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Teaching in Tensions: Latino Immigrant Youth, Their Teachers, and the Structures of Schooling

by Susan Roberta Katz - 1999

This article examines the tensions inherent in the relationship between Latino immigrant youth and their teachers at a desegregated urban middle school in Northern California, exploring these tensions from both the students' and teachers' perspectives. It is based upon data from a year-long ethnographic study of the school experiences of 8 immigrant students from Central America and Mexico, all of whom had older siblings or close friends involved in neighborhood gangs. It also includes interviews with the students' teachers regarding their perceptions of the students. Significantly, students named teachers' discrimination against them as Latinos as the primary cause of their disengagement from school, refusing to invest in learning from these teachers. At the same time, these teachers felt they were trying their best to do a good job, responding to the school administration's mandate to invest in other students who were considered most likely to keep standardized test scores high. Thus this article explores how teachers' attitudes and practices perceived by students as racist may be actually linked to structural conditions within the school, such as tracking and high teacher turn-over, that preclude caring relationships with students.

This article examines the tensions inherent in the relationship between Latino immigrant youth and their teachers at a desegregated urban middle school in Northern California, exploring these tensions from both the students' and teachers' perspectives. It is based upon data from a year-long ethnographic study of the school experiences of eight immigrant students from Central America and Mexico, all of whom had older siblings or close friends involved in neighborhood gangs. It also includes interviews with the students' teachers regarding their perceptions of the students. Significantly, students named teachers' discrimination against them as Latinos as the primary cause of their disengagement from school, refusing to invest in learning from these teachers. At the same time, these teachers felt they were trying their best to do a good job, responding to the school administration's mandate to invest in other students who were considered most likely to keep standardized test scores high. Thus this article explores how teachers' attitudes and practices perceived by students as racist may be actually linked to structural conditions within the school, such as tracking and high teacher turnover, that preclude caring relationships with students.

Janet Copeland is a Jewish, European American woman who has been a veteran teacher for over 25 years. Currently, she teaches English-as-a-Second Language (ESL) courses at, Coolidge Middle School in the major Northern California metropolis of Bahia.1 Her expertise in ESL curriculum development has won her statewide recognition as a mentor teacher, leading to grant awards for projects integrating art and social studies. One of her most successful programs, "Homeland History," involved immigrant students from all over the world in creating a mural of scenes from their native countries. Many of her ESL students have earned prizes in citywide art contests. Thus she has built a reputation as an excellent teacher.

Ms. Copeland sets high standards for behavior in her classroom because she wants students to get their work done. She closes the classroom door when the bell rings and does not allow late students to enter, unless they come back with permission slips signed by the counselor. Although she has students working in cooperative groups most of the time, her classroom is quiet.

Ms. Copeland stands by her discipline policy as she believes students in such an environment become motivated to improve. She offers the example of Eduardo, a Nicaraguan boy, whom she describes as "very smart." "He's always given indication that he is extremely bright." Eduardo "started off doing really well and then something happened. He started cutting. That's what happened." But when Ms. Copeland started to take points off his grade for cutting, Eduardo turned around his performance and became one of her best students.

Eduardo is doing very well. Extremely. He seems to have gotten kind of his act together. He is doing excellent work. In fact, last weekmy system is I deduct points if they cuteven with, I think he cut once, and he was tardy three or four times, even with all those points taken off, he still got a B.

In contrast, Ms. Copeland makes it clear to students whom she perceives as disruptive and low skilled that she prefers they not attend her class. Such is the case with Julio, a Guatemalan boy, whom Ms. Copeland frequently suspends from her classroom.

He doesn't come. Occasionally, he comes maybe once every other week or so. He doesn't do anything. Except bother people. . . . When Julio is there, it's really different. . . . It's kind of hard to ignore him. He's so in your face. When Julio wants to bother you, you've got to react to him.

Ms. Copeland has different perspectives of Eduardo and Julio. In contrast, their view of her is identical: Ms. Copeland is "prejudiced" (to use Julio's term). Julio finds it ironic that he is constantly admonished by counselors for cutting his classes, yet when he does attend, teachers like Ms. Copeland perpetually tell him to leave the room. Eduardo adds that Ms. Copeland gives preferential treatment to Chinese students in the same class, particularly girls. In fact, he says he hates Ms. Copeland.

Why does Ms. Copeland's own view of her effectiveness with her students so sharply clash with Julio and Eduardo's? One reason is that while Ms. Copeland holds high expectations for the performance and behavior of students in her classroom, the students perceive her act of kicking them cut of class as refusing to help them learn. They interpret her actions as not caring about them. Secondly, racial tension in the school between Asians and Latinos causes Eduardo to identity with Julio in order to build a united front. An act against Julio is an act against all Latinos.

Julio and Eduardo were two of the eight focal students in a year-long ethnography I conducted at Coolidge Middle School in 1992-1993 (Weinberg,2 1994). Of those eight, three (including Julio) dropped out the following year, never making it to middle school graduation. Only two (Eduardo and Elena) stayed in school consistently until twelfth grade. This article documents the Latino students' perceptions of their school experiences before the time most actually did drop out. In addition, it includes data from follow-ups conducted one through four years after the initial study (Katz, 1997). Furthermore, this article examines how teachers' attitudes and practices that the Latino students perceived as racist were linked to structural conditions within the school that went beyond the responsibility of the individual teachers.

In order to contextualize the experiences of the focal students, this article first provides an overview of the school performance of Latino students in U.S. schools. It then presents a theoretical framework for understanding the impact of the teacher-student relationship on student achievement, offers a look at a focal group of Latino students' perspectives and an examination of their teachers' perspectives, and finally concludes with an analysis of the broader institutional constraints that threaten positive teacher-student relationships.



For the first time in U.S. history, Latin American and Caribbean peoples have replaced Europeans as the largest group of immigrants to this country. Census Bureau reports (1996) make the projection that persons of Hispanic origin3 will total more than 31,000 by the year 2000, or about 14% of the national population. At the same time, the school drop-out rate for Hispanics has become the highest among all groups in the United States: 30% for Hispanics, 13% for blacks, and 8% for whites4 in 1994 (Hispanic Dropout Project, 1996).

