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Northwestern and Evanston: Working Together for Equity and Excellence

April 28, 2020

collage of Northwestern arch and Evanston Township High School signThe Northwestern-Evanston Education Research Alliance (NEERA) received a $650,000 award to support new research projects related to racial and economic equality and expand the collaborative work between Northwestern University and Evanston schools.

The award, called an Institutional Challenge Grant, will enhance the long-term research practice partnership between the University and its community partners. In addition to helping researchers launch additional projects, the funds support new research fellows and bring informal, out-of-school learning partners into the initiative.  

Three major foundations -- the William T. Grant Foundation, the Spencer Foundation, and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation -- have pooled resources to award the challenge grants, an effort to address critical social issues.

The grant was awarded to economist David Figlio, dean of the School of Education and Social Policy, Orrington Lunt Professor of Education and Social Policy, and a principal investigator on the project; Eric Witherspoon, superintendent of Evanston Township High School District 202; and Devon Horton, incoming superintendent of Evanston/Skokie School District 65.

While Evanston school districts are among the highest achieving in the nation, they also have some of the largest differences in racial achievement. The initial projects will help teachers learn how to support developing student identities and create smoother transitions from middle to high school, especially for Black and Hispanic youth.

The collaborative research catalyzed by the grant will build on existing projects and also open up new areas of questioning and partnerships between faculty and the districts. The project will support new endeavors by SESP faculty members Megan Bang, Mesmin Destin, and Simone Ispa-Landa, among others.

In addition, the findings will help design and rigorously test the effectiveness of professional development materials that teachers rely on to support students in the classroom. 

NEERA’s Expansion

To help NEERA broaden its understanding of how learning occurs at the local level, the School of Education and Social Policy plans to increase the number of scholars conducting research in Evanston by building a fellows program to include distinguished, mid-career visiting fellows from other universities, and a practice fellow who will work with community-based organizations and out of school learning providers.

“Ultimately we can design and study solutions that build equity and further empower students, parents, and educators across our community," Figlio said.

NEERA was born in 2016, after a grant from the Spencer Foundation and local funding from the Lewis-Sebring Family Foundation helped formalize an ongoing research-practice partnership between Northwestern and Evanston schools.

The partnership, organized around the theme “designing for equity and excellence", investigates the nature of achievement and disparities in Evanston; the factors that promote student success; and the effectiveness of the strategies used to help students and eliminate racial, ethnic, and socio-economic gaps.

“NEERA leverages the intellectual talent, resources, and willingness of all partners,” Figlio said. “By having a set of shared objectives and research plans, but emphasizing shared research infrastructure and specific research projects that are ‘bottom up’ rather than ‘top down’, we are increasing the likelihood that the research is aligned to the school districts’ agendas and also to Northwestern’s key missions of scholarly research, teaching and service."

Institutional Challenge Grants were created by the foundations to encourage universities and schools to develop research partnerships that are both useful, actionable, and relevant. In addition to Northwestern, the University of California Berkeley and Boston College also received 2019 Challenge grants.

Half of the Challenge grants awarded to date are to SESP or SESP alumni. Previous recipients include Rachel Dunifon (PhD99), interim Dean of the College of Human Ecology and professor in the Department of Policy Analysis and Management at Cornell University; and Mimi Engel (PhD08), associate professor in the Research and Evaluation Methodology (REM) program in the School of Education at the University of Colorado.