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RISE Caribbean initiative celebrates Year 1 of project, prepares for expanded research collaborations in the future

For educators and policymakers in Barbados and the broader Eastern Caribbean region, it was once difficult to find evidence-based research to inform local teaching practices, says Patriann Smith, PhD, an associate professor of literacy studies at the University of South Florida (USF) College of Education.

There was no centralized location for people to look to for research, training or support, and information was spread out and often difficult to track down.

To address this issue, the School of Education at The University of the West Indies (UWI) Cave Hill conceptualized an educational research center, and in collaboration with Smith, a native of St. Lucia, proposed the Research Initiative for Supporting Education in the Caribbean — also known as the RISE Caribbean initiative — a project that during its first year has launched a new interdisciplinary educational research center to support education policy development and timely decision-making on issues impacting schools in the sub-region.

“We have been talking about the lack of research in the Caribbean for years,” said S. Joel Warrican, PhD, a professor of education and head of the School of Education at The UWI Cave Hill, who also serves as director of the new center. “Whenever you look at international reports, it’s ‘LAC’ — Latin America and the Caribbean — but when you go to the report, you realize it’s Latin America because we just do not have adequate research data.”

The initiative, made possible by a $3.6 million grant from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), began in March 2021 and quickly brought together researchers from both USF and UWI to collaborate on professional development activities, research design and building a cross-cultural mentorship network.

RISE Caribbean group photo

The RISE Caribbean team takes a group photo at a welcome party held by The UWI to officially celebrate the arrival of USF faculty in Barbados in June. Pictured: USAID’s Aurore Dorelien, The UWI Cave Hill’s Professor S. Joel Warrican, Dr. Coreen Leacock, Dr. Verna Knight and CERC Research Fellows and Assistants; USF’s Drs. Patriann Smith, Constance Hines, Deirdre Cobb-Roberts, Robert Dedrick, James King, Eunsook Kim.

Following a summer of planning and training offered to researchers across the region, the Caribbean Educational Research Center — also known as CERC — had its official launch last September at UWI’s Cave Hill campus. In the center’s first year of operations, the RISE Caribbean team set into motion multiple activities to help solve ongoing challenges facing the region’s schools.

“We are very interested in the Caribbean Educational Research Center being the one-stop-shop for research experiences that individuals are undertaking in the region, and we envision our partnership as a pivotal part of supporting the use of research to inform practice,” Smith said.

Training and professional development connecting to local education systems

One of the priorities of RISE Caribbean is to increase communication with various stakeholder groups in the region to share research in ways that support education policy, planning and practice, said Coreen Leacock, PhD, a senior lecturer in mathematics education at The UWI Cave Hill and project coordinator for the Caribbean Educational Research Center.

“One of the problems that we have in educational research in the region is that we can’t do a lot of very, very large projects because we just haven’t got the capacity on the ground,” Leacock said. “So, one of the main outcomes of RISE is that we are aiming, through training, to increase research capacity within the region.”

To expand capacity-building efforts, last summer, USF faculty taught two online courses in educational research methods, which were taught by faculty members Robert Dedrick, PhD, and Jolyn Blank, PhD. After the courses ended, the faculty continued to help guide course participants from across the Eastern Caribbean as they enhanced their research projects’ designs and methodologies.

“What I think is interesting about the project is the range of people that are involved,” Dr. Dedrick said. “…We have this diverse group of mentors who are working with participants who are coming out of these quantitative and qualitative methods courses and are now working on research studies.”

International research collaboration addressing pressing issues in the region

The coronavirus pandemic combined with natural disasters impacting the Eastern Caribbean region, such as hurricanes and volcanic eruptions, have caused interruptions to local students’ learning in recent years.

How to mitigate learning losses, along with other prevalent challenges, such as special education needs, technology implementation and numeracy teaching methods are just some of the issues researchers involved with the RISE Caribbean project are currently exploring.

“A lot of the research that’s been done in the Caribbean has not been done by people from the Caribbean,” said Erin Mahon, PhD, a research fellow with the center. “One of the goals (of the RISE initiative) is to help create spaces where teachers, principals and other educational professionals can come to be trained in how to conduct sound research.”

The RISE Caribbean project team

The RISE Caribbean project team, including USF faculty; Research Fellows Drs. Chloe Walker and Erin Mahon; Research Assistants Jimelle Roberts, Talyjah Hyatt and Judy-Ann Auld; and participants from the quantitative and qualitative research training courses held in June.

Through regular meetings held virtually with participants from both USF and UWI, team members share progress updates about their research topics and get feedback to improve their projects as they progress.

