SOPA Capstone Project with HERC aims to Improve Racial, Ethnic and Socioeconomic Equity in HISD

Austin, Texas Capitol Building

As part of Rice University’s School of Social Sciences, the Social Policy Analysis (SOPA) major focuses on evidence-based policy design, analysis and communication. Through in-depth coursework and research, undergraduate students aim to answer pressing questions, such as: Which early interventions lead to greater educational attainment for low-income children? Which juvenile rehabilitation programs are more likely to reduce the recurrence of criminal behavior? How does healthcare policy influence daily health behaviors? In a time of limited resources and rising demands, local and national leaders need the analytical expertise and comprehensive data to make a demonstrable, sustained impact on urgent matters facing their communities.

The SOPA major culminates in the completion of a hands-on community capstone project. Students work together in groups with a community organization, such as the Houston Food Bank or the American Heart Association, and conduct research that aims to inform policy and provide solutions to some of the nation’s most pressing issues. Many of these students will travel to the Texas State Capitol in the spring to attend legislative sessions that pertain to bills and matters of concern for their research and the respective community organizations with which they have been collaborating.

“The capstone course gives students the opportunity to apply the skills and knowledge they’ve learned in the classroom over three years to real world problems and issues in a collaborative and dynamic setting,” said Melissa Marschall, director of SOPA. She continued, “It’s the kind of engaged learning experience that many Rice students are looking for because they want to make a difference.”

One Houston-based SOPA capstone project is in partnership with the Houston Education Research Consortium (HERC) at Rice University. The two entities are engaged in The Equity Project, a large-scale collaborative research project with the Houston Independent School District (HISD). The purpose of this project is to identify the mechanisms through which HISD, and the broader Houston community, can work to improve racial, ethnic and socioeconomic equity in educational achievement and attainment.

“Over the years, SOPA teams have had great opportunities to get involved in research in partnership with HERC and HISD and, more importantly, share that research directly back with HISD,” said Erin Baumgartner, director of HERC.

This project includes research that examines, across HISD, the equitable distribution of student advising and mentoring programs. HISD offers various resources, such as academic and non-academic mentoring, college advising and college preparation; however, ease of access to these programs for students may vary significantly across campuses in such a large district. The study’s findings will be presented to HISD leadership and used to improve access to advising and mentoring opportunities across the district.

“The district uses the research to plan and drive decision making, which ultimately works to improve equity for students in the Houston area,” said Baumgartner. She added, “It also gives students an opportunity to learn about research in a partnership setting, keeping partner needs in mind throughout the process, from analysis to presentation of findings.”

To learn more about SOPA, visit

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