Volume 51   Number 4 Fall 2018

The Education Connection

Edited by Simón Coulombe, Wilfrid Laurier University 

Collaborating to Create Change

A Graduate Study's Exploration into the Needs of After-School Programming for Middle School Youth

Written by Karinna Nazario, Taylor Strange, Alicia Beadle, Lisa Kawecki, and Nghi D. Thai

Student engagement and high impact practices such as participatory research are essential for both undergraduate and graduate students in the field of community psychology (Main et al., 2016; Thai, Helm, & Leavy, 2016). These real-world connections and the application of community psychology principles are beneficial for students at different levels and with varying interest in community psychology. The project shared here from the perspectives of three students and one community partner highlights the value of collaborative and participatory projects and demonstrates how action research aimed to create direct change can have positive impacts for the community.

During the spring 2017 semester, six students enrolled in the Prevention and Community-Based Research course at Central Connecticut State University worked with Lisa Kawecki, the curriculum information teacher and chair of the after-school committee for the Consolidated School District of New Britain (CSDNB). They to examined why middle school youth were not interested in their after-school programs.  In this article, the community partner describes the impact of the project for the school district and the afterschool program, and two graduate students and an undergraduate student and reflect on their experiences collaborating with a community partner.

Community Partner – Lisa Kawecki

The school district's after-school committee found it very puzzling that less than 25 percent of our middle school population was involved in after-school activities in our district. Was it because the programs we were offering were not of interest, was it the yearning for independence of the young adolescents, or what was the real issue? After going back and forth with some district staff and middle school program coordinators, we decided we needed to ask the youth themselves in order to figure this all out. This is when we reached out to Dr. Thai and the graduate students at CCSU to ask for their assistance with conducting a survey.

After doing some research and realizing that the youth were burnt out on surveys, the CCSU student team came together again with the CSDNB after-school committee and we decided that focus groups would provide more useful and meaningful information. We wanted to actually talk to the youth about what was going on, not just asking them to complete another survey. From there we developed the idea that we should have student representatives from different interest populations -- those that are not involved in after-school activities and those that are involved in after-school activities. The findings from the CCSU student’s analysis of the focus group data provided valuable insight on our programs. The data showed us that we needed to examine our programs more closely in terms of program structure, how programs are marketed to students, as well as what actual activities are offered within the programs.

While we are still working on the actual structure of our after-school programs, some programs were able to utilize this information gathered in planning activities and field trips for this year’s programs. Currently, attendance is at an all-time high for current programs. The district was also able to reallocate funds from programs that were not as popular to create some new programs from student’s suggestions such as a gaming program. 

Community Psychology Master’s Student – Taylor Strange

During the spring of 2017, I was in my second semester of graduate school at CCSU in the community psychology master’s program. Although I am interested in clinical aspects of psychology, I also am at a point in my life where I want to explore the various career options.   The Prevention and Community-Based Research class was a required course for my program, but it has been one of the most beneficial experiences that has truly opened my eyes to the field of community psychology.

This course gave me the opportunity to be involved in a community based-participatory research project by collaborating with community members from New Britain. Being involved in this project also provided me the experience of using a qualitative method. Having the opportunity to sit down with the youth and learn from them was a valuable experience for me and my impression was that the youth greatly appreciated that we were there to listen to them.

Overall, my experience on this project was incredible. As we have learned in our community psychology courses, for a community to reach their goals, it is important to hear directly from and involve the people in that community. To be able to use focus groups as a method to learn from the youth and then present those findings to our community partner was invaluable for me.