The reality behind these official statistics is much more complex than a simple percentage. The monolithic designation of "Hispanic" masks differences in national origin, culture, and socioeconomic class (Fashola, Slavin, Calderon, & Duran, 1997; Chavez, 1997). In fact, the prospects for poor Latino youth are even more grim (Mehan, 1997; Valdes, 1997; Fashola et al., 1997; Lockwood, 1996). As Shorris (1992) claims: "No matter what else influences the educational lives of Latino children, class is almost always the determining factor" (p. 216). Official statistics for October 1993 confirm this statement in that drop-out rates for Hispanics, ages 16-24, were dramatically different depending upon income level: 6% for high income, 23.3% for middle income, and 41.3% for low income (National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, 1993). Given the fact that dropping out of high school translates to slimmer pickings in the job market and higher chances for unemployment, these figures have very serious consequences (Mehan, 1997). Too many precious human resources are being lost.

For many years, educators have sought answers as to why Latino youth experience school failure more than other groups in the United States. Generally, they have selected one single factor, such as language or culture, which in isolation cannot resolve the issue (Valdes, 1997; Mehan, 1997). Commonly, the causes identified have put the blame on the victim, pointing to "deficiencies" within Latino culture, family structure, or language background (Valdes, 1997).

However, scholars like Ogbu and Matute-Bianchi (1986) have gone beyond these explanations and put forward a comprehensive theory that attempts a sociohistorical analysis of the Latino experience as immigrants to the United States. These researchers hypothesize that Chicano youth experience academic difficulties because their ancestors were not "voluntary immigrants," but instead became part of the United States through conquest. As a result, Chicanos historically have been exploited, specifically through facing a "job ceiling," which limits the opportunities for economic and social success (p. 111). I would extend this analysis to include other Latinos (e.g., Guatemalans, Nicaraguans, and Salvadorans) who were forced to leave their homelands due to the economic and political hardships from years of civil war and military intervention by the United States. In this case, their immigration can be more accurately described as "involuntary." Accordingly, the school experiences of their children match closely those of Chicanos5 (Weinberg, 1994).

While the above theory has made a significant contribution to addressing the issue, it still does not help to understand the institutional nature of schooling in this country. As Mehan (1997) argues: "Seldom have dropout studies examined in detail the social organization of schools, the meaning that school has for students, and the connection students perceive among schooling, employment and other aspects of their everyday lives" (p. 3). This point raises a very different question than the standard one of "What is it about Latino culture or history that causes disengagement about school?" Instead, it asks: "What is it about U.S. schooling that causes the disengagement of Latino students?"

This question reflects the perspective of this paper. Martinez (1997) argues, and I concur, that we should use the term "push out" instead of "drop out" (p. 13). "Drop out" implies a conscious choice on the part of the students, as if all options were open to them. However, students of color leave school largely because they feel discriminated against, stereotyped, or excluded (Fine, 1991; Oakes, 1985; Rumberger, 1987,1995). The term "push out" puts the responsibility on where it should accurately fall: schools and schooling in the United States. Within that conceptualization, more work needs to be done that closely investigates the role of the teacher-student relationship in that complex process. One example of this kind of work is Herbert Kohl's (1996) essay, "I Won't Learn From You," which depicts how students disengage from interactions with teachers to protect their personal and intellectual integrity from the inequities inherent in those interactions.


This paper examines the centrality of the teacher-student relationship for Latino immigrant students who are marginalized in their schools and the tensions inherent in that relationship. I explore the relationship from both the student's and the teacher's perspective, and thus consider the contradictions inherent in that relationship. I begin with the students' perspective because historically students have rarely been asked their opinions on schooling or teaching (Nieto, 1994), despite the fact that they are the ones educational institutions are supposed to serve. Furthermore, students are even more ignored if they come from marginalized communities in the United States.

Nevertheless, the teacher-student relationship occurs as a dynamic between the two actors. While listening to students describe how they have personally experienced being victims of racial or ethnic discrimination at school, it is easy to respond by wagging our fingers at the teachers and labeling them as racists. But this response does not probe deeply enough into the structural conditions that promote and perpetuate racist attitudes. Exposing and confronting individual racist attitudes is certainly a necessary step toward change. Yet this process must be accompanied by exposing and confronting racist institutions as well (King, 1991; Sleeter, 1993; Delpit, 1995).



The teacher-student relationship, like other social relationships, has the potential to contain social capital. In the context of school, the relationship is productivethat is, it has social capitalif it yields student learning and achievement. Coleman (1988) explains how factors such as obligations, expectations, and trustworthiness of structures are essential to facilitate social capital (S102). In the teacher-student relationship, each actor must have faith that investment in the other will provide benefits. In other words, the teacher devotes time and energy to students who s/he believes will at some point, either immediately or in the future, show progress in learning due to that time and energy. Similarly, a student will work hard for a particular teacher knowing that the effort will produce positive results, e.g., in the form of high grades and school recognition.

A productive teacher-student relationship, based upon mutual respect in which the teacher invests in teaching and the student invests in learning, will inevitably yield positive outcomes for any student. When a student comes from a community which is racially, ethnically or socioeconomically subordinated in U.S. society, that relationship becomes even more critical for the student's academic success (Nieto, 1994). Muller (1998) points out how teachers' expectations are a very important determinant in shaping students' expectations of their own future. Students are highly sensitive to cues that teachers and adults give them about their potential for either success or failure.

Consequently, two essential elements of a productive teacher-student relationship are high expectations mixed with caring. High expectations without caring can result in setting goals that are impossible for the student to reach without adult support and assistance. On the other hand, caring without high expectations can turn dangerously into paternalism in which teachers feel sorry for "underprivileged" youth but never challenge them academically. High expectations and caring in tandem, however, can make a powerful difference in students' lives.


