Skip to main content

Alice Harnischfeger

Alice Harnischfeger headshot

Affiliation: Doctoral Student
Program: PhD, Teaching and Curriculum
Education: MS, Nazareth University (Special Education); B.S., The College at Brockport, State University of New York (Psychology)
Dissertation: Looks at how youth, who have been placed in an alternative education program within a successful public middle school, construct identities in relation to school

Background: Taught English and other content area subjects, mainly in the area of special education/inclusion, in K-12 schools for 26 years

Career Goal: College/university professor and researcher who broadens the understanding and expands the definition of inclusion to include all students

As a former teacher in a suburban school considered high-performing by state standards, Alice Harnischfeger was haunted by the students who were struggling academically in school despite not fitting into any special needs categories. The number was small, about 1 to 3 percent, but when she thought about what that meant when multiplied across every school in every district, the implication was significant.

And research, she says, pays little attention to this group.

“There’s a gap in educational reform efforts for these kids,” says Harnischfeger, a doctoral student in teaching and curriculum. “Of course there are huge needs we should study—urban and high-poverty areas, for example—that are very deserving and critical. But this sort of research is also vital, more than worthy, and even necessary.

“I think it’s more societal and school practices that create situations where kids are slipping through the cracks.”

Exploring student engagement and disengagement, with a focus on the effects of sociocultural constructions and identity, Harnischfeger is conducting qualitative research with about a dozen eighth-graders in a suburban school. The students have been identified by the school as being academically at-risk; some have been determined to also have needs that involve behavior.

In the preliminary stages of her research, Harnischfeger predicts that she’ll find what she has seen before—that the students “may not be seen as succeeding in the school’s narrow academic intelligence areas, but there are so many layers to them and they are rich as people, even though for some reason that’s not being recognized.”

Her interest lies in understanding the effect of school practices on the identities these students create, and any possible ramifications that may be associated with these constructions in the future.

This past summer, Harnischfeger was one of 25 international applicants selected to attend the first International Society for Cultural and Activity Research program in Russia. Taking place at the Moscow State University of Psychology and Education, the week-long program brought together Ph.D. students in different disciplines from across the globe for an intensive teaching program and informal exchange of ideas. Calling it one of the best experiences of her life, Harnischfeger is concentrating now more than ever on the freedoms we have in this country not only to openly share ideas but to make them happen.

In her research and as an educator for student teachers, she is working toward expanding the definition of inclusion to truly include all students.

“We have some wonderful teachers and scholars in the field, but I worry about the bigger system,” she says. “That’s why Warner is the perfect match for me, just being with professors and students who also recognize the need for in-depth reforms—and the possibilities of what we can do.”