Research Update: Reimagining Educational Equity and Opportunity (REEO)

The COVID-19 pandemic required schools, educators, and families to pivot to new modes of learning and revealed pressing issues of access for families across Orange County.

In July 2020, the UCI Office of Inclusive Excellence awarded a group of School of Education professors a grant in its “Are We in This Together? Advancing Equity in the Age of COVID-19” program.


The project – Reimagining Educational Equity and Opportunity during the COVID-19 Pandemic (REEO) – is a collaboration between the School of Education’s Orange County Educational Advancement Network (OCEAN) and the Center for Research on Teacher Development and Professional Practice, and addresses existing disparities in educational opportunities in low-income communities of color that have been exacerbated by COVID-19 and the transition to remote learning. REEO is led by School of Education Professors June Ahn, Brandy Gatlin-NashRossella Santagata, and Adriana Villavicencio

Forming an RPP: Jiwon Lee Offers Her Perspective

Beginning a research-practice partnership is no easy feat. How do you begin? How do you establish a partnership? And once the partnership has been established, what do you need to do to sustain the partnership? Currently, as a fifth-year doctoral student,

I am engaged in a second year research-practice partnership (RPP) with my faculty advisor, Rossella Santagata. Our partners are an elementary school principal, a district administrator, and a math coordinator/teacher educator. I hope I can share some useful insights based on my own learnings over the past few years.


Intentionality matters

After some on-and-off conversations that spanned a couple of years, we decided to work together as a team with a vague understanding that we would collaborate on something related to math teaching and learning. There was some understanding of what each of us would bring to the table, but the details were ambiguous, intentionally. As researchers, strove to come to the partnership without an agenda Rossella and I were conscious of the perception practitioners may have about researchers coming into their school context, giving practitioners little to no power in the research design. At our first meeting, we mapped on a white board our values and goals around math teaching and learning to see where we converged. This process allowed us to not only get buy in from our partners but also to begin to create a community united by shared values/goals. During this affinity mapping activity, I noticed how we were mindful of the space we took up, voices that weren’t heard, and made the effort to be inclusive.


(re)Imagining my role

I’ll be honest. I felt very uncertain if I had the right set of skills to be a contributor to this partnership. As a PhD student, you are initially positioned as a novice researcher. The research tasks you are assigned shift in complexity and depth over time. As a fourth year student (at the time), I felt that I had accumulated sufficient knowledge and skills that could be useful for the group, but I didn’t think I was a research “expert.” I still have much to learn. If the practitioners ask, I can’t respond immediately to questions about what’s in the literature for something specific. Overtime, I noticed how frequently the phrase “I don’t know” was spoken by those who were experts in my eyes. “I’m not familiar with that literature. I’ll need to read more about that.” Hearing these phrases made me realize that our partnership team is genuinely engaging to learn together and that it’s okay to not know everything. Our collective shift to embrace a learner mindset greatly contributed to our trust and relationship building. Now, this doesn’t mean you should show up to your meetings unprepared. You still need to do your work (e.g. reading up on relevant literature, asking colleagues and knowledgeable others for advice, and seeking whatever necessary resources). But it’s okay to shift fluidly between being a learner and a knowledgeable partner. (Your partners might be negotiating the two or more identities as well.)


Understanding first before responding

Another critical learning was that you need to deeply understand the problem of practice and the context it is situated in before jumping to a response. One thing I recall being intentional about when practitioners shared emerging tensions in their contexts was to ask questions to understand. Practitioners’ world seemed to move a lot more quickly than researchers’ world. There is typically a strong sense of urgency and a need for solutions. The strong urgency conveyed by the practitioners resonated with me creating a desire to be useful and helpful right away. What was helpful in navigating these situations were the standing meetings I had with my faculty advisor to make sense of the situation and share my thinking. She would remind me to pause before reacting and ask questions to understand the issues and the context before jumping to a solution. This also reinforced our (researchers) identities as co-learners and collaborators not solution providers. We aim to learn together understand the problems of practice in more nuanced ways, so that we can co-construct our responses.


Importance of shared experiences

Shared experiences with your partners take different forms: regular meetings, co-design activities, weekly email check-in, or a phone call. For us, it is Friday (very) early morning meetings. We find ourselves extending invitations to engage in various learning opportunities in each other’s worlds. The principal invited us to join staff meetings and connect with teachers to build relationships. The district administrator and the math coordinator/teacher educator invited us to join the professional learning experiences that the teachers were engaging in and in relevant district-level experiences. We invited our partners to be guest speakers for Education courses and meetings at the School of Ed at UCI. The lines that separated our contexts became blurred as we crossed boundaries. We immersed ourselves in each other’s work and deepened our understanding of each other’s contexts. These shared experiences have expanded our thinking and allowed us to engage in deeper, more sensitive conversations that are critical in strengthening our relationship as a research-practice partnership.