The effect that teachers' expectations can have upon young students is well documented (Rist, 1970; Carew & Lightfoot, 1979). Poor, working class, and youth of color are particularly sensitive to cues from teachers about their future possibilities. Poet Luis Rodriguez (1993) gives examples of both the negative and positive impact that teachers' words had upon his life. When he brought the book American Me (which portrays Chicano life) to his high school English class instead of the required Preludes, by Wordsworth, his teacher admonished him with these words: "Young man, you don't decide the assignments in this class. If you can't participate like the rest of us, I suggest you leave" (p. 139). He did leave, and stopped going to the high school altogether. On the flip side, a former teacher later went to Rodriguez's home to persuade him to stay in high school: "Luis, you've always struck me as an intelligent young man. . . . I'd like to see you back in school. If there's anything I can dowrite a letter, make a phone callperhaps you can return at a level worthy of your gifts" (p. 134). This message of hope and confidence encouraged Rodriguez to eventually go back to school. The teacher's effort made a difference.


In case studies of students from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds, Nieto (1996) isolates teacher caring as a key factor in the students' achievement of success. An encouraging teacher can provide a student with a key link between school and the home community (Romo & Falbo, 1996). Without that link, the inner city school can function as an alienating place, particularly when students do not live in the same neighborhood as the school and when teachers are not from the same cultural groups as the students.

Noddings (1992) advocates for caring to become the bedrock of contemporary education. While to care and be cared for is a fundamental human need, many people experience a lack of caring in today's institutions, especially at school. What is central to Noddings' definition of caring is that it cannot occur in isolation, but involves a "relation," "a connection or encounter between two human beingsa carer and a recipient of care, or cared-for" (p. 15). In Noddings' view, a caring teacher-student relationship is one in which both actors feel mutually "understood, received, respected and recognized" (p. xi). This caring relationship can be facilitated through stability of the faculty and arrangements in which teachers have the same students for more than one year at a time.

Yet, despite the importance of a teacher-student relationship that is caring, one of tension seems to be more the norm. Noguera (1995) acknowledges that most teachers express the sincere desire to care about their students and to teach them successfully. This fact prompts Noguera to ask: "What stands in the way of better relations between teachers and students, and why do fear and distrust characterize those relations, rather than compassion and respect?" (p. 205). Teachers' unfamiliarity with the lives of students outside of school frequently leads to stereotyping. " [Teachers] often fill the knowledge voids with stereotypes based upon what they read or see in the media, or what they pick up indirectly from stories told to them by children" (p. 203).

Delpit (1995) adds that teacher education programs do not counteract these stereotypes because they provide potential teachers with deficit models, "rationales for failure, not visions of success" (p. 178). Caring about students does not mean feeling sorry for them or their life circumstances but encouraging them to transform those circumstances. Caring about students does not mean being easy on them nor giving them artificially inflated high grades. As Manuel Velarde, who works with Latin gang members, states:

Kids like respect. The worst thing you can do to a Latino wannabe or a gang member is to berate their respect. Actually you can be very tough with these kidsin the classroom. If they know that you are fair. They love you, even if they are gang members, they love you. If they know that you are your word. Because the entire centerpiece of these kids is respect. They don't go much for knowledge. You might be very knowledgeable. I know that you might be the greatest teacher in the world, but if you don't gain their trust and respect, you cannot teach them. (Personal communication, November 24, 1993)

Tensions in the Teacher-Student Relationship

Students in school know well that their teachers' fundamental responsibility is to do whatever it takes to teach them. When teachers fall short of that responsibility, students lose respect for them. They take the failure of their teachers personally. The students can sense that perhaps their teachers have given up because they have no faith in the potential of the students to learn and achieve. They lose respect for their teachers precisely because they feel that their teachers have lost respect for them.

However, teachers are equally involved in other social relationships at school, namely peer relationships with their colleagues and hierarchical relationships with the school and district administration. These relationships may also correspond or conflict with establishing positive teacher-student relationships. An example of correspondence would exist when a school administration places great weight upon high test scores and a teacher receives a higher status and glowing evaluations for investing in students who reap those scores. An example of conflict would take place when a school administration places great weight upon high test scores and a teacher has a majority of students who either are exempt from the test because of non- or limited English proficiency. In this case, teacher investment in students does not yield the rewards of praise or advancement by the school administration. Teachers of marginalized students frequently become marginalized themselves (Fine, 1991).

Stanton-Salazar (1997) discusses the challenges of establishing productive teacher-student relationships in institutions that are characterized by inequity and alienation. He argues that Latino and African American students become disengaged in school often because of the obstacles they encounter in trying to build trusting relationships with teachers and school personnel. These obstacles are perhaps experienced at a personal level, but they are, in actuality, institutionalized:

The established social order in schools does not allow the consummation or formalization of long-term committed relations. All relationships remain superficial, transitory, and interwoven with hidden and not-so-hidden forms of hierarchical power and institutionalized inequality. Successful attachments between students and school agents, when they do occur, are achieved by emphasizing the affective and moral qualities of the relationship, and by ignoring the unsavory realities of the institutionalized social order. As mentioned above, such unsavory realities have to do with teacher's [sic] contradictory roles as gatekeepers, implementors of school policies, and self-interested employees, (p. 19)

Stanton-Salazar points out how teachers and Latino/African American students who do create trusting relationships often do so in spite of and in resistance to the institutional constraints. In other words, alienation is the status quo; caring is against the grain.

Going Against the Grain to Build Positive Teacher-Student Relationships

School is supposed to be the site of democracy, the one place where everyone can have an equal opportunity. At least, that is the myth. What is teachers' responsibility when they encounter inequities at their school and, moreover, discover that these inequities are promoted by the administration and are institutionalized? Cochran-Smith (1991) argues that teachers need to take responsibility to go against the grainto work to reform educationbut that they must be trained to do so. In a school noted for inequities based on race (like Coolidge), teachers who try to win approval and recognition from the administration only serve to maintain the status quo, perpetuating institutional racism. Thus teachers regarded by the administration as "good teachers" may nevertheless be perceived by students as racists.

