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Philly Schools Event Credit: Jennifer Wright , Jen Wright

The Graduate School of Education kicked off it’s first formal researcher-practitioner partnership with the School District of Philadelphia at a mini-conference on Wednesday.

Held at the school district’s headquarters, the conference brought together about 100 teachers, administrators and community members to discuss current strategies and possible improvements for the district’s school reform efforts. It was the first step in a two-year project, called Shared Solutions for School Improvement, that was announced in September and will study existing school reform methods.

By connecting researchers and people who work in schools, the Graduate School of Education hopes to make it easier for educators to turn research into real change at school.

Kirsten Hill, a Ph.D. candidate at GSE, said there is a difference between what research says and what actually gets accomplished afterward. “By including the people who do the school improvement efforts right in the beginning — that’s going to make it more practicable and actionable,” she said.

GSE and the school district will develop a set of measurement techniques that can be used in all district schools to evaluate school conditions, classroom instruction, teacher effectiveness and progress of student outcomes. The data collected will be used to make improvements or adjustments to current school reform methods, according to the grant funding the research.

The series of mini-conferences — at least one more is planned — gives practitioners the chance to say what could be missing from the research or what contextual factors about individual schools they think should be considered, GSE professor and co-principal researcher Laura Desimone said.

“We all talk about bridging the research to practice gap,” she said, “but none of us are exactly sure how to do it.”

GSE student Irene Atkins, who is also a teacher at Mastery Charter Schools’ Shoemaker campus, said the event made her hopeful. “I was very happy to hear that our ideas will be taken into consideration,” she said. “Hosting an event like this shows to the public that they want to hear our voices.”

The mini-conference included a panel discussion and breakout sessions about six topics related to the district’s Action Plan V2.0, which promoted the District’s vision of what education could be in Philadelphia.

Chief Administrative Officer of Birney Preparatory Academy Charter School Tanya Glenn-Butler said she received valuable feedback from colleagues during the breakout sessions and looks forward to the next conference for the chance to be a part of the discussion. “None of us do this work independently,” she said. “We work as a team.”

Maritime Academy Charter School teacher Elizabeth Weiss said she enjoyed the discussions, but she hoped for more specific suggestions from the breakout sessions to take back to her work at school.

Closing the event, Desimone said the conference was “just the beginning of many forums and conversations”.

The research is supported by a $400,000 grant from the Institute of Education Sciences within the U.S. Department of Education, which was split between GSE and the School District.

The community engagement aims of the Penn Compact 2020, which outlines University’s goals, are cited as one motivation for the research partnership according to the IES’s posted description of the grant.

Penn President Amy Gutmann mentioned GSE’s history of partnering with West Philadelphia schools. “The initiative will analyze successes and failure within the district and its turnaround schools and identify areas for improvement and that’s what we want to do,” she said.

“We have a faculty that is deeply engaged in research. That’s our comparative advantage, as a University in doing the research on the ground that can then be translated into practice. So it’s really important to begin with excellent research.”

Deputy News Editor Kristen Grabarz contributed reporting.

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