Monday, June 15, 2009 | The teens shuffled their papers, only slightly nervous in their jeans and hoodies in the dimly lit classroom at Crawford High School. Teachers sat arrayed before them, waiting to hear their report.

The topic was not a Hemingway novel or an epoch in world history — the kinds of things that teens study by day — nor were they angling for a good grade. They had spent their free time studying the school itself: how much homework teens got, whether they felt ready for college, and how students felt it could be improved. And they were ready to turn the tables and give the teachers a lesson for a change.

The Crawford kids were not alone. Across town, teens at Lincoln and two schools within San Diego High were putting together the last of their charts. “I’d never done anything like this before,” said Ilana Battaglia, a soft spoken freshman at the School of International Studies within San Diego High.

Teens are usually under the microscope in education research as scholars try to figure out how to raise their test scores or why they drop out. Now the teens are manning the microscopes. A fledgling extracurricular project, now in its third year in San Diego Unified, empowers students to study the inner workings of their own schools, from why teens skip tutoring to whether classes are interesting.

Trained by researchers from the University of California, San Diego, students at four different schools chose their own questions, learned to conduct interviews, gathered and analyzed data from surveys and classroom visits, and even explained their work at an annual conference for education wonks in the convention center downtown. The teens volunteered for the project and met roughly once a week after school.

“There is always debate about how to improve schools,” said Makeba Jones, a project scientist at the Center for Research on Educational Equity, Assessment and Teaching Excellence at UCSD, who led the project along with fellow researcher Susan Yonezawa. “Who better to ask than the students themselves?”

The project opened a rare window onto teens’ feelings about their schools — ideas that can be very different from those of their teachers, principals or parents. It gave students a pathway into educational research as a possible career and taught them vital skills such as data analysis and how to present their work in public. And it tackled sensitive or complex issues from a different perspective. It is part of a larger field of educational research called “student voice,” which aims to bring students into the process.

“It was pretty hard-hitting,” said Natalie Mason, a freshman at the School of International Studies who took part in the program and aspires to be a lawyer. “It wasn’t a simple little survey.”

The studies sometimes turned up surprising or worrisome results: Less than half of the students surveyed at one of the schools-within-a-school at Lincoln High said their counselor knew their names. Ninety percent said they knew at least one teacher they respected on campus. Two-thirds of students surveyed at the San Diego High School of Communication said a teacher had misplaced their work, though most of them still said their teachers were organized.

And teens at the School of International Studies delved into issues of race and prejudice: They found that students at the other schools on their campus stereotyped them as mostly white and nerdy, and a small fraction of students believed that black students who are smart are “trying to be white.”

The last issue became especially controversial at San Diego High, where students said some teachers avoided handing out the surveys and a handful of students wrote “RACIST” across the questions instead of answering them. Battaglia said the questions arose from her own experiences as a black student at the high-scoring school, which has higher percentages of white and wealthy students than the other San Diego High schools on the same campus.

“They’ll label the elephant in the room,” said Dana Mitra, an assistant professor of education studies at Penn State University who studies student voice. “They’ll say, ‘There are huge race issues at this school — and nobody wants to talk about them.’”

Other studies at other schools took on less touchy, but still vital questions: Do students feel supported by their teachers? Are students interested in their classes? Does our school do a good job of preparing kids for their futures? Jones and Yonezawa cautioned that the studies are preliminary. But they highlight issues that are important to teens. And even though many teachers seemed keenly interested in the research, asking questions and probing for more details, some of their concerns are not always welcomed, taken seriously or even understood.

Students at one of the schools-within-a-school at Crawford High, the Multimedia and Visual Arts School, had to explain to their teachers what they meant by “urban arts,” a class that students said they wanted to add to the school. One boy explained that it could include hip hop, break dancing and graffiti. “Graffiti?” a teacher exclaimed. The roomful of teachers burst into laughter.

Principal Diego Gutierrez said that the reaction underscored the generational and, in some cases, cultural gap between the students and their teachers. Most educators are middle class, he said, and few of them live in the same communities as the children they teach. Teachers are also predominantly white, unlike the majority of students in San Diego Unified and other urban school districts. The gulf between seeing graffiti as laughable and seeing it as art is the reason that student research matters.

“I didn’t want this to be just an exercise,” Gutierrez said. “They are our clientele and we very rarely take their thoughts into account.”

“Student voice” is not unique to San Diego: Mitra said Oakland schools have enlisted teens to help develop policies, such as new rules for using cell phones, and another Bay Area system has asked students to help them translate the standards used by educators to determine what kids should be learning into “student speak.” But such work is still rare.

Bringing students into the conversation is also meant to spur school reform, by getting teens to present research that could potentially change their own schools. But practice has lagged behind theory in San Diego, where Jones said a lack of practical changes resulting from the studies has been the major shortcoming of the program. Principals seem to be interested in the data and some have urged their teachers to keep it in mind, she said, but so far, there have been few concrete changes in the schools. Even those educators who want to incorporate the findings seem unsure of how to do so.

“I wanted to know what the faculty would actually do with this,” said Leonel Roman, an outgoing junior at the Multimedia and Visual Arts School. “I think most of the teachers didn’t care.”

Yet when the students took their work to a national conference this year — the American Educational Research Association, which is packed with jargon-loaded seminars on “collaborative inquiry” and “conceptual dynamics” — they found it surprisingly unintimidating. Roman was amazed to see seminars on gay teenagers in urban schools. “You can make research out of any little thing,” he said. Others were startled that scholars with doctorates were genuinely interested in their studies on their schools.

“It felt like other people actually thought it was important,” said Sarah Hardimon, a freshman at the School of International Studies, tipping her flowered headband back on her head.

The project was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation through the American Institutes for Research and cost $7,500 per school in food, copying costs, transportation to the university and the researchers’ pay. It was part of a grant for small high schools, the schools-within-a-school that were formed in 2004 and 2007 by splitting up big, comprehensive schools into several smaller schools with themes. That money dries up this summer; Jones and Yonezawa hope to cover the costs next year with a new grant. Maria Guasp, a principal research analyst with the American Institutes for Research, said the project ties directly into the goals of the small high school movement: a more personalized, more empowering experience for teens.

It has already translated into work opportunities for teens who finish the program, who have been rehired by Jones and Yonezawa to interview students just completing the program for $20 a pop — not a bad rate for work that usually takes a half hour or less. The researchers only hope that the project survives so that another round of student researchers can be trained to keep asking questions.

“This is one of the revolutions in education that we really need,” Morrell said.

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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