The Promise and Limitations of a College-Going Culture: Toward Cultures of Engaged Learning for Low-SES Latina/o Youth
by Steven Z. Athanases, Betty Achinstein, Marnie Willis Curry & Rodney T. Ogawa — 2016
Background/Context: Literatures on college-going cultures offer patterns and lists of practices that promote schoolwide attention to college-going for nondominant youth, often with organization-level analyses of policies and procedures. Other literature identifies promising practices and challenges to conventional instruction, often examining pedagogical discourse. Seldom are ideas from these two literatures brought together to examine promises and tensions of effectively preparing youth of color for higher education. Our study examined both school and classroom levels to develop such understanding.
Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: The purpose was to learn how high schools committed to reversing historic underrepresentation of low-SES students of color in higher education may leverage two dimensions of schooling to hit this goal: development of a school-wide college-going culture with norms and roles that articulate high expectations and provide extensive supports toward college admissions and academically engaging classroom experiences that include rigorous and meaningful disciplinary challenges, supported by language-rich communication, collaboration, culture, and context. To learn about one school’s complex college-for-all efforts, we asked: How is a college-going culture enacted at the school, and by whom, to support Latina/o students in gaining access to college? What is the nature of academic engagement at the school that may help prepare Latina/o students for college?
Setting: Urban College Academy (UCA) is a public charter high school whose population was 98% Latina/o, 35% English learners, 81% receiving free/reduced price lunch. UCA’s entering students were predominantly two or more years below grade level in reading and computing, according to standardized tests. The school explicitly recruits students who have previously failed a course, and the mission statement identifies “underachieving students” as UCA’s target population. Students are mostly of Mexican origin, with roughly 80% first generation.
Population/Participants/Subjects: We collected data from school leaders, teachers, counselors, parents, and students. At classroom level, we selected six focal teachers (diverse in subject areas, ethnicity/race, and gender). We examined work and perspectives of focal students representative of academic performance and English language proficiency per focal class.
Research Design: We treat UCA as a “critical case,” holding strategic importance to the problem on which the study focuses. Using qualitative methods, a survey, and structured observation scores, we worked to integrate, associate, and counter themes and findings between and across school organization and classroom levels.
Data Collection and Analysis: School-level analysis focused on normative social structures (goals, values, norms, and roles); resource allocations associated with advancing a mission to promote Latina/o students’ academic success and college acceptance; and factors UCA identified as relevant. Drawing on over 40 hours of transcribed interviews with a wide range of participants, we developed themes and triangulated with other data. Classroom observation data were analyzed using CLASS and Standards Performance Continuum protocols, supported by other analyses. Teacher cases used teacher history and reflections on practice; videos, annotated fieldnotes; materials of teaching; and student work samples and focus groups. We found comparisons, contrasts, and tensions across lessons and classes; one case emerges as “a pocket of promise.”
Conclusions/Recommendations: The study reveals a need for ongoing attention to both a college-going culture and instructional interactions. It highlights distinctions between college talk (talk about college) and college-level academic discourse, or socialization versus academic functions of schooling for college access and success. The study uncovers promising instructional interactions, as well as tensions, in engaging low-SES, Latina/o students in academically rigorous work. Results suggest schools supporting low-SES youth of color may need a schoolwide culture of engaged learning that is rigorous, meaningful, and infused throughout school.
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