is and is not working.

“What we would expect to be helpful to [immigrant families] are the kinds of services that sound a lot like City Connects. But to this point, it’s all been speculation,” Dearing says. “So this is an opportunity to figure it out. … In education, there’s an increasing need to have gold standard evidence, to really be able to talk about causality and understand what is working.”

Dearing says he focuses on immigrant children learning English because their numbers are increasing rapidly, and because they appear to have a high risk of academic failure that is often linked to poverty and the difficulty of social integration. Approximately one-quarter of all American schoolchildren are members of immigrant families at high risk for poverty and other educational disadvantages.

He expects to finish the data-crunching phase of his three-year study in the spring. Then he and his team will begin interviewing teachers, school counselors, and community service workers to gather insight about their experiences.

Dearing describes his task as “getting under the skin of the findings” in conversations with policymakers and professionals who work directly with students during the project’s final phase, which is projected to begin in spring 2013.

“The evidence suggests so far that City Connects is doing quite a good job,” he says. “But the latter part of the project will be digging into where are those connections happening in really beneficial ways and where are we really struggling to establish connections and figure out how to best help families.”