Article By Sociology Graduate Students to be Published in Footnotes Newsletter

The March 2014 issue of the American Sociological Association’s national disciplinary newsletter, Footnotes, will feature an article written by graduate students in the LAS Sociology Department. The work by students Emily Ruehs, William Scarborough, Carolina Calvillo, Michael De Anda Muñiz, and Jessica Holzman focuses on high school student sociology.  Read the article below:

Bringing Public Sociology  to High School Students:
UIC Sociology and  Chicago's Little Village Lawndale High School

by Emily Ruehs, William "Buddy" Scarborough, Carolina Calvillo, Michael De Anda Muñiz, Jessica Holzman  

The University of Illinois at Chicago Sociology Department has public sociology at the core of its mission: faculty and students  reach out to the community, engage in collaborative research with local organizations, and present accessible sociological information to people beyond the academy.  As graduate students, we embrace this mission. When Dennis Kass, a teacher at Little Village Lawndale High School (LVLHS), contacted the department and requested that we become partners with his students, we felt that this was an exciting opportunity to bring our skills to the community.  LVLHS students live in neighborhoods on the south side of Chicago and are predominantly from low income, Latino families.  The school itself was founded in 2005 in response to a protest movement led by parents who believed their children were receiving a second rate education.  The school in the neighborhood at that time was overcrowded and lacked a college track curriculum.  LVLHS was founded with a strong commitment to social justice and equality in education.

As a teacher as LVLHS, Dennis Kass wanted to create a challenging and stimulating academic environment for his students.  He created an advance placement sociology class for 20 college-bound students. His vision was to have students develop and conduct research projects.  He hoped that the final goal would be to present their findings at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.  And he succeeded!  Last year, one student from Dennis’ class had research accepted for presentation and gave a paper at the ASA meetings. Based on this success, Dennis hoped to expand the program to more students this year. But to increase the number of students, he needed an academic partner and reached out to UIC sociology Department Head, Barbara Risman to request for assistance.  Dr. Risman reached out to us  and, we  answered the  call.  The  five of us volunteered to partner with Dennis.  We agreed to attend the sociology class at least once a week and to work with small groups of students to develop research projects. We assisted them in brainstorming sociological questions, completing a review of literature, developing surveys and interview guides, locating research participants, teaching  how to do analyses, and writing the final product. The goal for each group of students was to complete an entire project within a semester in order to submit it for consideration to the 2014 ASA meetings.  We succeeded and they have submitted papers and are awaiting decisions about acceptance.  In the meantime, we are now applying for funds to make their dream to attend a professional conference possible.
The projects the students have undertaken are intellectually demanding and cover a wide range of interesting topics.  Students looked both within their own school and outside to the community to study a variety of social problems including the changing experiences of LGBTQ students in Chicago Public Schools, the strategies of resilience used by sex workers, the struggles of undocumented women facing divorce, and the academic performance of Latina female students.  These high school students have worked hard throughout the fall semester to meet the demanding timeline required for their projects. They worked diligently five classes a week, after school, and even during vacation. Over the December holiday break, students worked overtime, trying to wrap up their projects by the ASA submission due date. Seven of them completed their  projects on time and submitted them. We were impressed.

While our work with LVLHS is still underway, we are already pleased with the positive impact the partnership has had on both the high school students and our own university community. First, the demanding requirements of research have helped prepare  these high school students  for the level of work that will be expected in college. They have been required to read difficult material, analyze quantitative and qualitative data, develop critical thinking skills, and write high quality papers. Throughout these tasks, they have learned essential skills that they can take to the college classroom. Second, our  partnership with them has exposed them to  university culture. Many of these students hope to be the first in their families to attend college, so more exposure to campus life enhances their limited knowledge of college culture. Beyond the research experience, attending a prestigious academic conference will provide students with further exposure to academic life, expanding their cultural and social capital.  Perhaps some of them will even begin to imagine the possibility of becoming professors themselves.  Finally, students reported that the research itself was immensely valuable for their personal growth. When reflecting on their experiences, students spoke of being deeply moved by the words of their participants. The two young women who interviewed divorced, undocumented women, for example, commented on being moved to action in their own lives, their research having given them further motivation to attend college and build stable careers to help their communities.

This partnership has the potential of benefiting our university community as well. As graduate students, we found that our relationship with the high school students helped our own pedagogical development. As we often teach college students that come from Chicago Public Schools, we were able to gain a better understanding of the background of many of our current students. Aside from our personal growth as teachers, these types of partnerships can be beneficial for sociology departments as well. The students’ research has exposed them to sociology in new ways that would not have otherwise been possible. A major in sociology, now, becomes an option they can envision as they enter college, helping to insure a diverse student body in our discipline.  As we look toward the future, we hope to discover more ways in partnerships between sociology departments and high schools can develop. We are currently beginning conversations about the possibility of these AP sociology courses being used for sociology credit at UIC, supporting underprivileged students in their college goals.   

While this partnership has been tremendously successful so far, the work is not over. The next hurdle the students face is to find financial resources to attend the ASA conference. The vast majority of these students come from low-income families who are unable to contribute enough money to cover the cost of flights, hotels and conference fees. Students are currently working on fundraising, and a program is in place in which parents can contribute small sums of money on a weekly or monthly basis.
As graduate students, we have had an overwhelmingly positive experience. We encourage other sociology programs to look into how they can partner and collaborate with high schools to encourage student research. We also believe that ASA and its vast community should work to consciously support these partnerships in general, and in particular, the high school students from LVLHS.  How could our discipline help these students?  To start, we propose that ASA waive the registration  fee for underprivileged high school students. Partnerships with high schools have the potential to strengthen the ASA as well as community high schools, and we encourage ASA to actively work at supporting these future sociologists.