How is it possible that teachers end up interpreting "doing a good job" as practicing racism? What does that fact reveal about our educational system? We must uncover the structural conditions within schools that institutionalize racist attitudes among teachers and breed an antagonistic teacher/student relationship. One of those structural conditions is the evaluation of human worth and intellectual potential based upon scores on standardized tests known to discriminate against certain groups of students. Another is tracking, also based on test scores, which sorts students into rigid and often racially divided hierarchical groups (Oakes, 1985). These are structural conditions that institutionalize racism, subtly and brutally. To not practice racism as a teacher within a school means to challenge and struggle to overcome these conditionsto "teach against the grain" (Cochran-Smith, 1991).


Ms. Copeland was my colleague in the English-as-a-Second Language (ESL) Department at Coolidge Middle School from 1987 to 1992; Julio and Eduardo were also my students for the last two of those years. During my first year of teaching there, I conducted a revealing small-scale ethnographic study of the school's ESL program (Weinberg, 1988). I learned that a large group of Latino students had cut literally hundreds of classes the year before and were about to fail until an African American female counselor and a European American male assistant principal intervened with "tough love." At the end of the year, this counselor transferred to another school and the assistant principal retired.

Subsequently, I noticed that the pattern continued over the years: increasingly more Latino immigrant students were becoming alienated from school, cutting classes, and considering joining gangs in their neighborhood. These were verbally talented, spirited boys and girls who, for the most part, had previously done well in Spanish bilingual elementary school programs. I continually wondered about what forces were operating within school that were pushing these youths out of school. This question haunted me, impelling me to conduct a more intensive, year-long ethnographic study of Latino students' perspectives of schools and gangs (Weinberg, 1994).


One major contradiction between the students and the teachers came from the fact that nearly all the Latino students were bused into Coolidge from the barrio of Las Palmas, a half-hour ride away. Coolidge is located in the quiet, middle-class Asian and European American neighborhood of Park-side, called "the closest thing the city has to a suburban scene" (Levy, 1997). In contrast, Las Palmas has historically been one of the city's most vibrant neighborhoods. Entire streets are filled with colorful murals depicting the history of indigenous people in the Americas. In springtime, the area becomes alive with the world music and dance of the annual Carnaval and Cinco de Mayo parades. But Las Palmas also has a sad side; children there live below the poverty level, as compared to 20% of Latino children in the city overall (1990 census). This intense poverty has also led to the highest rate of gang activity in the city. From 1992 to 1993, 24 gang-related murders, 59 attempted murders, and 30 drive-by shootings occurred in Las Palmas (Byrd, 1993).

Out of a total of 1,400 students at Coolidge, about 1,100 live in Parkside with 270 students bused in from either Las Palmas or Oakdale, a predominantly African American neighborhood, and the remaining 30 students coming from nearby areas. The purpose of the busing is to achieve racial balance, mandated through a federal court order in 1984. As a result, no school-within the district can have more than 40% of any one ethnic group. Being predominantly Asian and European American for many years, Coolidge became a "receiver" school for students from Las Palmas and Oakdale in 1985. But the court-ordered desegregation has looked more like ^segregation. Desegregation will lead to integration only if accompanied by conscious awareness of those relations of inequality and constant struggle to overcome them (Fine et al., 1997). At Coolidge, neither this awareness nor struggle had taken place, and the result was a ^segregated school, divided along racial lines. Table 1 shows the demographic breakdown of the student body as well as the distribution into special programs.

As can be seen in Table 1, membership in special programs at Coolidge was highly skewed by race and ethnicity. The Gifted and Talented Education Program (GATE) was unusually largeone third of the entire student body. Yet 92% of the GATE students were Asian (45%) and European American (49%) with only 1% Latino, 2% African American and 5% other. At the other end, 31% of all the Latino students were in ESL and 6.5% in Special Education; 21% of the African American students were in Special Education. Thus tracking, or ability grouping, at Coolidge was clearly along color lines.


The result was that African American and Latino students were not "integrated" into the school. Slightly less than half (47%) of the students in Special Education programs were African American, and slightly less than half of the students in the ESL program (43%) were Latino, meaning that they were mainstreamed for only one or two periods a day. None of the African American or Latino students were student government leaders; very few participated in after-school activities or sports, partly due to the bus schedule. Furthermore, almost 75% of the students on the daily Dean's List of discipline problems were African American or Latino (Dean's List of Disciplinary Actions, Coolidge Middle School).


Historically, Coolidge has consistently ranked among the top three middle schools in the district due to its standardized test scores. In 1991-1992, scores on the Comprehensive Test of Basic Skills (CTBS) averaged a national percentile of 65, significantly higher than the district average of 55 (Bahia District and School Profiles, 1992-1993). Parents of GATE students consider Coolidge the main "feeder" for Whitman High School, the district's most prestigious academic public high school. Almost all of Whitman's graduates attend college, with the majority entering Ivy League and other outstanding colleges. Its reputation is international, to the extent that many families from Hong Kong immigrate to this school district expressly for their children to attend Whitman. Whitman is the only school in the district with a selective admissions policy, and the number of applicants annually far exceeds the number of openings. Admission is based solely on standardized test scores and grade point average. Thus, parents with aspirations for their children to attend Whitman are attracted to Coolidge because of its reputation for high test scores.

In addition to being one of the highest ranking schools in the district, Coolidge has had the reputation of being one of the most racist. Even a top district administrator in charge of middle schools for the entire district used the term "apartheid" to describe the environment at Coolidge because of the racialization of the huge gap between the groups at the top and those at the bottom (Field notes, Weinberg, 1994). For example, about half of the students in the school in 1991-1992 received standardized test scores above the 75th percentile. More than 90% of those students were Asian or European American. At the other end, nearly one fifth received scores below the 26th percentile; more than 80% of those students were Latino or African American.

