(Illustration by Mike Ellis)

In the city, in the field

In Chicago’s schools and neighborhoods, social scientists continue to use the city as their lab—and their work—to improve lives.

“Immersing yourself in your context is a helpful way to do things,” says Elizabeth Hassrick, AM’05, PhD’07 (Sociology), assistant professor at Drexel University’s autism institute. She first learned the value of this approach in 1988, while living in Cameroon as a high school teacher in the Peace Corps.

Hassrick chose to live in the village among the families she taught rather than in a separate expatriate neighborhood. “It didn’t seem to me like I would be as useful to my students if I wasn’t in their community.” It wasn’t an easy route, however. “People refused to sell to me in the market, yelled at me, told me to go home.” Eventually, the situation improved. “Over time I was able to become part of my community,” which, Hassrick says, made her a better teacher.

This decision, to live and work in the same community, helped inspire Hassrick to attend the University of Chicago to study sociology. Along with Stephen Raudenbush and Lisa Rosen, she is the author of The Ambitious Elementary School: Its Conception, Design, and Implications for Educational Equality (University of Chicago Press, 2017), the latest result of the UChicago social scientists’ ongoing investment in youth in Chicago neighborhoods.


The legacy of the Chicago school of sociology “city as a laboratory” approach was established in the late 1920s. Today UChicago scholars work with University neighbors as partners in social science research and projects. These include The Ambitious Elementary School’s authors’ objective to improve education as well as Micere Keels’s work to improve school social work models and Forrest Stuart’s aim to better comprehend the motives of Chicago street gangs.

The methodology for The Ambitious Elementary School, for example, involved the authors conducting focus groups, site visitations, and interviews with University of Chicago Charter School teachers, administrators, and parents. They also held workshops with school leaders, teachers, and UChicago researchers. “We tried to bring together different stakeholders to conceive of how the work could be useful to practitioners and researchers at the University,” Hassrick says. “We sought to accurately describe how the UChicago Charter School model worked, both in theory and practice.”

Through their qualitative work, the authors learned that the individual components of the model, like ambitious instruction informed by frequent learning assessments, longer periods of instruction time, and continuous parent engagement were underlying principles that, woven together, changed outcomes for kids.

By writing a book accessible to both researchers and practitioners, Hassrick and her coauthors hope other schools can incorporate key UChicago Charter School tenets, redesign reading and math instruction, and ultimately fight education inequality. For instance, when the adults in a child’s life—teachers, school leaders, social workers, coaches, parents—come together regularly “to support ambitious learning” instead of interacting only during times of crisis or at test time, it yields results: for five consecutive years, UChicago Charter’s graduating seniors have had 100 percent college acceptance rates.

The teachers and administrators were eager collaborators on the project. “They’re used to welcoming people into their classrooms,” says Raudenbush, the Lewis-Sebring Distinguished Service Professor in Sociology. At UChicago Charter, teachers are encouraged to walk into each other’s classrooms to break down metaphorical and literal barriers, and a similar transparency was at work during the research for The Ambitious Elementary School.

“We did a back and forth process to make sure we got it right—they looked at what we wrote,” says coauthor Rosen, executive director of the UChicago Science of Learning Center. “That built trust. It was a sustained, ongoing conversation, not just a drop-in.” The process didn’t end until after the charter school stakeholders confirmed that the researchers accurately represented their voices and viewpoints.

In addition to improving schools, UChicago researchers build community relationships in city neighborhoods. By being forthright with his subjects, Forrest Stuart, assistant professor of sociology, earned trust from Chicago gang members he interviewed, observed, and sometimes gave rides to over the past few years.

“That was what opened doors—me walking up to young men who were told at every turn that they are terrible and they are monsters,” he says. “I was really explicit in our first interactions, saying, ‘We know nobody listens to you, you do things that adults don’t understand, and we know you don’t have a forum to make yourself heard. I want to hear what you think about the world.’”

