Leigh is the center’s new Director of Research and Evaluation.
What motivated her to pack up and move to Boston in the middle of a pandemic?
“I feel strongly connected to and vested in the vision, mission, and core values of the center,” she says. “School districts and states have been hit so hard by the pandemic, so there is not a better time than now to be part of the center’s work. When there’s a crisis, there are challenges for sure, but there are also opportunities.”
“Our education system has a history of giving some students less of every critical resource. That’s why we need to use evidence-based interventions to reshape the system, one classroom and one student at a time.”
As an economics graduate student at the University of Mississippi, Leigh thought she would work on business development for a nonprofit organization or work in the private sector.
“But during my years as a graduate student, I developed a strong interest, an obsession really, in connecting educational research and practice.”
After earning her PhD, she went to work for the Mississippi Department of Education as the Director of the Office of Research and Development.
“I led a team of researchers who analyzed data from the state’s K-12 data system and a statewide P-20W [preschool through workforce] longitudinal data system. Our findings informed the decisions made by education department leaders and by state legislators. Most importantly, our findings revealed insights that practitioners in schools can use to improve student learning and outcomes.”
Among other programs, Yan and her team studied Mississippi’s Early Learning Collaboratives (ELCs), which are composed of school districts, Head Start agencies, child care centers, and private non-profit organizations. The collaboratives’ positive research findings include the fact that in 2019, 77 percent of children in the ELCs were assessed as being kindergarten ready, a higher rate than the 69 percent of children in other public pre-K programs.
In her first weeks in her new job at the Center for Optimized Student Support, Leigh has been getting to know colleagues, attending meetings, and thinking about the center’s future.
“Our plan,” she says “is to build on the previous great work that has been done and use it to develop a deep understanding of how to advance the value of the center in supporting the whole child. One project we are working on is studying the impact of the pandemic. We want to understand how coordinators are adapting their work to help students address in-school and out-of-school challenges. We want to discover ways to enhance efficiency and effectiveness of work in the field.
“And, of course, we’re statisticians and researchers, so we want to contribute new knowledge to the field about how to provide integrated student support and its impact on student success.”
A personal interest Leigh has is how to build “hardiness” into an organization’s culture, which is especially important during a pandemic. Leigh sees it as the capability to be ready for whatever comes. She sums it up this way:
“As people say, there is no bad weather, only the wrong choice of clothing.”