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St. Louis universities and schools are teaming up to study education issues

Andrew Butler, the chair of Washington University’s education department, speaks on Tuesday.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
Andrew Butler, the chair of Washington University’s education department, speaks on Tuesday during an introduction of the St. Louis School Research-Practice Collaborative at Washington University.

Education researchers often choose a specific topic to investigate — and years down the line, the results may turn into recommendations for schools.

Researchers from some of the biggest universities in the St. Louis region are trying to flip that process by forming a collaborative to examine the issues most relevant to local teachers and principals.

The initiative, known as the St. Louis School Research-Practice Collaborative, has brought together researchers from Washington University, Harris-Stowe State University, St. Louis University and the University of Missouri-St. Louis, with educators from St. Louis Public Schools, Confluence Academies and KIPP St. Louis.

“I think it's a game changer for St. Louis,” said Amber Jones, an assistant professor of Educational Studies and Psychology at Harris-Stowe State University who is working on the project. “I don't think that it has been said enough how unique it is to bring together multiple institutions in order to do this kind of work.”

At an introductory event at Washington University on Tuesday, education leaders laid out their hopes for the project, which is still in its pilot phase. The collaborative hopes to use education data in a new way, to develop solutions rather than punishing schools.

“You can learn from it and not just use it to point to all the challenges in our system, but also work with practitioners to figure out how to create interventions that will address some of those challenges,” said Saras Chung, executive director of SKIP Designed, a local think tank that has been coordinating the project.

Leaders from St. Louis Public Schools and the two charter schools also described the need for research that is guided by people who are actually working with students. Involving educators in the research process is essential, said Christopher Frills, a principal at KIPP Wonder Academy working with the collaborative.

“Having educators and practitioners as part of the conversation, having a seat at the table to engage in work that could be impactful for so many kids, I think is absolutely imperative,” Frills said.

The collaboration will begin by exploring student mobility, a major issue facing many St. Louis educators. In St. Louis Public Schools, almost 40% of students change schools throughout the year. That high rate is disruptive for the students but also leads to challenges for classrooms and educators. It wasn’t on Jones’ radar until she started working with the collaborative.

“It might not have been what I first thought of if you talked to me over a year ago, before I started,” said Jones. “It really helped me rethink my research priorities to, ‘How do I make my work, all the things that I do, as helpful to St. Louis educational institutions as possible.’”

These types of partnerships between local universities and school districts already exist across the country, but Chung says this is the first of its kind in St. Louis.

“We looked around at different models across the United States to see how they develop their research agenda, and many talked about workshopping, convening teachers, convening principals and asking them what their challenges were,” Chung said.

So far, the project has been funded by in-kind donations from the universities, which have given time for the researchers to do the work.

The group hopes to share the initial results from its research by the end of the year, first with the schools involved, then with the public.

Follow Kate on Twitter: @KGrumke

Kate Grumke covers the environment, climate and agriculture for St. Louis Public Radio and Harvest Public Media.