States across the U.S. (like our home state of Indiana) are making strides to better understand and close the racial achievement gaps at the K-12 and college level. This week, we’re pleased to present the work of Dr. Monica Medina, who uses her training in educational research to meet underserved schools and communities where they are, learn what issues they face, and consider how academic research may help solve them. –Katlyn Hughes, PhD Student, Indiana University School of Medicine & Krista Hoffmann-Longtin, PhD, SciCommPLOS Co-editor
by Loree Wilcox, MA student, Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis
Dr. Monica Medina is, among many things, a curator of data. She maneuvers variables in a sly dance of ‘whatdunnit’ to un-puzzle the complex conditions of learning and teaching in urban schools, particularly in neighborhoods where poverty is seen as a factor in underperforming schools. With an eye on matters of social justice, equity, and academic achievement, Dr. Medina has spent the last 30 years studying, teaching and incorporating themes of multicultural competency into educational programming and curriculum development. As a Clinical Associate Professor in IUPUI’s School of Education, and former associate director of community partnerships at IUPUI’s Center for Urban and Multicultural Education, she prepares students to take on their own role as teachers. Her approach to teaching, service and research starts at the intersection of three components: urban school transformation, democratic citizenship, and social justice.
“In my work, I try to get students to understand that we’re all multicultural beings. There’s this intersectionality of different cultures that creates the lens you have first as a teacher, and then, as a way to understand your students.”
It’s within this context that Dr. Medina asks her students to rethink their role as teachers. Doing so disarms them of the underlying and unrecognized biases that occur in a pluralistic society and, ultimately, provides them with a tool to recognize structural inequalities in the learning environment. The process also demonstrates an essential component of equity pedagogy – an umbrella term that encompasses the strategies teachers use to facilitate learning in an environment comprised of diverse racial, ethnic and cultural groups.
The goal of equity pedagogy is to increase academic achievement. And there’s no lack of innovation in today’s methods to increase achievement. Great minds and deep wallets work in tandem to study, outline and implement any number strategies designed to ensure that our schools are equipped to offer necessary resources to students, and in some cases, their families and the surrounding community.
Achievement variables can be construed from a data analysis, but without challenging traditionally held beliefs about how students learn in relationship to their community, their cultural identity, or their level of access to supportive resources such as healthcare or mentoring, researchers run the risk of oversimplifying achievement. The hallmark of Dr. Medina’s expertise is the confluence of sociocultural factors entangled in the learning environment. She believes that understanding how poverty affects achievement in urban schools is best discovered in a collaborative fashion.
“I like to work interdisciplinary. And I think we all have to, if we want to make an impact in the community. You have to know how to talk to the people you help … you have to have the vocabulary, and feel confident, and be able to have a conversation with that person and say … ‘I know you’re going to approach it from this side, and I’m going to approach it from this side. So, who else do we need to bring to the table that can help us get the entire picture?’”
Dr. Medina’s meticulous attention to the parts that make the whole not only keep her busy, but also make her a highly visible leader in the community – especially in the Hispanic community in Indianapolis. She is actively engaged in no less than a dozen councils, boards, and committees working together to pioneer or sustain community-led projects, all of which keep her finger on the pulse of social reform and build the interdisciplinary relationships she finds are invaluable to effecting positive change.
So, when it comes to bridging scholarly research and community engagement, it’s not a surprise that Dr. Medina’s methods to meeting the complex needs of today’s students and future teachers frequently extend beyond the walls of the institution. Although an Associate Professor, she hasn’t taught a class on campus in 15 years. She prefers instead to teach pre-service teachers and university students at George Washington Community High School (GWCHS), a once-failing high school that she assisted in re-opening as a full-service community school. In 2008, Medina became the Principal Investigator of a five-year, $2.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to study and support the school.
The partnership between IUPUI and GWCHS has been nationally recognized as a model for school/community engagement. As schools sought to replicate its success, Dr. Medina became partnered with The Midwest Center for University-Assisted Community Schools. In alliance with the University of Pennsylvania’s Netter Center for Community Partnerships, Dr. Medina’s role is to provide technical assistance and training for developing strong coalitions between community schools and universities throughout the Midwest.
Dr. Medina’s ambition to use her research for the community has done more than translate into practice. Her approach to finding the intersection of urban school transformation, democratic citizenship, and social justice have now been applied in ways that have spanned the country and impacted policy, creating a legacy of innovation not constrained by borders, and becoming a testament to her personal and professional philosophy on effecting positive change.
“You can’t just show up there and say, ‘Hey, I brought this idea from the University.’ No, you have to listen,” says Medina. “That’s what I do more than anything else. I listen, listen, listen.”
But, listen to whom? The answer to that question is where real change occurs – and that’s how Medina’s research transforms into actionable ideas. When the numbers talk, the community’s voice must be the primary agent for addressing solutions. As Medina explained,
“If you’re not in the thick of it, on the front line, then you can never be the voice for the community.”
Loree Wilcox is pursuing her MA in Applied Communication at IUPUI. With prior experience in media and international affairs, she’s most interested in research that explores the intersection of corporate and intercultural communication.
Loree’s post is the third in a series exploring community engagement in scientific research, written by graduate students in the Communicating Science Minor Program at the IU School of Medicine and IUPUI.