Science & Tech

New study outlines formula for effective community partnerships with a lens on mental health of students in urban schools

3 min read

Addressing and improving mental health outcomes for students is a particularly complex issue in urban public schools. Proposed solutions to critical situations are usually prepackaged suggestions from research conducted outside of the communities seeking help.

A new study approaches community partnerships and their ability to problem-solve in-depth right in their own backyards. In an article published this month in the Journal of Community Psychology, a community-based research group composed of a child psychiatrist, two researchers, and a school principal analyze the key principles to establish successful partnerships and build an alliance for educational systemic change.

Three guidelines – attachment theory, use of authentic self, and learned optimism – were derived from the authors’ work over four years with an urban public school system focused on improving the behavioral and academic functioning of immigrant students.

The researchers were driven to action by the significant learning gaps seen in immigrant students. Frustrated by the lack of services available to address the achievement gap, the researchers worked to define problems in collaboration with school staff. Interventions were piloted, school resources were reviewed, and many project participants were interviewed at length to identify the barriers in serving these students.

“Community-based partnerships are often touted as encouraging collective problem-solving while capturing the complexity of educational settings, yet we found challenges when engaging in such research,” said Nancy Rappaport, MD, the study’s lead author, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and director of school-based programs at Cambridge Health Alliance. “It became clear that participants held different pictures of how the group should address the immigrant students’ achievement gap.”

Co-author and school principal Barbara Boyle discussed the dynamic between teachers and researchers: “The pot boiled in our meetings. All these ideas, solutions, and strategies were talked about and this provided a catalyst for us to take it another step. The think-tank approach allowed us to develop trust, listen to each other and no one was the ‘authority with the answer.’ But the thoughtful reflection affected how we made decisions.”

The researchers found the management of expectations, particularly maintaining optimism in the face of negative experiences, to be a key component of successful community-based partnerships. Learned optimism is a concept that helps to counteract feelings of despair by challenging the belief that a situation is permanent and pervasive. By reframing disappointments and identifying incremental positive change, this allows progress on seemingly large and entrenched problems.

The study, titled “Staying at the Table: Building Sustainable Community-Research Partnerships,” appears in the August 2008 issue of the Journal of Community Psychology (Vol. 36, No. 6). Authors: Nancy Rappaport, MD, director of school-based programs at Cambridge Health Alliance and assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School; Margarita Alegría, PhD, director of the Center for Multicultural Mental Health Research at Cambridge Health Alliance and professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School; Norah Mulvaney-Day, PhD, research associate at the Center for Multicultural Mental Health Research and instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School; and Barbara Boyle, principal at a public elementary school in Cambridge, MA. This research was supported by a grant to the Center for Multicultural Mental Health Research at Cambridge Health Alliance from the National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities at the National Institutes of Health.