This gap was largely due to the deliberate strategy of Mrs. McMann, the Irish American woman who was principal of Coolidge from 1981-1992. Her plan was to maintain the school's high ranking through increasing the test scores at the upper end in order to raise the average, as opposed to trying to bring up those at the bottom end. Mrs. McMann made sure the GATE teachers were preparing the students with "Score High" kits, designed for test practice. During testing periods, the principal put a big emphasis on trying to create ideal testing conditions for the GATE student. In contrast, she told teachers of "at risk" students to encourage them to stay home at those times (Weinberg, 1988). She also gave little support to advisors for "at risk" students whom the district assigned to Coolidge, paid for with federal funds (Weinberg, 1988).

Mrs. McMann's concentration on test scores resulted in a skewed focus on the GATE program overall. The principal favored the GATE students, and ignored the "at risk" students. She overtly expressed the wish that the Las Palmas and Oakdale students weren't even there, as evidenced in notes from a faculty meeting in 1988. She reported to the staff that when the superintendent asked for budget cuts, she recommended he stop the "yellow buses" (the buses bringing students from Las Palmas and Oakdale) going to Coolidge (Field notes, Weinberg, 1988).

Following in her footsteps, the principal who replaced Mrs. McMann in 1992 made a similar statement at a faculty meeting on October 15, 1992. He announced that families who resided near Coolidge were beginning to perceive the school as unsafe, noting that it was the students who were bused in that created the perception. "He said it's not their fault, but they are just using the survival skills they've learned in their neighborhood" (Field notes, Weinberg, 1994). Clearly, the tradition at Coolidge was to regard the students bused inwho happened to be Latino and African Americanas "those kids," the Other, the problem.

Like the student body, teachers of color were also marginalized at Coolidge in programs regarded as low status. During my years at Coolidge from 1987 to 1993, there was only one teacher of color in the GATE program-a Chinese American female math teacher. If there were Asian or Latino teachers, they were generally assigned to the ESL program. If there were African American teachers, they were placed in Special Education or in positions advising "at risk" students.

Even in 1992-1993, when the principal was replaced by an Asian American man, the situation was not much better. The only other Asians were the same GATE math teacher, the sixth grade counselor, the ESL math teacher (Ms. Araujo), and a new Chinese bilingual/ESL teacher (Mr. Yang). The only Latino on the faculty (Mr. Garcia) and the only African American were both in physical education. The Latino students had no viable role model in their academic classes.


This policy particularly impacted the 150 students learning English as a second language, labeled "Limited English Proficient." These students were officially exempt from taking standardized tests if they had resided in the United States for fewer than 30 months. Many of those students still wanted to try taking the test in order to gain practice for subsequent years. But the administration denied their request, worrying that their scores would bring down the school-wide average. Consequently, little concern was shown for the progress of these students, as evidenced by the inequitable distribution of resources in three areas: physical space, scheduling, and teacher turnover.

Physical space.

The physical organization of the ESL program architecturally enforced the segregation of immigrant students. For 11 years after its inception in 1981, the ESL classes were housed in six makeshift bungalows, euphemistically called "the cottages," located a two minute walk away from the main building. The "cottages" were officially condemned by the fire department for poor ventilation and insufficient exits. They had no loudspeaker system, so teachers and students could not hear school announcements. The roofs leaked on rainy days, so teachers had to place buckets on the floor to catch the dripping water; the heating was faulty, so teachers and students both had to wear warm jackets inside. The entire cottage scene prompted a visitor to the school to describe it as "Siberia."

As a result, for years the ESL faculty urged the principal to close the cottages for a multitude of reasons: safety, health, socialization, and language acquisition. How could the students develop their English proficiency when they were physically isolated from native speakers of English? Besides, what kind of welcome did new immigrants receive coming to a U.S. school and being confined to the bungalows? Despite these questions, the principal never budged, continuing a policy of linguistic segregation (Donate et al., 1991). Finally in 1992, the new principal of Coolidge closed the cottages and moved the ESL classes to the basement of the main building, along with the special education department. The main floor was reserved for the GATE program.


The administration organized the master schedule (the school-wide arrangement of class assignments for seven periods per day) to accommodate the needs of GATE students. Counselors made sure that the class schedule for GATE students remained fairly fixed throughout the year, providing stability. In contrast, the schedules of ESL students frequently changed, occasionally due to errors counselors made from not knowing the students and other times to ensure quality for GATE students.

For example, in the beginning of the school year in 1992-1993, 64 students were mistakenly assigned to the newcomer ESL strand of classes. This strand consisted solely of students who had just arrived in the United States and were non-English speaking. To help balance out class sizes, all of the ESL classes had to be readjusted so that each student received a new schedule. Since the start of that year, a GATE teacher with special training in ESL had been assigned to teach one ESL class. Six weeks later in October, the principal wanted this GATE teacher to leave the ESL class so she could serve as a resource teacher for the GATE program. He proposed completely reorganizing all the ESL classes once again, just to accommodate this move. I protested this change, stating in a letter (October 18, 1992) that "[t]eachers develop relationships with the kids, start building continuity, and to disrupt this process is counterproductive" (Field notes, Weinberg, 1994). My viewpoint, however, was not considered.

Teacher turnover.

Teachers in the GATE program viewed their positions at Coolidge as plums; most stayed until retirement. Teachers in the ESL program, on the other hand, frequently came and went. The department did not stay intact for more than one year at a time. A major reason for this turnover was the marginalization of the teachers in the ESL program, regardless of their ethnicity. For years they were physically isolated in the bungalows, or later, the basement. Furthermore, ESL teachers did not meet with other Coolidge faculty members as part of a department, such as social studies or math. Instead they met together as the ESL department, despite the particular subjects they taught. One teacher appropriately described his position in the school as one of "step-child" (Weinberg, 1988). Thus, the situation for the teachers mirrored the segregation that impacted the students.

