Monday, June 28, 2021

In late summer 2020, a new community initiative was formed in response to the impact of the pandemic on K12 students: Neighborhood NESTS. The Obermann Center responded by creating a new graduate research position, the Obermann Spelman Rockefeller Community Scholar, to work with the initiative, providing program management and deepening the project through disciplinary research. In this article, 2020–21 Community Scholar Peggy Schwab, then a second-year master's candidate in the College of Education's School Counseling program, reflects on her experience. Thanks to Peggy's success in working with community partners and her proven ability to apply hands-on learning to her own scholarly journey, the Obermann Center is offering this opportunity again. View the job description and apply via Handshake.

Evolving Goals

Teachers and children in classroom

It has been an honor and challenge to serve as the first Obermann Spelman Rockefeller Community Scholar by working with Neighborhood NESTS. Neighborhood NESTS, which stands for Nurturing Every Student Together Safely, is a community partnership geared toward meeting the needs of students who are less likely to graduate from high school and successfully transition into adulthood because of various identified barriers, including low socio-economic status, racial or ethnic minority status, absenteeism, and lack of transportation. The founders of NESTS, Megan Alter (ACT and South District resident); Missy Forbes (4 Cs); and Jennifer Banta (Iowa City Area Business Partnership), recognized the additional impact that COVID-19 would have on this population and last summer reached out to Johnson County municipalities, nonprofit organizations, Johnson County Social Services, Iowa City Community School District officials, city librarians, and others with the goal of meeting the needs of these students and their families.

Like many things during the pandemic, our aims and goals were constantly evolving. Protocols and needs shifted; reevaluation was ongoing. While we had a strong vision for what we thought should happen to support students who were especially struggling as a result of online learning, many obstacles kept us from acting as quickly as we would have liked. And, sometimes what we thought and what communities wanted differed. Our vision included providing learning hubs, internet support, childcare, and summer day camp scholarships. Making any of this a reality has been an endeavor in community, persistence, patience, listening, and meeting people where they are.

Our first goal was to establish learning hubs that would be run by local organizations. These would provide in-person, "pod" learning for students who were struggling to keep up during online learning. We had varying success in establishing these; the most successful has been through Open Heartland. [Note: Open Heartland is the hosting organization for the 2021–22 Spelman Rockefeller Community Scholar.] We also worked to establish childcare assistance for students engaged in online or hybrid learning. Currently, NESTS is sponsoring more than 25 children in full-time summer programs and camps. Though establishing these supports has been extremely difficult (as any community-wide collaboration during a public health crisis is), our interventions have made enormous, positive differences for some members of our community. They have allowed for academic success; they've let parents rejoin the workforce; and they've provided something akin to social normalcy for kids who would have otherwise endured extreme isolation.   

As a newly minted school counselor who wants to help kids as quickly as possible, I admit that I found the effort frustrating at times. However, what excited the scholar part of me was discovering that the potential for research at the intersection of academia and service in the role of public scholar is nearly limitless. Much of my career ambition revolves around creating better school climates through inclusive practices that promote engagement, multicultural consideration, and familial and community collaboration. Here lies the opportunity to examine the efficacy of theory in practice. Thinking of engagement theory, or the belief that engaged students fare better academically, socially, and emotionally, I'm contemplating the opportunities that already exist for retrospective and longitudinal data examination. I wonder about the potential research and possibility that exists in Neighborhood NESTS and similar projects. 

Service + Research

The NESTS at Open Heartland is one example of an opportunity that lies at the intersection between service and academic research. Unlike typical classrooms, the NESTS Learning Hubs were created to meet the needs of the populations they serve. We didn't provide blueprints or prescriptive services; rather, each NESTS hub is its own ecosystem, establishing standards and expectations in accordance with the needs of those it serves. Open Heartland, which serves Latinx and Spanish-speaking communities on Iowa City's southeast side, is setting an example of meeting organically expressed needs rather than needs perceived by those from outside its micro-community. Open Heartland rented a space in Pepperwood Plaza for tutoring and in-person learning and has since become a hub for other expressed needs, such as a food pantry and a furniture exchange. By providing a space for students to stay on top of schoolwork while also welcoming parents, Open Heartland is likely improving student engagement.

My researcher brain wonders: What impact could NESTS and parental involvement have on the long-term academic and life achievements of the students and families involved? I recently read an article, "Beyond School Records," in the Professional School Counseling Journal (Lovelace, Reschly, and Appleton) regarding the efficacy of the Student Engagement Instrument (SEI) as a dropout predictor. The researchers identified two components of engagement that supersede the predicted effects of socio-economic status, race/ethnicity, and ELL status on academic achievement/graduation (2018): 1) future goals and aspirations, and 2) family support for learning (or, willingness of parents to help with school work, communicate with the school, etc.). How is what is happening at Open Heartland contributing to these students' futures?

This is but one research question. There are a multitude of others that come up for me: How will the children who are participating in summer camps fare academically next year? Will they have less summer learning loss, or fewer behavioral and/or emotional issues at school? How does the Open Heartland NESTS affect parents' attitudes about education and their children's futures? 

Although I came to my role as Community Scholar through questions and a knowledge base of school counseling, it is very clear to me that graduate students in numerous disciplines will not only be able to meaningfully contribute to community partners' work but will also be able to locate their own research foci. I see the potential for social workers to investigate the needs of community and quantify the impact of meeting those needs, be they health-, housing-, or food-related. Additionally, those in public health, non-profit management, finance, organizational communication, literacy studies, and dozens of other fields can find opportunities for research at the intersection of academia and service. I, for one, will never stop looking for opportunities to collect the data, identify the needs, and find appropriate interventions. I am not entering a new job as a school counselor while also pursuing my PhD. My experience as the Community Scholar will greatly impact both paths.

This article was written by Peggy Schwab, who served as the 2020-21 Spelman Rockefeller Community Scholar.

*Lovelace, Matthew D., Reschly, Amy L., and Appleton, James J.  BEYOND SCHOOL RECORDS. Professional School Counseling, 2017–2018, Vol. 21, No. 1 (2017–2018), pp. 70–84.