CONNECT Project Spotlight: A Story to Tell at Joshua's Stage

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April 25, 2024
Graphic with a headshot of Zhina Shen

As she was completing her PhD in Special Education last fall, CONNECT fellow Zhina Shen worked alongside local nonprofit Joshua’s Stage to further develop their data collection methods and improve their ability to measure, track, and communicate the impact of their programs. In the CONNECT project, Shen incorporated her data management skills and expertise working with children with developmental and behavioral disabilities while gaining valuable professional industry experience in her area of study and research. 

“I was so excited because this is exactly what I wanted to do after graduation,” Shen said. “This CONNECT work is really leading me to further opportunities after graduation.” 

In the summer before her final semester in her PhD program at the College of Education, Shen began considering post-graduation career pathways outside of academia. She looked for opportunities to integrate her data analysis skills with her PhD research background in special education in an industry role and came across the CONNECT program. 

Shen was matched with Joshua’s Stage, an Austin-based fine arts nonprofit providing opportunities for people with special needs to demonstrate creativity, develop self-confidence, gain and maintain high self-esteem and develop long-lasting relationships with individuals with similar needs. 

Founder and Executive Director Joshua Levy is a former educator with a passion for performing arts. He applied to the CONNECT program to gain insight into their programs’ impact and get an outside perspective on how best to improve services to students and parents. Joshua’s Stage had previously conducted post-surveys but needed to reexamine the questions and deliver the surveys more consistently. After being matched through the CONNECT program, Shen and Levy met to discuss Shen’s ideas for the project.

“Her background, her enthusiasm, and dedication all fit wonderfully, and we hit it off within seconds upon our first meeting,” said Levy. 

Shen’s goal for the project would be to improve the pre- and post-program surveys given to parents based off parent feedback and common questions asked upon enrolling their child in Joshua’s Stage programming. Shen would then analyze the data collected from these surveys and create visualizations that could easily share the story of parents’ and children’s experiences in Joshua's Stage programming. 

Early in the process, Shen also suggested to Levy that they add a customized resource section for parents at the bottom of their child's progress report. In addition to receiving updates on their child's individualized progress in behavioral and emotional performance or language development, parents would now receive additional resources and suggested at-home activities to continue their child's learning. Shen used her knowledge of the field of special education to select resources that align with each child’s needs and learning goals. 

“It’s nice to show parents how these programs are helping their children,” Shen said.

Zhina and Joshua
Zhina Shen (left) stands with Founder and Executive Director of Joshua's Stage, Joshua Levy (right), at the student showcase event in December 2023. 

In December, Shen was invited to attend a showcase in Buda, Texas, where Joshua’s Stage students demonstrate what they’ve been working on in their nine-week program. Shen described how interacting with students and parents at the showcase allowed her to gain a different perspective on the project and programming that she couldn't get from working behind a computer screen. 

“We need to connect what is happening in the classroom with our data analysis,” said Shen. “After the experience I had with the showcase, communicating with the parents and children, I have a deeper understanding of our children’s personalities and for the program components in the real world. It really helped me to further analyze my data and include more relevant information.” 

At the showcase, Shen was able to connect in a new way with the parents and students as she was fine-tuning the survey questions, incorporating new questions and adjusting based off those conversations. A consultant himself, Levy recognizes the importance of Shen interacting with the students and parents that Joshua’s Stage serves. 

“From a consultant point of view, for a fellow to be able to see an individual or organization as it stands in real time – good or bad – it's just awesome she was able to do that,” said Levy. 

The goal in gathering this data, Levy says, is to not only share program updates with parents, but also to the Joshua’s Stage team so they can track impact over time and determine what is working and what isn’t. Eventually, they also hope to use this data to help them show their impact and pursue grants for further funding.

“We learned a great deal from the feedback, which will improve the quality of programming,” said Levy. “We’ll have a great story to tell.”

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