National Youth Leadership Council’s ‘The Generator’ – Colorado Students Serve as Ethnographers in National Evaluation Project

What assets do out-of-school youths offer the workplace? Students at Eagle Rock School, a residential school in Estes Park, Colo., for those who haven’t thrived in mainstream settings, figured that was a question worth asking their peers.

The Kellogg Foundation, sponsor of a 10-year study exploring various credentials as alternatives to high school diplomas, recognized that these Eagle Rock students offer perspectives that professional researchers don’t. Michael Soguero’s service-learning students have a base of empathy: All have opted out of traditional schooling themselves. They have come to this alternative school, an initiative of the nonprofit Honda Education Corporation, to try a new approach to education.

And the Eagle Rock approach, which emphasizes experiential education and service-learning, was also a fit for the study. In a sense, students engaged in a dual evaluation project over a four-month period. They were participating in a national evaluation project through a service-learning class, which had its own elements of “progress monitoring” to assess student performance and project efficacy. By its culmination, they had implemented most of the indicators related to the standard — collecting feedback from multiple perspectives, aggregating and analyzing their data, and presenting their findings to the Kellogg Foundation.

“We were really thought of as partners in the project,” says Soguero, a math teacher who is also the Director of Professional Development at Eagle Rock. Working with a research firm based in Atlanta, Ga., Eagle Rock students received training in the ethno-graphic skills of neutrality and objectivity in interviewing, surveying, and documentation. Through their carefully designed protocols, eight students captured the sentiments of more than 75 of their predominantly male, black, and Latino 14- to 22-year-old peers who lived in Baltimore, Md., and Oakland, Calif.

As student participant Amanda Hanson attests, “We were dealing with a real-life situations where we got to develop skills in finding a solution.” Posing questions such as “What do you want in life?” and “What makes it hard for you to get it?” they explored their interview subjects’ aspirations and hurdles.

Because the Eagle Rock students had faced similar hurdles themselves, their base of empathy made the experience powerful. “I feel like the public school system failed me as well,” said Hanson. “Now I get a chance to talk to youths … who feel the same way, and our class gets to help out with a project that is trying to do what Eagle Rock does … offer a different route to getting the same thing, but in different and better ways — in ways that youths want to be a part of, that get them excited about learning and being alive.”

While learning ethnographic skills, Eagle Rock students applied their technology and math skills. They learned to look for patterns among the responses, correlations between the surveys and interviews, and developed a typology of responses. “They learned about navigating the real world,” says Soguero — and an unanticipated outcome was the offer of an internship at the Kellogg Foundation for one of the students. Perhaps least surprising, they found that service-learning was among the programs that help out-of-school youths take meaningful first steps to employment.

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