General Psychology Master’s Student – Karinna Nazario

As a general psychology master’s student, the experience of partnering with the school district in New Britain and going into the schools to meet with youth are experiences that I do not think I would have gotten by taking a non-community psychology course. The experience from beginning to end was the best experience that a graduate student could have. As a general psychology student, I was not aware of opportunities to apply what I was learning towards a problem but was able to do so with this community psychology course. Further, my classmates and I had the opportunity to work on a project that would directly impact our community partners and our contributions had the potential to positively impact them as they moved forward in planning their after-school programs.  Lastly, I was able to learn about the field of community psychology and I will be able to use the skills from this course for the future. I learned about working collaboratively with community partners and conducting focus groups with a diverse youth population, which was something I did not have previous experience with. Overall, being able to practice and apply what we have learned about research in a real setting is a valuable experience for all students.

Psychology Undergraduate Student – Alicia Beadle

As a psychology undergraduate student in my final semester before graduation, I was interested in enrolling in a graduate course related to community psychology. I only had a small amount of research experience and was intrigued by the chance to further my experience by working with this project. I am thankful for having had this opportunity and leave with the experience of conducting graduate level research, something many other undergraduate students could benefit from.

Although I was the only undergraduate student, and the one with the least research experience, my team was also new to focus groups and it was a good learning experience for all of us. There was so much to learn about focus groups, how to conduct them, how to collect data, and how to analyze the data. The way in which we had to adapt our study and learn about a process we were unfamiliar with given the time constraint seemed possibly similar to the way we might have to handle the research process for studies that are off-campus.

Overall, I feel that training in real life research scenarios outside of the classroom like this is extremely important for learning how to conduct and report research as a prospective graduate student. The experience was important for me to have in my future pursuing a graduate degree, and even helped me have a better idea of what type of degree I would like to pursue. Having a similar experience to what I had could also be useful to other undergraduate students looking to further their education in a graduate program as it is an opportunity to learn more about the research process, gain real hands on experience, and in the case of community psychology, feel more connected to a community. Further, it also gave me great insight into how research is conducted in community psychology and how it may differ with other subfields of psychology.

Recommendations and Conclusion

Students at all levels and community partners from different sectors can benefit mutually from collaborative classroom projects. Two themes that were consistently expressed included practicing the action part of action research and using a new method (focus groups) to collect data. While an initial challenge involved making sure the method chosen would be useful for the data that the community partner sought and for the students to be able to implement in one semester, the strong relationship, regular communication, and inclusion of everyone in the planning and implementation stages proved to be both valuable and feasible to do.

For faculty new to community engagement or community-based participatory approaches, the critical challenge can be building those relationships with a reliable community partner and structuring the projects for high impact learning. Logistical details such as working within the parameters of the academic semester can also be a challenge, particularly if the partner also has a school schedule to adhere to. However, once these relationships are established, projects are developed, and logistical details are finalized, a worthwhile experience with multiple outcomes are experienced by all involved.  A few recommendations for faculty who want to incorporate community-based research projects into the classroom include:

  • Having a community partner with local knowledge, access to data collection opportunities, and equal buy-in and participation with the project;
  • Laying the groundwork in the classroom for students working in teams and the value of community engagement and collaboration;
  • Fostering a strong sense of initiative for the project and empowering students to make decisions with the community partner; and
  • Providing connections for students to see how the results of the project actually benefit the community partners and/or the community involved.

Ultimately, collaborative projects involving community partners can illustrate how the theories and approaches learned about in community psychology foundational courses can be put into practice and how working with community partners can enhance student learning.


Main, N., Emelue, C., Malabanan, E., Malpert, A., Hoffman, S., Walton, M., & Thomas, E. (2016). The community narrative research project: Undergraduate students examining their own and other’s experiences of civic engagement over time. The Community Psychologist, 49(1), 4-7.

Thai, N. D., Helm, S., & Leavy, D. L. (2016). Developing and sustaining community psychology courses, programs, and content outside the Ph.D. program. The Community Psychologist, 49(2), 8-12.


We would like to acknowledge and thank the Consolidated School District of New Britain, the After-School Committee, Sheila Wylie, Andrew Kelkres, and Jerel Edmonds for their collaboration and involvement on this project.


Editor’s Note: This article was held over from the Summer 2018 issue and edited by Laura Kohn-Wood.