Overall, this inequitable distribution of resources in favor of the GATE program and opposed to the ESL program resulted in institutionalized racism against Latino immigrant students at Coolidge Middle School. Intertwined with this institutionalized racism was linguistic discrimination. A prejudice against using languages other than English permeated the school. When ESL students entered the halls of the main building speaking their native tongues, teachers yelled at them to "Talk English! You're in America now!" When the ESL teachers lobbied for classes held in students' primary languages, we encountered tremendous resistance from the administration. The environment was English Only. While this linguistic prejudice hurt all the ESL students, the Latinos felt it the most strongly because they were a minority within the school plus outsiders to the neighborhood, unlike the Asians. Thus Latinos experienced extreme discrimination at the school, as can be seen in the section below that documents the students* perceptions.



For the entire academic year of 1992-1993, I intensively observed and interviewed eight Latino studentsfour males and four femaleswho were enrolled in the Grade 7 intermediate-level ESL class. Being in the same cohort, they shared all the same classes and all the same teachers. The students were selected on the basis of several criteria: (1) The students were first- or second-generation immigrants from Central America and Mexico; (2) They had naturally formed well-defined friendship groups within the class; (3) All lived in neighborhoods with high gang activity and had relatives or close friends involved in gangs; (4) All were considered "at risk" at school because of standardized test scores below 26%, grades of D or below, and/or poor attendance. To collect data, I recorded daily field notes of my observations of the students, audiotaped class discussions, conducted focus group interviews, and kept student writing samples throughout the school year.

Spanish was everyone's home language; yet by seventh grade, English had become the dominant language of most of the students. All had participated in Spanish bilingual programs in elementary school, but had no option other than ESL classes at Coolidge. The students were still in the ESL program because they were designated as Limited English Proficient, meaning that they had not yet obtained standardized test scores in both reading and math above the 36th percentile. Table 2 summarizes important information about these students. A particularly revealing pattern shown in Table 2 is the sharp decline in CTBS test scores from Grade 5 (199-1) to Grade 6 (1992) for most of the students.


Table 3 contains information about the teachers of the ESL students. Except for Ms. Copeland and myself, all the ESL teachers were new to Coolidge in 1992-1993; only Ms. Copeland and Mr. Garcia returned to Coolidge in 1993-1994.1 conducted individual interviews with four of the students' teachers: Ms. Copeland, Mr. Garcia, and Ms. Araujo in 1992-1993; Mr. Dylan in 1997. I did not include Ms. Gutman in the interviews because she had personal difficulties unrelated to her teaching job; she left teaching altogether after this one year at Coolidge. Mr. Dylan was the students' teacher in 1991-1992 but not during 1992-1993, the year of the study. I interviewed him in 1997 because he added valuable data on building positive teacher-student relationships.



All of the eight focal students stayed in school throughout the seventh grade, the year of the original study, but three (Julio, Hector, and Veronica) dropped out before the end of eighth grade. Julio sporadically attended an alternative school but was charged one year later with attempted murder in a drive-by shooting; consequently, he was sent to a detention school in Arizona for two years. Olivia, Hector, and Alicia all had babies by their junior year of high school. By senior year of high school, only Eduardo and Elena were at grade level, but Eduardo was barely passing. Most of these students had had good or excellent elementary school records, but they all became increasingly disaffected during Grades 6 through 8. The following section documents the students' own reasons for their growing alienation from school.


The focal students cited teacher discrimination against Latinos as the number one cause of their disengagement from school. Primarily, the students felt that most of their teachers could not see them as individuals beyond stereotyped images of Latinos as criminals: gang members, thieves, or prostitutes. The students expressed the sentiment that no matter how hard they tried, they could not overturn their teachers' negative perceptions.

Perceived as criminals.

The students felt that teachers unfairly blamed them for wrongdoings. For instance, when an item was missing from the classroom, Elena said that their science teacher, Ms. Gutman, looked at the Latinos, announcing: "I know who stole those things." Ruben, from El Salvador, gave another example in which Ms. Araujo accused the Latino students of starting a fire: "Yeah, we were just:. . . I went like this [rubbing his eraser on the desk] with a pen, and it came out with a little smoke, and she thought, "Tire. Oh my God!'"

Furthermore, the students objected that the teachers unjustly associated them with gang violence, before they had ever intended to join a gang. The teachers assumed the students were gang members because of their physical appearance and style of dress. As Alicia commented: "They think that most of the Latin people are in gangs, and they try to put them down. Yeah. And only cause they see us dressed like this, they think, 'Ugh.' I hate people like that."

Alicia angrily described an incident in Ms. Gutman's science class when the girls were not paying attention to her directions. Ms. Gutman responded with the threat that if the girls didn't improve their behavior in school, they'd end up as prostitutes on one of the major streets in Las Palmas. Alicia noted, "She sees some Latin people who are prostitutes, and she's got to go tell us that we're prostitutes." Understandably, this particular incident so infuriated the girls and their parents that they demandedand receiveda written apology from Ms. Gutman.

Condemned to school failure.

Because they lived in the barrio of Las Palmas,, the students sensed that their teachers perceived them as doomed to fail.

Veronica: They prefer the Chinese and the black kids, not the Latin.

Elena: Because we're bad.

Olivia: Just because, you know, . . . Las Palmas.

The students also felt invisible to their teachers. Even though some of the students had good grades in the elementary years, the teachers automatically assumed they would become school dropouts. Even though most of the students were from Central America, the teachers categorized them as Mexicans. The students confirmed what former gang member Luis Rodriguez (1993) wrote: "If you came from the Hills [barrio], you were labeled from the start. . . . Already a thug. . . . It was a jacket I could try to take off, but they kept putting it back on" (p. 84).


The Latinos strongly sensed that teachers preferred Chinese students, not surprising given the high proportion of Chinese students in the GATE program and the privileges accorded to the GATE students. In response, the students spoke in derogatory terms about Chinese students. Eduardo thought that teachers preferred the Chinese students because they "look like nerds." He described the way in which he thought Ms. Araujo, the math teacher, was biased in favor of Chinese students:

Eduardo: She always goes, "Hey, you, Chinamen [his words]. Come here." She never trusts us. Just cause we're Latin. . . . Like when there's a referral, I say, "Can I take it upstairs?" She goes, "No!"

