After more than a decade of trying to improve its low graduation rate, the Chilliwack school district has turned to an unlikely team of researchers to shed light on the problem: seven alternate-education students whose own struggles in mainstream schools brought them to the district's Education Centre.
Ranging in age from 16 to 18, the students have teamed up with Trinity Western University graduate student Fred Chou for an unusual research study that will see them work as co-researchers, interviewing fellow Ed Centre students and other youth who have dropped out.
The approach is called participatory action research (PAR) and it's designed to make sure marginalized groups take an active part in studies about them.
The method has been used with youth before, but its potential for shaping education policy and programs seems to be largely unexplored in B.C. and Canada, according to Elizabeth Saewyc, a UBC professor in the school of nursing who has used PAR extensively in public health studies of homeless and street-involved youth.
"It's really critical because often times education policy and programs have been designed without them in mind," she said. "They have come from the goals of adults, the goals of the school district and administrators and other people. While they may have great goals, they may not actually create the right kinds of programs to achieve those goals unless they're actually engaging the young people."
Chou, whose experience with marginalized young people includes a year working in a youth homeless shelter in Edmonton, was drawn to PAR's potential for empowering his co-researchers.
"It grows a lot of their own individual capacities, skills, something to add to their resume," he said. "And it's also such a confidence booster."
Still, he was a bit taken aback by the enthusiastic response when he first went to the Ed Centre to enlist volunteers from the school's Personal Projects class.
"I was ready to pull out my bag of tricks in terms of marketing, but I didn't need to," he said. "They were all very enthusiastic. A lot of them had very poor experiences in the mainstream, and I think they really wanted to advocate."
The students, almost all of whom have spent significant periods of time not going to school at all, agree.
"I had such a hard time trying to go back to high school and trying to get back into the flow of things that it made me passionate about [the study]," 17year-old Taylor Stevens told the Times. "If I could change something about it, why not? Because I can't be the only kid going through this."
Seventeen-year-old Jordan Florence also hopes his involvement in the project will make a difference.
"I want kids my age and kids younger than me to be able to get the chance that they need," he said. "I want them to actually be able to get the training wheels they need so they can challenge the big bikes and reach their full potential."
Curiosity was part of what drew 17year-old Scott Wilson to the study.
"I would like to know where everybody's coming from and why this program works and why it doesn't, and not just to know but to try to help them succeed," he said.
To 18-year-old Jake Harms, having students interview other students and youth who have dropped out seems like the best way to get accurate information.
"They don't really want to talk to adults," he said. "Adults are from a different generation. They're not going to understand."
His observation highlights one reason PAR is so effective, according to Saewyc, who says trust is usually established quicker between people closer in age.
"If I'm just some random researcher in a suit, who's old enough to be their mother or grandmother, there's going to be somewhat less trust that I will really be able to get what they're saying," she said. "And the first thing that we need to have when it comes to establishing trust is a sense that people get it, that people understand."
The seven student co-researchers, who will earn course credits for their involvement, trained for their role in the study from September to December.
This month they will start conducting audio-recorded interviews, asking three basic questions about their interviewees' educational experiences: what helped, what hindered and what do they wish could be changed or added?
The recordings will be transcribed and the transcriptions analyzed for themes for a report with recommendations that will be presented to the school board and the Chilliwack Social Research and Planning Council (CSRPC).
For Chou, it's vital the students be involved in every part of the research, especially the presentations.
"I really want them to get the credit for it," he said, "and if their faces are there and if they're doing the presentation, then I feel like they'll grow so much. They'll have that opportunity to voice their perspective and the perspective of the youth that they are interviewing."
The Chilliwack school district is partnering with the CSRPC on three studies designed to shed light on the low local grad rate this year.
Besides Chou's Ed Centre project, CSRPC is also overseeing a district-wide study by UFV researcher Katherine Watson that will gauge students' attitudes toward school, as well as another study that will evaluate alternate education programs currently offered in the district. All told, the studies will cost about $55,500, with CSRPC kicking in $52,000 and Fraser Health providing $3,500.