Plenty to Celebrate in Urban Schools

The study is drawing stories out of the students using art.

The study is drawing stories out of the students using art.

Credit: Penn State Behrend

Study aims to shed light on the positives of city school districts, including Erie’s

Dr. Ashley Sullivan was frustrated with the negative news about the City of Erie School District. Before she joined Penn State Behrend as an assistant professor of early childhood education, she taught kindergarten at a large, urban district that, similar to Erie, was labeled as “troubled.” She knew there was likely another—much more positive—side to the story.

“Urban school districts may be more challenged in some ways, particularly with funding, but if that’s all you focus on, you’re missing all the good things that are happening there,” Sullivan said.

She developed an in-depth anthropological study that would draw those stories out of students in a language that is easily adapted for children from ages 3 to 18—art.

“I thought: What if we have them create a piece of artwork— and that could be a painting, a sculpture, a collage, whatever they wanted to do—that illustrated what they love about their school,” Sullivan said. “Then, we could utilize that art as data for our project as well as a community art exhibit.”

She enlisted the help of three colleagues—Dr. Karen Rizzo, assistant professor of special education; Heather Cole, assistant teaching professor of digital arts; and Dr. Janelle Newman, now an instructor of applied linguistics at Mercyhurst University. Cole and Newman are Erie city school alumni. Several Behrend Elementary and Early Childhood Education majors helped facilitate the art and interview sessions.

Art supplies for the research project were provided by grant funds from Pennsylvania Partners in the Arts and the School of Humanities and Social Sciences.

An artful statement

Cole oversaw “all things art” in the project, from arranging opportunities to create it to curating it to enlisting a Behrend student—Isy Odell—to assist in managing all of the data, i.e. the artwork that was collected.

Odell, a senior majoring in both Digital Media, Arts, and Technology and English, created a website——that serves as a database for the study with all of the interview transcripts and photographs of the art projects. She described her involvement as an eye-opening experience.

“I learned a lot about the Erie community and school district that made me happy to be a resident of Erie County, but I also gained experience building a website, managing data, and communicating with a team,” Odell said.

Data collection is now complete and students in advanced art classes at Erie’s Northwest Pennsylvania Collegiate Academy are working with their art teacher Tara Shannon to create final art pieces that sum up each of the themes that emerged from the data.

Once that is complete, there are plans to find a location in the Erie area to display the exhibit so that residents can see the positive side of urban schools.

Highlighting the good

Sullivan, Cole, Rizzo, and Newman plan to write a book about the project when they have finished analyzing the data, but they have already inferred a number of themes. Sullivan said preliminary findings show the following bright spots in the Erie School District:

  • Resiliency. “The schools and teachers are able to do a lot under challenging circumstances.”
  • Strong relationships. “The schools have amazing teachers and staff who form communities.”
  • Opportunities. “Because of corporate and community involvement, there are programs and opportunities available to Erie School District students that are not available anywhere else in the area.”
  • Dedication. “The Erie School District appears to have a lot of veteran teachers who genuinely care for their students.”

The researchers cast a wide net, interviewing not just teachers and students, but parents, administrators, even custodians.

They learned about a teacher who makes herself available at the public library every weekend for two to three hours to help any student who shows up and wants to talk or needs help with homework or finding a book. Another teacher told researchers that she keeps her part-time job at Target primarily because it gives her early access to new clearance items, which she often picks up for students in need.

“There are teachers doing incredible things with limited resources, talented children leaving a lasting mark on the city, and community organizations supporting public pre-schools and after-school enrichment activities,” Sullivan said. “These are the stories we want to tell, the kind you’ll find if you look below the surface and dismantle the deficient trope.”