SK And you think that's cause you're Latino?

Eduardo: Cause. . . . Look, every Chinaman gets a chance to do stuff, and not all the Latinos get a chance to do stuff.

Ruben added an example in which he felt that his homeroom teacher, a Chinese woman, only permitted Chinese students to take on school responsibilities:

Ruben: you know, the homeroom teacher [a Chinese woman], I put my hand up to be vice-president. I Went like this [raises arm] and the other kids didn't do nothing.

Alicia noted that "[a] 11 the teachers prefer the Chinese people because they do their work and get straight As." Thus Alicia had an analysis that the teachers' preferential treatment toward Chinese students adhered to the conception of Asians as the "model minority." In contradistinction, the teachers (from the students' perspective) dismissed the Latinos because they misbehaved in the classroom and did not work for high grades. This view fit into the opposite stereotype of Latinos as "lazy, do nothings."

Julio also revealed awareness, and resentment, that spots in gifted programs seemed to be reserved for Asians and European Americans but limited for Latinos. During one class session, their teacher was encouraging all the students to apply for admission to the Academic Talent Development Summer Program held at the University of California, Berkeley. Julio said he wanted to go, but when he looked at the yearbook, he threw it down: "No Latinos. They're all White and Chinese." Looking at the photographs, he was correct.

When I asked the boys in a group interview, "What groups do you see as having power in school?" Hector immediately answered, "The nerds." Julio clarified: "The Chinos [Chinese]." A bit later, in response to the same question, Ruben answered, "Chinese" Julio affirmed, "Fuck yeah."

Therefore, the students had the sense that the world, including school, was structured in a way in which privileged positions at the top were reserved for Asians and European Americans but closed to Latinos. As Ms. Araujo, their math teacher, commented: "The Latinos are put in the balance, and they come out being the lesser." Consequently, the students developed hostility toward Asian students, more so than toward European Americans with whom they had virtually no contact in their ESL classes. The Latino students stereotyped the Chinese students most of all as "nerds," using derogatory language such as "Chinaman," "Chink," and "FOB" to address Chinese students. This dynamic provoked ongoing interethnic conflict between Latinos and Asians, an interesting twist of the more typical antagonism between European Americans and students of color.6


Being Latino was a central part of the students' identity. To them, being Latino did not necessarily mean feeling connected to their Latin American homelands nor speaking Spanish. As Alicia commented: "Me and Veronica actually don't know a lot of Spanish." Instead, being Latino meant choosing Latino friends and standing by other Latinos who experienced discrimination. Feeling as if they had no access to power at school through usual means, the Latino students tried to carve their own space.

For example, Julio formed an informal group called Respect Latin People (RLP), to which all the focal studentsboth male and femaleinitially belonged. But the unity between the boys and girls did not last due to competition between them. As Alicia described the situation:

As soon as we got RLP, the boys wanted to get more than us. They tried to make their own thing. . . .Julio wanted to be more than the girls. That we had the boys too, right? And since the boys saw that Julio got more posse [recruited more members], they started going with Julio.

Since the boys were making moves to form their own group, the girls split off to start LYS [Latin Youngsters]. Although the main bond initially holding group members together was Latino ethnicity, gender rivalry interfered and ripped apart that bond.

To create a sense of belonging, the students developed their own styles of language, literacy, and representation. In their oral language, the students adopted many features of urban street talk. In their written language, they used graffiti-style lettering. All had original nicknames, which they used exclusively in their written communication. These nicknames, which they gave each other, cleverly made fun of distinguishing characteristics. For example, Julio's nickname was "Mini," making fun of his shortness. Alicia's was "Cry Girl," mocking her tendency to whine. Veronica's was "Shy Girl," an ironic twist on her aggressiveness. Both the girls and boys wore oversized T-shirts and sweatshirts, sagging pants, yarn necklaces with crosses. The girls preferred long hair with the top section pulled up high into a rubber band or scrunchy. The boys wore their hair cut very short, with some parts of their head shaved. All of these elements combined to shape their cultural identity, formed in contradistinction to what they perceived as the cultural identity of Asian and European Americansthe dominant group at Coolidge.

The students also tried to distinguish themselves from Asian students (whom they categorized as "nerds") through acting "bad." Olivia, an exemplary student in elementary school, attributed her downslide in middle school to the fact that "[p]eople grow up. They act bad. They're not going to be like those little nerds." Similarly, the girls described in their interview how participation in LYS meant "getting in trouble" at school.

Olivia: Like we say, "Shut up, bitch." Like that.

Elena: We stay out of class. We stay out in the hall.

Veronica: You cut. G-U-T-S. You know how to spell?

Therefore, the Latino students gained a sense of cultural identity by deliberately acting not "like those little nerds"the Chinese students. But their decision to "act bad" in the classroom tested the patience of their teachers, resulting in detentions and suspensions. In fact, the school counselor reported that this one group of 8 students received more than 50% of all the discipline referrals for the entire seventh grade of 450 students (Weinberg, 1994). The teachers' reactions then caused the students to be convinced even more strongly that their teachers did not care about them.

The Latino students' perceptions that their teachers did not care about them clearly had a strong impact upon their academic performance and their futures. Yet all of these teachers were struggling to do the best job possible; all stated that they believed in treating students fairly and equally. Why, then, was there such a sharp clash between their perceptions and those of the students? The next section explores this question.


Teachers' perspectives on the teacher-student relationship at Coolidge clashed with the focal students' perspectives significantly. While the students perceived that their teachers were discriminating against all of them as a single group, the teachers themselves stated in their interviews that they treated the students as distinct individuals. This claim by teachers had two aspects: First, the teachers did not assess all the students in the same way. Consequently, the teachers also tended to invest in the students differentially, primarily based upon their behavior in the classroom. Second, the teachers viewed "peer pressure" among the Latino students as a negative force. As a result, some teachers tried to separate out higher achieving students from the group, usually with unsuccessful results due to the students' desire for cultural identity.


