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New Orleans: 'Relevant' Research in Action

As education watchers reflect on the fifth anniversary of the hurricanes that devastated Gulf Coast schools, they may find a few lessons in how to make all research more relevant to schools.

Back in February, at an Atlanta conference of the American Association of Colleges of Education, the director of ED's Institute for Education Sciences rolled out his "Five Big Ideas" to improve education research. "If researchers want their work to be relevant," John Q. Easton said then, "we need to spend time in schools talking with administrators and teachers about the challenges they face; we need to reach out to policymakers; we need to collaborate with researchers outside their expertise."

Education researchers have complained for years that accountability has made schools increasingly unwilling to open their doors. Yet that normal reluctance was nothing compared to what researchers faced to study schools in the aftermath of Katrina, when administrators were too busy trying to locate students, find homes for returning staff and open their doors to spare time for researchers.

The researchers that got a foot in the door after Katrina went a step beyond simply being relevant.

"We didn't go into schools to gather research data; we went into schools to see how we could be helpful with the recovery," said Joy D. Osofsky, professor of pediatrics and psychiatry at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in New Orleans.

Osofsky and her team adapted a mental health and trauma screening tool for 19 schools in Orleans, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes. "We would be unobtrusively around, and what they discovered &mdash and we had anticipated &mdash was there were a lot more problems than they had expected. What happened very quickly in all of the schools we worked with was they realized they could get a lot of help and services from us."

Other recovery researchers echoed Osofsky's advice. For example, Deborah M. Alvarez, assistant professor of English at the University of Delaware, led groups of her students to volunteer in the schools and held training seminars for teachers on how to help students improve their literacy skills and mental health by writing about the disaster. Those teachers later helped Alvarez get clearance to work in the Recovery School District, which she said was previously "almost impenetrable" to her as a researcher.

Today, Osofsky's team has five years of longitudinal mental health data on 23,000 students, and it was able to adapt its trauma screening tool and training for educators in Chile after the earthquake earlier this year.

The relationship has also given Osofsky's team an up-close view of how St. Bernard and Plaquemines parish students cope with a new disaster, in the form of the oil spill that is devastating the communities' fishing and tourism industries.

"It's very important to go and hang out, so people just start to trust you, rather than see you as a researcher just going in and collecting data," Osofsky said. "We're sort of embedded in the schools now; we're collecting data, but we're also really a part of these schools at this point."

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