Youth of color experience disproportionately high rates of suspensions and other climate issues in schools that can negatively impact their learning and educational outcomes. One emerging approach to address these inequalities is to engage directly affected young people in the process of identifying issues, researching and evaluating their contexts, and developing solutions for change. This approach, also known as youth participatory action research and evaluation (YPARE), embraces the idea that young people have critical insights and unique perspectives, and are positioned to generate knowledge that can improve institutional level policies and develop important educational interventions.
Since 2015, the Minneapolis Public Schools has worked to systematically implement a Youth Participatory Evaluation (YPE) program across all middle and high schools. School-level teams, representing young people who have had contact with the disciplinary system, focus on YPE projects to develop knowledge and generate ideas to address issues of racial disproportionality and school climate. Their findings are presented to school administration and district leadership on an annual basis. This paper presents a content analysis of the themes from the youth’s research and evaluation projects (2016-2018). Using a grounded theory approach, we analyzed 38 YPE projects presented at the youth summits in 2017 and 2018. Three researchers independently reviewed individual project materials and developed codes as they emerged from the materials. We then compared codes for consistency and reliability and developed larger themes. Team members from the MPS and from two universities developed the findings and implications.
The analysis suggests that directly affected young people are generating critical information that can drive school understanding and policies at the district. During the 2016-2018 academic years, over 330 young people participated as members of research teams and over 2,500 annually young people shared their ideas as respondents to the youth research teams’ projects via surveys, focus groups, and interviews. Content analysis findings to date suggest six significant themes from the youth research projects, including (1) the need for strong youth-adult relationships in the classroom, including trust between students of color and adults; (2) the need for policies that promote engagement in the school, a sense of belonging and inclusion, and a motivation for the future; (3) the desire of young people to be challenged academically and have higher expectations given, especially for students of color; (4) more resources and funds to support youth-driven projects and activities; (5) more diverse staff representation in schools, and (6) more fair, equitable, and racially just policies in schools.
This paper highlights the importance of directly affected youth voice as a part of system-wide interventions to address issues of inequalities and racial disproportionality and to guide future policy and practices. Exploring issues from the perspective of youth provides both nuances to known problems and uncovers new understandings that are unique to young people’s experiences, and, if put into practice, can address racial disproportionality and positively improve school climate. Social work research can be a partner in promoting youth voice and help amplify their ideas to create school change.