March 22, 2004
Peers are an untapped positive influence on Latino
high school students, researcher says
By Jennifer McNulty
The untold story of peer influence among Latino high school students
is a positive one, says UCSC education professor Margaret "Greta"
Contributors to School Connections found that youth of
Mexican descent often lack knowledge about what it takes to get
into college and feel alienated at school.
"Everyone knows peers make a difference, but much of the focus
has been on negative peer influences," said Gibson, coeditor of
the new book School Connections: U.S. Mexican Youth, Peers, and School
Achievement (New York: Teachers College Press, 2004).
"We looked at students of Mexican descent to see how they use
their peers as emotional and academic resources, and how school staff
can help structure supportive peer relationships."
Gibson coedited School Connections with Patricia Gándara,
a professor of education at UC Davis, and Jill Peterson Koyama, a doctoral
student at Teachers College, Columbia University. The book presents
papers based on field research that took place in a variety of high
school and community settings. One chapter looks at the implications
for schooling of gang affiliations, while another examines the value
of peer relationships that resemble family bonds and reinforce a college-going
academic identity. The final chapter, written by Gibson and Gándara,
presents research and policy recommendations.
The research is of critical importance as Latinos emerge as the nation's
largest minority yet suffer from persistently low educational attainment
rates. Latinos remain more likely than non-Latinos to drop out of high
school, and those who graduate are less likely to pursue a four-year
college degree than their classmates.
Contributors to School Connections found that youth of Mexican
descent often lack knowledge about what it takes to get into college,
feel alienated at school, and have teachers who dont understand
their social, cultural, and linguistic backgrounds.
The good news is that supportive and trusting relationships--among
students and with teachers and other adults at school--are powerful
tools that can enhance Latino students sense of belonging and
academic achievement. Schools can do a lot to create and support those
relationships, said Gibson.
Gibson's own research, conducted at a suburban high school in central
California, documents how low-income students of Mexican descent, both
immigrant and U.S. born, support one another on a path to college rather
than relying solely on teachers, more advantaged peers, and other adults
who can provide access to the traditional networks of advancement.
At the school where Gibson worked, youth of Mexican descent often reported
feelings of exclusion that applied to physical spaces, like the central
quad on campus, and also inhibited participation in classes (particularly
advanced-placement courses, where Latino students were a distinct minority),
as well as in extracurricular activities such as sports and clubs.
"A lot of the high school teachers were unaware of how uncomfortable
the kids felt," said Gibson, who is also a professor of anthropology.
For many of these students, particularly those who were English
learners, speaking up in front of fluent English-speaking peers can
be very intimidating. Even fluent English speakers, including
third-generation students, often expressed feelings of not belonging,
High schools need to make significant changes to break down the feelings
of exclusion, said Gibson.
"High school teachers are totally overworked, and they're under
so much pressure these days to raise student achievement that I hesitate
to say it, but they need to take time to build a strong sense of community
in their classrooms, where students learn from one another and feel
safe to make mistakes, said Gibson. Schools have a great
deal of influence over the ways peers interact in classrooms and the
skills and knowledge students can develop by working with one another.
High school sports and clubs also build that sense of community, said
Gibson. Students in the Migrant Student Association at the school where
Gibson worked created a college-going community they described as being
like family, and they had a significantly higher rate of graduation
than other first- and second-generation Mexican-descent students who
were not involved with the group or others like it, she said.
When students build a sense of trust, respect, and mutual support
in these clubs, it carries over into their classrooms, so even if there
are only two or three Mexican-descent students in an advanced class,
they're looking out for each other, said Gibson. Club directors
and coaches need to serve as mentors and advisers, making sure students
know what it takes to get into college and supporting them to stay on
track academically, added Gibson.
Among the policy recommendations outlined in School Connections
Promote school cultures that include a rigorous academic curriculum,
high-quality teaching, and additional academic and social support for
Structure opportunities for ninth graders to build social relationships
with academically supportive peers and adult role models during the
first few months of school, when ninth graders are most vulnerable to
negative peer influences.
Ensure throughout high school that all students belong to peer
groups that support high academic achievement. Such groupings need to
occur in classroom settings, as well as in sports, clubs, and the broader
social life of the high school.
Organize and support opportunities for students to move in and
out of different racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, and skill groups as
part of their daily school routine.
Build teacher and staff awareness of the reasons Mexican-descent
students experience feelings of alienation and of how school structures
and practices contribute to such marginalization.
Embed information about postsecondary opportunities in every
class. This is particularly important for students who lack access to
this information in their home settings.
Provide each Mexican-descent student with mentors who understand
the students life outside of school, value their home language
and culture, and hold high expectations for their academic success.
Incorporate activities of extracurricular sports
and clubs into the school day, and assign teachers to provide supervision
as part of their regular teaching assignments, so all students benefit.
Implement strategies to overcome ethnic and socioeconomic divisions
within schools. In racially divided schools, it may be necessary to
create social and cultural safe spaces that provide students
with the cultural and academic support they need to be successful in
Teachers and administrators will need additional professional training
and restructured school days to implement these policies, and the additional
funding required will pose obstacles in these lean budget times, conceded
Gibson. The challenge is to restructure high schools to build
more of the types of supportive relationships that students need to
succeed, said Gibson.
School Connections was funded in part by a grant from UC's All Campus
Consortium on Research for Diversity (UC ACCORD), which supported a
2001 conference on how peer groups influence the school engagement and
academic achievement of high school students of Mexican descent, and
by a grant from the Spencer Foundation. Gibson hopes the text will be
valuable to educators, policy makers, graduate students in the fields
of anthropology, sociology, psychology, Latin American and Latino studies,
and education, and to those preparing to be teachers.
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