Improving the Student Experience

Dr. Adriana Villavicencio

One four-year program in New York City helped change the way high-school boys think about their schools – and about themselves. 


Last spring, when seniors at 40 public high schools across New York City walked across the graduation stage, they carried some intangible things along with their diplomas: a sense of belonging in their school communities, meaningful connections with the adults in their buildings, and a tendency to look toward the future.


The Young Men’s Initiative – part of a larger program called the Expanding Success Initiative – launched in 2012. Each of the 40 participating public high schools received $250,000 in funding over three years for the four-year program, which was focused on improving college and career readiness for black and Latino young men.


While academics-oriented outcomes have thus far proved elusive, researchers have seen a measurable impact on things like students’ sense of belonging in their schools, participation in school activities, and the frequency with which students discuss their future plans with adults.


“Certainly, I think one can make an argument that these are worthwhile [outcomes] if you are trying to improve students’ experiences,” says Adriana Villavicencio, director of the Research Alliance of New York City Schools at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development. “Improving students’ experience in high school may have an influence on how they experience other similar settings, whether it’s in college or in the workplace.”


Schools that participated in the initiative had broad latitude in choosing what specific types of programming to offer, but were required to create or expand services and supports in the areas of academics, youth development, and school culture. Mentoring was one of the most common choices, with schools implementing both peer and adult mentoring programs. Also, more than three quarters of the schools used their funding to take students on college trips, with many of the schools expanding access to the trips to underclassmen – promoting the idea that students should be thinking about higher education from the moment they enter high school. Some schools also attempted to change their approach to student discipline, implementing alternative-to-suspension programs. Through the initiative, schools received robust professional development on culturally relevant education, and nearly all of the schools reported changes to their pedagogical practices, including making efforts to create curriculum that is relevant to the students’ lives, to be aware of implicit biases, and to consider gender and race when analyzing student data.


The initiative emphasized the involvement of both individual school communities and the larger community of the city. Schools were encouraged to include not only administrators and teachers in decisions around programming, but also other school community members like guidance counselors, deans, and school safety officers, who are frequently left out of such conversations. Schools were also encouraged to partner with vendors and community-based organizations with experience working successfully with black and Latino young men.


Researchers released yearly reports throughout the four-year program. While final data on things like college enrollment and graduation rates haven’t yet been made available, Villavicencio says that reports from previous years have not revealed significant impacts on academic metrics like grade-point average and credit accumulation.


Some other longitudinal studies have shown benefits years after educational programs end, Villavicencio says, adding that it’s possible that students who participated in the Young Men’s Initiative will see improved career- and college-related outcomes in the future. The program, Villavicencio points out, has given students a foundation of knowledge to better access college and career opportunities, as well as a support network to draw on when they face challenges. “So maybe there are things that we can’t measure right at this moment, that would show up later,” she says.


But even if those results never materialize, Villavicencio says, the non-cognitive benefits are valuable for their own sake, especially for a student population that has historically felt “disenfranchised” by their school experience.


Villavicencio says: “For many students who feel like when they get into schools, they kind of have to be a different person, or take off pieces of their identity, to have a smooth day – I think that not having to do that, and being able to have frank and honest conversations about race and gender, I think that’s certainly valuable in and of itself.”


Villavicencio and her team will be reporting the final results in September 2017.


Dr. Adriana Villavicencio is Deputy Director at the Research Alliance for New York City Schools. She also leads the Research Alliance’s evaluation of the Expanded Success Initiative, which aims to improve college readiness among NYC’s Black and Latino young men. Dr. Villavicencio has conducted several studies documenting practices in successful schools, including “turnaround” middle schools and the City’s small high schools of choice.


In 2016, Dr. Villavicenio spoke at PCG’s MBK Summit at SXSWedu. Click here to read her guest blog post, Culturally Relevant Curriculum.We look forward to continuing the discussion about community engagement and My Brother’s Keeper at SXSWedu 2017 during the Engaging the Community problem solver session.