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Social Work professors lead evaluation of community program

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The nonprofit AVANCE is partnering with the Graduate College of Social Work for a project that focuses on bettering familial environment. | File photo/ The Cougar

The Graduate College of Social Work received a $1.5 million grant to do a five-year research evaluation on the community-based nonprofit AVANCE and its “Strong Families, Strong Communities” program.

Associate professors Luis Torres and Sheara Jennings are the lead evaluators for the project’s research component.

“This grant is from a funding mechanism for healthy marriages, and the idea behind that with the federal government is that everyone is better off when families remain intact,” Jennings said.

Torres said AVANCE is trying to implement elements of healthy relationships, conflict resolution, problem-solving and parenting, along with a workforce development component.

“It’s a really, really big project,” Torres said.

Building a ‘stronger’ community

The Administration for Children and Families, a division of the Department of Health and Human Services, gave AVANCE’s program a $10 million grant as part of its Healthy Marriage and Responsible Fatherhood initiative

GCSW got a portion of the grant with $1.5 million.

The special curriculum includes weekly workshops and presentations to improve skills that can better relationships. They are delivered to individuals and couples in need within the community.

The impact evaluation is designed to answer three primary research questions: Does the program lead to increases in marital or relationship satisfaction and marriage skills; does financial planning education increase participants’ management skills and financial status; and does career coaching or training improve job readiness and job and career advancement?

To answer these questions, the evaluators apply a randomized control trial where half of the participants are in a wait-list control group and don’t initially receive the curriculum. The other half are in a treatment group and receive the program.

“It’s very important for us to examine these two groups of people and look for possible differences, so that we can really demonstrate and hopefully prove that the programing AVANCE does is effective and really does work,” Jennings said.

The evaluators carry out assesments at pre-test, post-test, a follow-up after six months and after 12 months. At the end of the 12 months, the people who were in the control group can begin the workshops and other parts of the project.

During the course of the 12 months, the research team keeps in touch with the wait-list participants once a month to assess their needs.

“At the end of the day, what families need to be healthy and strong are to have their basic needs met,” Jennings said. “They need to have shelter, they need to be safe in their community or homes, the need food, and they need healthcare.”

The curriculum is given in Spanish or English — about half of the participants are Hispanic and about half are African-American. There is also a component of the project for disadvantaged youths between 14 and 18 years old.

“A community is made up of all sorts of different people, we’re trying to serve whatever unit is represented in that family,” Jennings said. “We want everybody to have healthy relationships to help make the community stronger.”

UH lends a hand

Since it’s such a large program, the evaluation team includes two GCSW doctoral students and two master’s students. 

Second-year doctoral student Flor Avellaneda previously worked for AVANCE as an executive director in Waco. She meets with the control group participants and explains to them what it means to be in that group, about the process and the data collection points, and how the evaluators will work with them throughout this period of time.

“As a student and as someone who has worked with AVANCE before, having the opportunity to evaluate one of their programs is a great learning experience because research is an area that I’m passionate about,” Avellaneda said.

Torres has collaborated with AVANCE on various projects for many years. The nonprofit they reached out to him since the grant required a rigorous evaluation.

Torres accepted and brought in the GCSW as the evaluator of the project.

“I thought that it would be a good opportunity to bring in somebody else who has expertise as well with those types of designs, but who also has expertise with the population,” Torres said. “Dr. Jennings has been an evaluator (and uses) rigorous evaluation methods, that’s why I invited her to join me with this evaluation.”

Avellaneda said that Jennings and Torres are excellent people, and the fact that they give students these opportunities to get involved says a lot about them.

The research evaluation team is currently on year two of the five-year project and is focusing on strengthening the relationships within the population.

“It’s a ripple effect,” Jennings said. “Let’s help families be healthy because the benefits get magnified throughout the community.”

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