It worked. Stuart captured the young men’s vulnerabilities, triumphs, and unique problems in vivid detail in an October 2016 Chicago magazine story, “Dispatches from the Rap Wars,” a preview of his forthcoming book on the intersections of poverty, culture, digital social media, and hip-hop on the South Side. “Very quickly I realized,” Stuart says, “these guys are so hungry for anyone to just listen to them and treat them as reasonable interpreters of their own lives.”


Chicago social scientists who work within the community can help improve necessary services. Keels, associate professor of comparative human development, consulted with local school officials and community members when putting together Trauma Responsive Educational Practices, a system that rethinks the method for providing emotional support for at-risk students in Chicago Public Schools. 

“I started by going to the principals and asking, ‘How can we better train your social worker or ensure that your school has one?’” she says. Those basic steps, they informed her, wouldn’t be sufficient. Current models presume only one or two traumatized children in a classroom. In reality, she learned, in some parts of the city the majority of children are affected by violence.

“It’s been about trying to connect basic social science research on all of these topics and talking with principals, teachers, community members, as well as those that are organizing teacher training programs,” Keels says. By including community partners, she says, researchers can better understand the gap between traditional models of practice and on-the-ground realities.

Keels’s system trains educators and school administrators to spot the signs of trauma in students (as well as families and staff), realize the effects of trauma on schooling, and integrate knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices. Just as importantly, the system trains teachers to alter classroom practices to avoid triggering trauma histories. The online system offers schools a virtual online community and access to in-person training.

Now Keels is working with the University of Chicago Urban Teacher Education Program to integrate this learning into teachers’ perseverance training. Next year she plans to work with schools to articulate the barriers to and facilitators of implementing these practices into a whole school model.

Like Keels, Stuart also discovered a gap between typical assumptions and the realities of his research subjects. He describes a gang member asking him for a ride to court. “He was like, ‘Hey, I have no way to get there; if you don’t take me, then there’s going to be a warrant out for my arrest, police will come knocking on my door, and I’ll be taken away.’”

Stuart was torn between his role as an impartial researcher and the “moral responsibility,” he says, “as an adult in your life who wants the best for you. I can’t sit there and finger wag, but I’m conflicted.”

These moral questions were not unusual in his work. He occasionally offered hungry young men a meal at McDonald’s if they’d enroll in school, but he realized his subjects usually had reasons for the decisions they made, including not attending school. “Here’s a hungry kid who I take to school, and he’s violently assaulted by a rival gang.” By conducting fieldwork with marginalized youth, Stuart saw how infrequently there were easy or clear solutions to their problems.


Projects like The Ambitious Elementary School aim to help the Chicago community and reach a wider audience. The effects of a better school blueprint, Raudenbush says, cannot be underestimated. “If we could make schools really good,” he wonders, “would we really be able to improve the chances of very disadvantaged kids?” The authors believe the answer is a resounding yes.

Keels believes that if more researchers practice translational work, it could help narrow the seven- to 10-year lag between consensus among researchers and implementation. “Being able to narrow that time span is important,” she says. “Since I work on issues of inequality and children’s development, it’s really important for me that research also has a tangible impact.”

Stuart can see the effects of his work in his research subjects’ simple survival. “Some of the young men in my research are still alive and not in prison because I was in their lives,” he says, citing an agreement they made. If a rival gang shot up his contacts’ block, Stuart would take them to TGI Fridays for three hours of unlimited appetizers to sit out the initial desire to retaliate. “I feel like a few shootings were stopped by getting guys out of the neighborhood context where they had their buddies hyping them out to go shoot at their rivals.”

On a larger scale, Stuart hopes to effect change with a Twitter program he’s been working on that will flag keywords and utterances that seem to predicate a shooting. He hopes that community activists will have first access to the program, “if it can save lives and keep people out of prison instead of put people behind bars.”

With goals such as improving schools and children’s outcomes, Raudenbush believes that collaboration between scholars and community members is necessary. Some community stakeholders “have wonderful ideas, but the ideas will stay in their heads unless we interact,” he says. “By making those ideas explicit and testing them, we can produce new knowledge that is valuable.”