Professor Shana Haines will head to remote Portuguese island for Fulbright research on innovative partnerships.

Shana Haines understands that when it comes to building a thriving community, no one is an island unto themselves. That’s why the professor of special education will spend part of her upcoming sabbatical this academic year on a literal island located 850 miles west of continental Portugal, where she’s been awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to explore partnerships on the Azores islands.

“I’m honored to be a Fulbright Scholar in the Azores,” says Haines, who is no stranger to the remote island, having conducted research and traveled there with students in the past. Her Fulbright project will examine innovative collaborations that strengthen family, school and community relationships on the island, as well as Azorean approaches to special education. 

“One particularly exciting project I’ll be looking at is a case study of an innovative family, school, and community collaboration in a fishing village on the northern coast of the main island. I’ve gotten to know this village through a UVM Travel Study course to the Azores that I teach every summer with Professor Jessica Strolin-Goltzman,” says Haines.

In addition to the Fulbright project, she will also lecture on family-professional partnerships and the U.S. special education system at the Universidade dos Açores throughout the year and collaborate with area faculty on related research. In May, she will welcome UVM students to the Azores once again as she co-teaches the 10-day UVM Travel Study course Azores Islands, Portugal: Building Resilience through Family, School and Community Collaboration.

Improving Familial and Professional Relationships in Education

As an expert on cultural and linguistic minority populations, inclusive practices and family, school and community partnerships, Haines’ work on community resilience and relationships is extensive. She’s served in the Peace Corps in West Africa, taught English language learners (ELLs) in Harlem as a New York City Teaching Fellow, and taught and volunteered with refugee families in New England.  It was her experience teaching ELLs in New York, however, that opened her eyes to the communication challenges between non-English speaking families and educators. 

“I was teaching in a New York City school that the government had deemed to be failing. I was trying to reach out to students’ families, most of whom spoke Spanish or Arabic. I didn’t speak either language, and I had no resources and no trained interpreter, which made communicating with families very hard,” says Haines. “It got me thinking: What if I could work with these families? What if I could get together with them and set goals with them that were meaningful—and include student voice as well? I wanted to find a way to come together with families and have authentic relationships.”

Nearly 20 years later, Haines has done exactly that. Recently, she and collaborator Professor Cynthia Reyes completed a one-year qualitative research project, titled Relationships Among Families and Teachers (RAFT), which explored how to improve familial and professional relationships within a child’s education, specifically for children from refugee families. For her work on RAFT and other related exploratory research, Haines, Reyes and a team of students conducted more than 200 interviews with refugee families, their children and educators throughout the Northeastern United States.

“Cynthia and I wanted to explore how families who have refugee stories understand and navigate their children’s educational experience,” she says. “Many countries where refugees are coming from are hierarchical in culture—a formalness exists that minimizes the role of families in their children’s education.”

For example, Haines says parents under these circumstances who are new to the U.S. school system might consider a teacher to be the only expert on their child’s educational development. At a parent-teacher conference, those parents might not know what to ask or say to someone they perceive to be an authority on the issue. “In the U.S., however, we expect families to communicate about, advocate for and facilitate their children’s learning. This is a change in role construction that needs to be taught. Strong family-teacher partnerships can improve student outcomes, especially when they are a key part of our educational system’s design.”

Haines explains that these difficulties ultimately make it challenging for families and teachers to have honest, trusting and strong relationships that support more equitable, individualized educational experiences for children. “An important thing we found in our research is that families and teachers were not building the relationships they need to have a strong, trusting partnership due to a variety of factors. And when you work through an interpreter, having an honest conversation can be even more difficult. When is it appropriate, culturally, to say something or not? Unfortunately, it’s easier not to say much at all.”

The result of RAFT is a student-centered conversation guide — developed in partnership with school districts, teachers and refugee families — designed to build relationships at parent-teacher meetings rather than solely relay information. RAFT will be presented at the American Education Research Association Annual Meeting in April in San Francisco.

Mentoring and Inspiring Students 

Haines’ commitment to inclusiveness and partnerships is nothing short of inspiring to her students. Current and former students describe her as gifted, enthusiastic, and passionate. 

“Her in-depth knowledge and experiences in immigrant and refugee family studies are astounding to the level that inspires me to continue working with her in future research,” says Hemant (Lama) Ghising, a doctoral student who worked on the refugee-professional partnership study with Haines and whose dissertation is part of the RAFT study. “She is compassionate, has attention-to-detail, and is very inclusive.”

Kaila Carson, who graduated from UVM in May with a degree in elementary education and is now pursuing a master’s degree at Columbia University, felt fortunate to have Haines as her advisor.

“Shana was so much more than an advisor. She was a mentor whom I still look up to and who left a substantial impact with values I will carry on with me throughout graduate school and hope to instill within my future students,” Carson says. “Shana's passion and drive are contagious. She ignited a spark within me to make a sustainable difference in the world of education, and I feel extraordinarily lucky that I was able to explore that under her guidance.”


Erica Houskeeper