Deirdre Cobb-Roberts, PhD, a professor of social foundations at USF, said the collaborative model of convening researchers from both institutions to share their expertise and perspectives makes this project unique and serves as an excellent model for working with international partners.

“We recognize that our contexts are different,” Dr. Cobb-Roberts said. “Sometimes the expertise we offer may not align with the research goals of the region, so we must be able to take a step back, acknowledge that and strategize around ‘What do we do to move forward as co-collaborators?’”

Promoting cross-cultural research mentorship and collaborations

Outside of meetings, USF faculty members also serve as research mentors to provide one-on-one guidance to research fellows and assistants from the Caribbean. The model allows for ongoing communication and knowledge sharing from participants at both institutions.

RISE Cross-Cultural Research Mentorship Network Session

In Barbados, the RISE Caribbean project team collaborated during a Cross-Cultural Research Mentorship Network (CCMN) session with Research Fellows and Research Assistants. Pictured are two of the Research Assistants, Judy-Ann Auld and Talyjah Hyatt.

“We all understand this mentorship experience is not vertical, it is completely lateral,” said Eunsook Kim, PhD, an associate professor of educational measurement and research at USF. “…We bring something into the region and help them, but it’s more like a collaborative relationship. They inform our practice too. I think the major focus here is we bring our expertise in research, especially in methodologies, and so we try to co-construct the research infrastructure.”

Constance Hines, PhD, a professor emerita in the College of Education who has assisted with the project’s course and research design efforts, said initiatives like RISE Caribbean help bridge the cultural gap between the U.S. and the Caribbean, and USF is well-positioned to help build capacity within the region.

“I see this USAID project as being most critical to our international work at USF as the Caribbean region is very much connected to us as it is among the closest neighbors to the United States,” Hines said. “It’s good for us to help build those relationships.”

A focus on long-term, sustainable impact for the future

With funding to support three years of activity, the RISE Caribbean team plans to continue developing the research center’s resource library and training offerings. Smith said the center expects to launch a new website and institutional repository for research later this year, which will help encourage broader knowledge sharing among both researchers and practitioners in the region.

This summer, the project also began its international travel activities, which were delayed at the project’s start due to the pandemic. In June, the USF research team traveled to the Caribbean Educational Research Center at The UWI in Barbados to teach courses on-site at UWI Cave Hill and offer on-the-ground research mentorship.

In the project’s second year, the USF team will continue to support CERC in providing training in quantitative and qualitative research methods and will extend its ongoing research mentorship activities. Working with CERC, the USF team is also preparing to conduct large-scale extended analyses of student achievement data drawn from Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean and, with CERC research fellows and assistants, is in the process of proposing a research symposium about the RISE Caribbean project that would be hosted as part of the American Educational Research Association’s (AERA) Annual Meeting next year.

In Year 3, RISE Caribbean plans to expand its cross-cultural exchange activities by hosting a culminating conference at USF in partnership with the Institute for the Study of Latin America and the Caribbean (ISLAC). The event will invite UWI faculty, CERC research fellows and research mentors as well as other participants from the region’s Ministries of Education and its Teachers’ Colleges to convene and explore the project’s impact and future research activities in the Caribbean.

The greater goal of these efforts, however, is for the project’s outcomes to outlive the funding, Warrican said. He said the team hopes the Caribbean Educational Research Center will become the go-to destination for educational research and training in the region.

“For me, my dream is sustainability,” Warrican said. “That (the project) goes beyond the three years (of USAID funding), and it becomes an entrenched entity in the Caribbean that will be looking after the research as we go forward.”

Smith said she’s very pleased with the team’s progress in its first year, and that while working across international boundaries can be challenging, seeing the excitement of everyone who participates in the project’s activities as well as being on the ground in Barbados and seeing research take off in Year 2 is a major accomplishment that stands out.

“More broadly, our goal is to have folks use research as a basis for practice — period,” Smith said. “We want every teacher, every principal, every Ministry of Education official to only operate on the ground in schools or with students in ways that are based on what the research says, and to be guided by how the Caribbean interprets that research or conducts that research as opposed to just using research practices that are designed by other countries.”

The RISE Caribbean initiative is supported by a $3.6 million grant from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The grant is in partnership with the University of the West Indies Cave Hill in Barbados to establish an interdisciplinary educational research center to help support decision-making and policy development for educational innovation and expansion in Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean.

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As the home for more than 2,200 students and 130 faculty members across three campuses, the University of South Florida College of Education offers state-of-the-art teacher training and collegial graduate studies designed to empower educational leaders. Our college is nationally accredited by the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation (CAEP), and our educator preparation programs are fully approved by the Florida Department of Education.