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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" Gibson.

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 don’t 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, said Gibson.

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 are:

• Promote school cultures that include a rigorous academic curriculum, high-quality teaching, and additional academic and social support for students.

• 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 student’s 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 school.

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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