Being part of a research-practice partnership has been an incredible experience for me. I saw what I have read in the literature come to life and realized that I was equipped with knowledge to anticipate but needed to learn how to navigate it all. As one of the partner in our RPP team, my understanding and vision of collaboration and building trust/relationships expanded, and I expect my understanding and vision to continue to deepen.

Research Update: Network Improvement Community Formed to Support Housing Insecure and Foster Youth

In August, 2020 the Spencer Foundation awarded OCEAN and project leads Dr. June Ahn, Dean Richard Arum, and Samueli Academy Executive Director Anthony Saba to work with local schools and community organizations.

The grant supports the implementation of systems to support housing insecure and foster youth across Orange County. Fall quarter, Graduate Student Researchers Chris Wegemer, Lora Cawelti, and Verenisse Ponce-Soria and Post-doctoral Scholar Erica Van Steenis, recruited educators and practitioners from schools and organizations across Orange County to form a Network Improvement Community (NIC). We held meetings to establish team structures and norms, brainstormed ideas to connect with partners, and interviewed practitioners and educators to better understand the issues they face.


After interviews were conducted, the team took partners’ responses and organized our first convening, which included 10 core partners from 7 different schools and organizations. The 2-hour session began with an overview and timeline of the project and continued to an activity where partners reflected on how equity manifests in their work with housing insecure and foster-youth.

The activity set the stage for the relationship-building exercises that followed. Partners connected with each other via Zoom break-out rooms and reflected on the pressing issues they face in their work. We then collectively discussed the scope of issues we could work on as a team.


With so much energy and enthusiasm from partners, the 2-hour session flew by. The team left the session feeling energized and excited to continue refining the research focus. After months of uncertainty and living in ambiguity, this project, like the world around us, is giving us energy and hope for the future.


~Written by Graduate Student Researcher Verenisse Ponce-Soria

Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Adriana Villavicencio

Prior to joining the UCI School of Education, Dr. Adriana Villavicencio served as deputy director for the Research Alliance for NYC Schools at NYU. She helped to shape the Research Alliance’s research agenda and led many of the organization’s large-scale research projects focused on the NYC school system.


Dr. Villavicencio focuses on the ways educational policy and practice either reinforce or disrupt inequities based on race, ethnicity, and immigration status. In 2020, Dr. Villavicencio received two grants. The first grant titled “A Lever for More Equitable Access to Schools? is funded by the William T. Grant Foundation. Villavicencio and colleagues ask: Do school choice plans that prioritize families in underserved neighborhoods reduce educational inequality for low-income students and students of color? They partner with San Francisco Unified School Distrct to examine whether the district’s choice-based student assignment approach reduces inequality in educational attainment for low-income students and students of color. The second grant “Reimagining Educational Equity and Opportunity (REEO) during the COVID-19 Pandemic” is funded by Office of Inclusive Excellence at the University of California, Irvine.


Dr. Villavicencio has a forthcoming book with Harvard Education Press that examines a citywide initiative for Black and Latino young men and its implications for other policies focused on racial equity. This year she has also published two paper

The first, “’You can’t close your door here:’ Leveraging teacher collaboration to improve outcomes for immigrant English Learners” appears in Teaching and Teacher Education. In the paper, Dr. Villavicencio and colleagues Jaffe-Walter and Klevan examine the role of teacher collaboration in a school that produces positive academic outcomes for immigrant, English Learners (ELs). Look out also for her other forthcoming paper, “School Leadership for Latinx, Immigrant Students and their Families: A Model of Advocacy and Critical Care” in the Journal of Leadership, Equity, and Research.

Research Update: OCEAN’s Work with Santa Ana Early Learning Initiative and Santa Ana Unified School District

Supported by the National Science Foundation, OCEAN partners with Santa Ana Early Learning Initiative (SAELI) and the Santa Ana Unified School District (SAUSD) to co-design out-of-classroom playful learning environments that promote children’s STEM learning.

As part of this NSF supported project, called “Stimulating STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) in the City: Co-Designing with Latinx Families to Promote Informal STEM Learning, OCEAN and SAELI are designing playful installations in everyday community spaces (i.e., grocery stores, bus stops) to promote family engagement and STEM learning in children from 0 to 9 years old.

An extension of this work, “Fractions in the Schoolyard”, will focus on fraction learning in playful, schoolyard environments at Romero-Cruz Academy and Esqueda Elementary School in Santa Ana, CA. Both projects engage in monthly virtual co-design sessions with community members, including parents, local agencies, and teachers with mathematics and physical education backgrounds. 


