On May 14th, the graduation celebration for the 2015-2016 class of the Coro Youth Leadership Academy (YLA) marked the culmination of a year-long partnership between Research Alliance staff and a group of high school students. Over the last year, the students and researchers worked together to explore survey design and analysis and to build an understanding of how NYC Department of Education policy discussions incorporate youth perspectives.  

Since 2014, the Research Alliance has been collaborating closely with the NYC Department of Education on its annual NYC School Survey, one of the largest survey efforts in the nation. As part of this work, the Research Alliance has met with groups of parents, teachers, and students across the City to collect their feedback on survey questions, and to make sure the surveys are focusing on topics that matter to students, families, and educators.

YLA—a year-long leadership training program for NYC public high school students from across the five boroughs —was a natural partner for our student focus groups. All YLA participants serve as representatives on the NYC DOE’s Borough Student Advisory Councils (BSACs), which represent students’ voices in DOE decision-making. In the summer of 2015, Research Alliance staff members met with about 35 YLA participants to hear their feedback on individual survey questions as well as their impressions of the student survey overall.

After that meeting, Research Alliance researchers Lisa Merrill and Camille Lafayette decided to continue the partnership with the YLA students. “We were very impressed by the YLA students, and excited by their eagerness to participate in the survey design process,” Ms. Lafayette said. “Their thoughtful feedback led to a number of concrete improvements to the student version of the DOE School Survey.”

Following the initial meeting, Dr. Merrill and Ms. Lafayette designed a series of activities aimed at helping the YLA participants learn to approach survey design like an education researcher. Students had opportunities to study their own school’s results from the NYC School Survey, to build a set of survey questions designed to investigate a specific topic, and to think about how and why policymakers and others use survey results to understand and explain different issues.

Both Research Alliance staff members and YLA participants were pleased with the results of the partnership. Students reported that working with the Research Alliance and creating tangible changes to the DOE School Survey was a great source of pride. “Our work with the Youth Leadership Academy was a reminder of how student input can improve our work as researchers,” Dr. Merrill said. “Students experience things that we don’t always know about or fully understand. Listening to students provided insight into our own work, as they highlighted areas that we didn’t think to measure and suggested changes that improved individual survey questions.” One YLA participant from Queens echoed this sentiment, asserting that the partnership “allowed us to feel the change we can bring.”

 As a tribute to the productive collaboration, Dr. Merrill and Ms. Lafayette received a partnership award from the YLA students at their May graduation ceremony. Cynthia Wong, YLA Director, commended them on their commitment. “This collaboration has been invaluable for both the students and Coro,” she said, “and it’s been a pleasure to partner with a team that shares our value of bringing youth voice to discussions that are often about youth but don’t include youth.” 

The Research Alliance is currently analyzing results from the 2016 NYC DOE School Survey and preparing to continue partnering with the next cohort of YLA participants to improve the survey students will take next year.