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Three New Institutional Challenge Grants to Encourage Partnerships Between Universities, School Districts, and Community Organizations

The William T. Grant, Spencer, and Doris Duke Charitable Foundations are delighted to announce the winners of the 2020 Institutional Challenge Grant competition.

The newest grants are jointly funded by the three Foundations, with a total of nearly $2,000,000 being awarded to Boston College, Northwestern University, and the University of California, Berkeley, all of which will work in partnership with local nonprofits or school districts to address challenges such as chronic absenteeism, racial gaps in school discipline, and youth homelessness.

The Institutional Challenge Grant encourages university-based research institutes, schools, and centers to build sustained research-practice partnerships with public agencies or nonprofit organizations in order to reduce inequality in youth outcomes. Equally important, research institutions must shift their policies and incentives to value collaborative work and help build the capacity of the partner organization to use evidence from research in its decision making.

Institutional Challenge Grants can inform change efforts that have long-term benefits to the public, including capacity-building and knowledge production for decision makers and service providers in communities

Adam Gamoran, President of the William T. Grant Foundation said, “There is much that needs to be done in tackling social problems. One powerful approach is for foundations to work together to incentivize new ways of working to advance goals for social change. In pooling our funding, we are amplifying the call for more universities to step up and support collaborative research and build sustained partnerships with public serving agencies and non-profits so that critical problems can be addressed in more immediate and relevant ways.”

“Institutional Challenge Grants can inform change efforts that have long-term benefits to the public, including capacity-building and knowledge production for decision makers and service providers in communities,” said Ed Henry, President and CEO of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. “Moreover, these partnerships will enable researchers to more expediently address the concerns of decision makers and practitioners.”

Remarked Na’ilah Suad Nasir, President of the Spencer Foundation, “We are excited about these partnerships, and we anticipate that this year’s grants will advance research agendas and study designs that will provide additional information so that decision makers can more effectively respond to the challenges students and educational systems face on a daily basis.”


This year’s Institutional Challenge Grant recipients are:

The Northwestern-Evanston Education Research Alliance (NEERA): Designing for Equity and Excellence in Education

David Figlio, Simone Ispa-Landa, Mesmin Destin, and Megan Bang, School of Education and Social Policy, Northwestern University; Eric Witherspoon, Superintendent, Evanston Township High School District 202; Andalib Kheighati, Assistant Superintendent of Schools, Evanston/Skokie District 65

The Northwestern-Evanston Education Research Alliance, an active partnership between Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy and the Evanston Township High School District 202 and Evanston/Skokie District 65, will conduct and use research to promote racial and economic equity and excellence in school and out-of-school learning environments. The district currently has large racial achievement gaps. An initial study will examine how teachers conceptualize and communicate issues related to student identities and learning mindsets and students’ perceptions of teacher expectations. The findings will help create and test the effectiveness of professional development materials that aim to help teachers develop attitudes and practices that support student learning and achievement. A second project will respond to district requests for evidence about how to better support students during the transition from middle school to high school. In addition to these projects, the Institutional Challenge Grant will allow this partnership to focus on the long term and deepen the districts’ engagement in and use of research evidence: The partnership will create an advisory board to strengthen decision making processes, enrich expertise, and build trust, as well as implement a structured learning series to present on specific problems of practice, make sense of the research being conducted, and share research from other settings. For Northwestern, the grant will support the expansion of an existing research-practice Fellows program to include distinguished faculty from other universities and fellows from the community. It would also enable the partnership to engage a team of scholars with strong research records, thereby raising the visibility and respect of research-practice partnerships as a valued approach for conducting high-quality, relevant research.


Understanding and Intervening in Inequities in Chronic Absenteeism and its Consequences Among High School Students

Emily Ozer, School of Public Health, University of California, Berkeley; Susan Stone, Dept. of Social Welfare, University of California, Berkeley; Norma Ming, San Francisco Unified School District

The University of California, Berkeley, and the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) will strengthen their existing partnership and aim to reduce inequalities in chronic absenteeism. Students missing at least ten percent or more of the school year—chronic absenteeism—is an indicator of academic difficulties and school dropout. SFUSD’s rates of chronic absenteeism are 2–3 times higher for African American students, students with unstable housing, students in foster care, and students receiving special education services, than for other students. The partnership will analyze administrative records and conduct in-depth interviews with youth to deepen understanding of the barriers to and facilitators of attendance and perceptions about the district’s current interventions. The team will also use youth-led participatory action research with three peer resource sites to leverage youth perspectives about school climate and help the partners develop and implement new interventions. SFUSD leaders are committed to using the study findings to address high and disparate rates of chronic absenteeism as they revise attendance policies and provide resources to district staff. The grant will also allow the team at Berkeley to advance a plan with the potential for significant institutional shifts, including confirmed support for community-engaged scholarship as part of the promotion, tenure, and merit advancement process from the chair of the campus-wide Budget Committee and the Berkeley Academic Senate Committee; the creation of a campus-wide advisory group for research-practice partnerships; and increased valuation of research done in partnership among deans from three different schools.

The Impact of Upstream Prevention of Homelessness on Youth Educational and Developmental Outcomes

Gautam Yadama, School of Social Work, Boston College; Michael Durkin, United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley

With roughly 4,500 homeless students in the Boston Public Schools and another 900 at risk of homelessness, the Boston College of Social Work and the United Way of Massachusetts Bay and Merrimack Valley aim to refine, expand, and evaluate a recently-piloted intervention to prevent homelessness and mitigate the disruptions it causes at school. The partners will conduct early stage work to determine the feasibility of implementing the intervention, using two matched comparison groups to examine the outcomes that are likely to be affected and how the intervention performs relative to a current approach. The grant will also enable the partnership to build the capacity of local agencies to participate and use research to improve service delivery, with the potential to scale across the state to its 83 member organizations. The School of Social Work will build on its history of collaborative work by directing resources toward solidifying the partnership with United Way and the processes for working together. Boston College has also proposed a series of changes to strengthen both infrastructure for and recognition of faculty engaged in partnership research, including providing physical space, pursuing funding to create an endowed fund to support collaborative fellows, offering teaching releases for those engaged in partnership research, identifying university-wide funding to support research opportunities, and creating a permanent position to support global and local research partnerships.

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