With SAELI, we have conducted three co-design sessions with Spanish-speaking parents to learn about their community’s values and design playful STEM activities that build on those values to facilitate family interactions and early STEM learning. Meanwhile, “Fractions in the Schoolyard” builds upon previous work completed at El Sol Academy in Santa Ana, where OCEAN and the El Sol community co-designed “Fraction Ball”, a suite of fraction-based games for their reimagined basketball court. Next month, we will begin co-design sessions with teachers at Romero-Cruz and Esqueda schools to better align Fraction Ball games with teachers’ fraction lessons and begin the process of scaling up to other schools in SAUSD. 


We look forward to growing in our partnerships and bringing playful STEM learning to life in Orange County this winter and upcoming spring!

Community Education Fellows (CEF) Program Supports Elementary & Middle School Students During COVID-19 Pandemic

This fall quarter saw the piloting of the Community Education Fellows (CEF) program. The CEF is led by doctoral candidate Yenda Prado,CalTeach Co-Director Doron Zinger and doctoral candidate Taffeta Woods and supported by Dr. June Ahn and OCEAN. The CEF program developed and implemented professional development for UCI undergraduate students to provide small group virtual learning support to high-need families across OCEAN partner organizations.


UCI undergraduates can participate in the program as Community Education Fellows via enrollment in ED199 Independent Practicum or Field Study options through their respective departments or programs. This quarter, the program supported 12 undergraduate Community Education Fellows in the provision of remote learning support to approximately 160 elementary and middle school students across OCEAN partner schools and organizations Breakthrough SJC, El Sol Academy, and TLC Charter School.


UCI undergraduates provide support to elementary and middle school students in 1:1, small group, and whole class settings under the supervision of UCI Community Education Program staff in coordination with OCEAN partner organizations. Recently the CEF Program received the UCI Parent Executive Board grant for $10,000 to support the continuation of this meaningful work.

Marco Forster Middle School Honored by the California Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support Coalition

The California PBIS (Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support) Coalition honored OCEAN partner Marco Forster Middle School for its “outstanding contribution of support and care during the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic and resulting disruptions to school.” The PBIS Coalition also honored and acknowledged the UCI School of Education as a partner organization.


Marco Forster Middle School became an OCEAN partner in 2018. Working with the school is Jennifer Renick, doctoral student and OCEAN Community Research Fellow, and Dr. Stephanie Reich, associate professor and OCEAN Faculty Advisor. Alongside the school’s PBIS team, the partnership focuses on improving school climate and using data to inform PBIS efforts. With the rapid shift to distance learning and new challenges in meeting students’ needs during this unprecedented time, the Marco Forster-UCI partnership seeks to learn more about how distance learning is working for students and teachers alike. The team designed two surveys with questions focused on the struggles and successes of Marco Forster’s virtual programming. These data were then analyzed and shared back to relevant staff in order to inform the school’s fall distance learning program.

Research Update: High School Inc. Career Academies Prove Successful

In partnership with OCEAN, High School Inc. (HSI) seeks to further support Career Academies at Valley High School in an attempt to contribute to the college and career readiness of Valley High School students.

Career Academies are part of the California Partnership Academies (CPA) model, which incorporate integrated academic and career technical education, business partnerships, mentoring, and internships.

Together, HSI and OCEAN built a driver diagram of learning outcomes, administered student surveys on beliefs toward higher education/career readiness, and conducted interviews with academy mentors and teachers to further understand the mentorship program. In initial research activities, the partnership found that students who had a business mentor and/or participated in core workforce development initiatives such as internships and competitions found the HSI Academies program to be more helpful in assisting them in achieving both their career and college goals than students who did not have those same experiences. Building on these findings, we are in the process of developing a plan to expand these core college and career experiences so that more students can participate and benefit.

Part of this process will include developing logic models for key program initiatives collectively with stakeholders including teachers, mentors, and alumni, beginning with the mentorship program. The purpose is to be able to provide a uniform framework, maximize the benefit for students, and expand the opportunities to more students across all six college and career academies.

To Learn more about High School Inc. Academies Foundation visit their website.

Doctoral student Jennifer Renick awarded Public Impact Fellowship

Jennifer ​Renick, a fourth-year doctoral student, is one of 10 UCI graduate students honored as a 2021 Public Impact Fellow.

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As a part of her research, Renick will facilitate a youth-participatory action research project in partnership with a local middle school, where a group of students will identify an aspect of school climate that they would like to improve and then design their own research project to investigate the issue, implement a solution, and study its impact. “Engaging adolescents as co-creators of research, rather than just subjects, allows us to leverage their expertise on issues they experience directly to generate research with greater accuracy and practical implications to improve their school community,” Renick said.

Congrats on receiving this award Jennifer!