Urban High School Students and the Challenge of Access
reviewed by Heather T. Rowan-Kenyon - September 12, 2007
Title: Urban High School Students and the Challenge of Access
Author(s): William Tierney and Julia Colyar (Eds.)
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, New York
ISBN: 0820463264, Pages: 179, Year: 2006
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Urban High School Students and the Challenge of Access, edited by William Tierney and Julia Colyar, uses cultural biography to deeply examine the issue of college access for low-income, urban high school students. This book emerged from a larger study of college preparation programs for low-income youths that promoted college-going in California. Five students who attend high school in some of the poorest areas of Los Angeles allowed the researchers to become a part of their lives for a year through weekly interviews and interactions which were aimed at trying to understand the complexities of the students experiences.
In Chapter One Tierney introduces the reader to the inequities of low-income high schools that are overcrowded and lack resources that many other high schools take for granted. In a school with 577 graduating seniors, only 33 planned to attend a University of California school, 35 will attend a state college, and less than half will attend a community college.
Paz Olivérez sets up the cultural context in Chapter Two. She describes the impoverished areas where many of the students live far below the poverty line, with an average family size of 3.65 persons and an income of $24,000 a year. Approximately 60% are immigrants whose primary language is not English. She goes on to describe the environment of overcrowded schools that are forced to operate on a tracked system (i.e., year-round) in order to accommodate all of the students. These schools have small or weak AP programs, and students involved in these programs often have to attend school off-track in order to gain access to these courses.
In Chapter Three, Tierney begins to introduce the reader to the students who are the focus of this work. He tells the stories of Juan and Mushutu, both immigrant students who are taking very different paths towards college. Mushutu, an Ethiopian immigrant, is a junior in high school with an intense focus on the path to college. He is incredibly self-reliant and continually pushes himself to get a 1400 on the SAT, to take AP classes, and to participate in extra-curricular activities that will improve his chances of getting into a good college. Juan, a senior in high school and an undocumented Mexican immigrant is an example of a diligent student who often goes unrecognized at overcrowded schools because he is neither a star nor a problem at the school. He works to help his family and has the responsibility of helping his brother get to school as his mother reports to work at 4:00 am each day. Juan wants to go to college and is the only member of his family with more than a grammar school education. He accepts the fact that attending a community college is his reality, and is committed to attending in order to have a better life.
In Chapter Four Julia Colyar introduces the reader to Jenny, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico when she was 9 months old. Jenny is a very involved student who is expected to be the first person in her family to attend college. Jenny, like Mushutu, takes a challenging academic schedule filled with AP classes, participates in pre-college programs, and has scored well on the SAT. Jennys family is extremely proud of her, but does not understand the importance of her acceptance to Brown or to Berkeley. Jenny did not visit any of the schools she was accepted to until Colyar took her right before the decision deadline.
Chapter Five moves away from individual stories as Paz Olivérez explores more of the school setting at Esperanza High School where three of the students attend. Esperanza has over 5,000 students who come from 40 countries and speak over 20 languages. The college office at the school is a small room with one staff person. She provides more details from her overview in Chapter 2 concerning the overburdened track counselors who place students in classes, and how the year-round tracks are detrimental for college-going students because they are off-track during one of the following times: application season, FAFSA time, or decision time.
Zoë Corwin then takes the reader back into the lives of the students with her biography of Lily in Chapter Six. Like Jenny, Lily is a bright, involved student who everyone expects will attend college, but she receives little help with the process. Lily didnt take predominately AP classes or participate in a college prep program, but she was recognized by a teacher who saw her promise and invited her into an AP class. In Chapter Seven, Kristan Venegas introduces us to the final participant, Trinity, a Phillipino student who was just rejected from UCLA. Venegas takes us through Trinitys experience attending classes on multiple tracks, her appeal for reconsideration to UCLA, and her decision to attend UC Santa Barbara.
Tierneys conclusion in Chapter Eight examines cultural biographies and policy-making. He recognizes the limitations of cultural biography in that the results are not generalizable to all educational settings and that some may see this as story-telling, but argues that this type of research has an important place in the college access story. These biographies, which focus on the details of a students life as well as the cultural context around him or her, allow the reader to see a vivid snapshot of these five students and their complex lives. This snapshot helps to illustrate the importance of networks in the students livesfrom the strong networks that Lily and Mushutu developed, to Juans weak networks. Tierney recognizes that there are gaps in networks even for the strongest low-income students. He also concludes that families, peers, and counselors are important players in the college-going process for these students.
The book concludes with an afterword by Colyar about the method of cultural biography. She defines cultural biography and describes how important the voice of the participant is. This book is a good primer for cultural biography, especially its theoretical underpinnings, and it would be a strong addition to a qualitative research methods course.
While the authors admit that they did not maintain a professional distance from the students and acted as trusted adults in their lives, they did not fully analyze their major role in these five students path to college. The authors stepped in and provided resources and support for the students, when no other option was available. William walks Juan through the CSU application process and pays his application fee since Juan does not have a credit card or checking account as an undocumented student. Julia takes Jenny to visit Santa Clara, and Zoë works hard to help Lily write her UC personal statement two days before it is due; she also takes her to visit UC Fullerton. One has to wonder if the end result would have been different for these students if the researchers were not a part of the students lives. This further highlights the need for student networks, and that these five students had the added bonus of being connected with a mentor/expert during this important year in the college-going process.
The authors mention this book as a springboard for rethinking educational policy regarding access to college and resources for minority high school students. This idea with concrete recommendations is not fully developed and needs additional attention in order to clearly make a link to policy recommendations. Overall though, this is an engaging book that at times reads like a novel. It will be useful as evidence to support the need for additional structures that promote college access for low-income urban students who aspire to attend college.