School & District Management Opinion

What Happens When an Education Researcher and a School Principal Connect, Part 1

By Urban Education Contributor — November 05, 2018 4 min read
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This week we are hearing from the University of Louisville-Jefferson County Public Schools (UL-JCPS) partnership in Kentucky. In a five-act account presented in two parts, Michèle Foster, the co-director of the UL-JCPS partnership, shares her journey of working closely with one school and its principal, Michelle Pennix, to make a difference in the lives of Louisville’s young children.

Stay tuned: Thursday we will share part two of this account.

The idea of research-practice partnerships (RPPs)—university researchers and teachers and administrators in primary and secondary schools all coming together to share resources and explore learning right where the magic takes place—has an empowering and liberating sound; however, progress on the pathway to effective RPPs that synthesize the strengths of the individuals involved is often incremental and requires patient and thoughtful navigation among a variety of personalities and through multiple modes of communication. The focus of this blog post shifts from the macro context of the school system to the micro context of the work I have been doing through an RPP with one school in Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS): Mill Creek Elementary. Since March 2017, less than two months after my tenure began at the University of Louisville, I have been working with the educators at Mill Creek.

Presented in five acts, here is how that work came about and played out.


Act I, Scene 1: Lunch Bristol Bar & Grille Downtown

My involvement began shortly after I arrived in Louisville, when I was invited to lunch by two JCPS teachers—both African-American. We spent several hours together talking about a myriad of issues, but the conversation kept coming back to education in JCPS: The challenges, the opportunities, the kids and how to best support them.

Act I, Scene 2: Virtual Space

Less than a week later, I received an email from one of the teachers. She shared that she was “presently sitting in a meeting with [her] principal and some other teachers about making some changes in our school [the] next year.” Our initial discussion over lunch had left her hopeful that my research could help. She asked if we could meet to discuss opportunities to collaborate.

I was happy to do so, and later that day, I heard that the principal was open to meeting me, too, but although I visited the school, I didn’t meet the principal then. A couple weeks passed before we finally met.

It might have helped that around the same time, I had lunch with Henry Heuser Jr., the benefactor who funded the endowed chair I hold. He already knew the principal and sent her a note. After a brief mention of an outreach project he was developing with the school, he mentioned me:

“The reason for this message is that I had lunch today with Dr. Michele Foster of UofL College of Education. She’s the new Heuser Endowed Professor in Urban Education Partnerships and brings enormous experience, energy, and valuable national relationships. I am excited about the work she is starting to do and hope you have the opportunity to talk with her soon.”

Act I, Scene 3: Mill Creek Elementary and other School Sites

I continued visiting the school. By the end of March, I had met the principal, Ms. Michelle Pennix, and offered some suggestions that she quickly rejected as not being feasible. So I raised other possibilities until one of them caught her attention, following up with two research articles about that one topic. Through these exchanges, I learned that her school was one of approximately two dozen that fell outside the “diversity index,” the desired mix of student diversity within each school, with most of her students being African-American. The principals of these schools met monthly, and Ms. Pennix invited me to attend some of the meetings. I trekked all over the city attending these meetings that rotated among the schools; continued visiting Mill Creek, sending articles to the teacher and principal I thought they might find useful; and generally made myself available to help in any way possible.


Act II, Scene 1: Griff’s Restaurant

Summer 2017 passed without much contact between the Mill Creek educators and me. In early August, once the teachers returned to work for professional development but before the students started the school year, Ms. Pennix contacted and asked me to meet her after work at a local restaurant. After a long chat during which, to my surprise, she told me how much she had learned from me, she asked if I would visit the school the next day to conduct a professional-development workshop for her teachers.

Act II, Scene 2: Mill Creek

So I did. I presented a workshop on a way to create and maintain appropriate behavior of students that was more consistent with student-centered classrooms than current practices were.

Act II, Scene 3: Virtual Space

Ms. Pennix sent me the following email: “Yesterday was INSPIRING for my whole team. You helped seal the deal and make the possibilities endless. Thank you. I’ll be back in touch soon.”

To be continued in Part 2 on Thursday.

Previous blog posts by the University of Louisville-Jefferson County Public Schools partnership:

Curious about other research topics the partnerships have written about for this blog? See this Guide to the NNERPP EdWeek Blog for all previous blog posts organized by research-topic area to easily find other posts of particular interest to you!

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