Teachers at Coolidge felt pressed by the increased demands of classroom teaching, being pulled in the many directions of counselor, mediator, disciplinarian, parent liaison, nurse, as well as instructor. Due to these rising pressures, most teachers explicitly talked about the impossibility of reaching all their students. They conserved their energy by investing solely in those students who responded positively towards them and to schooling. Responding positively was characterized by good decorum in the classroom, promptness, consistent attendance, and completion of assignments. Teachers resisted giving extra attention to those 10-20% of their students who habitually were tardy or cut their classes; they didn't want to waste their time. In fact, they preferred that disruptive students not attend their classes, sending them to the office, suspending them or indirectly encouraging them to stay home.

For example, Ms. Copeland mentally placed the students on a classroom behavior hierarchy, assigning them spots based upon how they acted in her class. Among the boys, Eduardo was at the top because "his behavior is rarely a problem. He definitely does his work." Ruben was next because "[h]e is as nice a kid as you could want. He does his work." Then came Hector: "I don't know where Hector is. He cuts a lot. When he comes, he goofs off. He rarely* does anything that he is supposed to. And he bothers other people. He's not as bad as Julio, but he's close." Last was Julio, who elicited sheer exasperation: "He doesn't come. Occasionally, he comes maybe once every other week* or so. He doesn't do anything, except bother people. . . . I keep him way off in a corner."

Ms. Copeland made decisions to invest in teaching only those students at the top of her hierarchy. Not surprisingly, when asked to describe her relationship with the boys, she responded: "With Eduardo and Ruben, I think it's very good. With Hector and Julio, I think it's . . . well it's bad with Hector and it's very bad with Julio. I can't even talk to Julio."

Likewise, Ms. Copeland had differing perceptions of the boys' abilities, which matched their place on the classroom behavior hierarchy. She described Eduardo as "one of the best students in the class," capable of becoming an "A" student, and Ruben as "very smart, but he cuts a lot." In contrast, Ms. Copeland assumed that Julio's academic skills were very low and that she could not make a difference in improving his school performance. She described his social studies project as a "pretty poor excuse" and evaluated his skills as being "so bad. Even drawing, cutting, writing . . . anything."

In reality, Julio and Eduardo had very similar elementary school records in Spanish bilingual programs with grades of mostly Bs. Almost immediately upon entering Coolidge in Grade 6, Julio let his grades drop to almost straight Fs; in contrast, Eduardo maintained Bs until the middle of Grade 7, then slipping to Ds. The major difference between the two was not in academic ability but in their life situation. Julio's family had immigrated from Guatemala to the United States just before Julio's birth. Eduardo's family in Nicaragua, on the other hand, had sent him alone to the United States expressly to get a better education.

Julio's physical education teacher, Mr. Garcia, also assessed Julio's academic skills as low even though he had no evidence for that evaluation. When the interviewer contradicted his view with the information that Julio's past school record was actually quite good, Mr. Garcia dismissed that fact as unimportant. He commented: "Well, how hard is it now to get poor grades in elementary school, when you're still pretty well controlled?" He persisted in a negative perception, adding that "[i]t boils down to whether he wants to commit himself, and focus on being an achiever rather than an underachiever, see? He gets a lot of strokes, he gets a lot of attention from being a cut-up." Both Ms. Copeland and Mr. Garcia selected Julio's misbehavior as the single determinant of his worth as a student. Due to their own necessity for managing a classroom, they could not view Julio as having potential beyond his ability to disrupt.

However, while the focal students sensed that all their teachers were discriminating against them as Latinos, not all the teachers had the same perceptions of the students. Ms. Araujo, a new teacher with an emergency credential, saw the students quite differently than did Ms. Copeland and Mr. Garcia. She even hesitated when asked if she would use the term "at risk" in describing the students:

A part of me wants to say, "yes," and a part of me says, "No, it can't be." You know? No, they're very smart kids, they're good kids. The thing is how they react when the community is around them, when they go outside of school and are involved in gangs. So, in that sense, yes. But them as people that I know, as individuals that I know, they're smart kids. They actually have a sense of what is good and what is bad. That they know. I don't think they are at risk.

Ms. Araujo viewed the students as individuals with unique strengths. For instance, Ms. Araujo described Julio as a leader in the eyes of his peers. "They [students] will listen to him. He's intelligent. . . . He'd probably get an A in interpersonal intelligence." At the same time, she acknowledged his rebelliousness: "He has this aura around him. It's like, Tuck authority.' . . . He's collecting Fs like candies." She was able to separate out Julio's talents from his classroom behavior and was struggling to understand why such a smart boy would perform so poorly at school.

At the same time, Ms. Araujo also felt tremendously challenged in trying to manage the class successfully. As she described a typical class period:

It's almost like tutoring. I can't teach the class as a class. Like when you have all 60 eyes looking at me on the blackboard and taking notes. I can't even do it as a group, or a table. I have to go around and explain it to every single one of them. As long as I canunfortunately, I only have 50 minutes. The first 20-25 minutes, you almost lose it. Everybody gets started with their work in the last 10 minutes. Of course, that's when you have everybody getting to work and then the warning bell rings, and it's like "AAAGH."

When Ms. Araujo did fail to control the class, the Latino students felt she unfairly blamed them. The incident (mentioned earlier by Ruben) when Ms. Araujo accused the boys of starting a fire seriously affected her relationship with them. Her own perception of that situation revealed a great deal about her inner struggle to do her job:

I'm in the middle of a pep talk, and I hear, "Burn smell." "There's something burning!" And I'm thinking, "Oh my God! They're setting the whole school on fire!" Right! Am I going to have to start brushing up my resume now?

You're thinking of your whole career being on the line. I overreacted about it; I got so personal. I started worrying about things like, "You're going to set the school on fire!" So, in that way, I did overreact a lot. I lost it. I totally lost it. I started yelling, "It's referral, referral, referral!" And of course, I started yelling, "What are you going to do? Burn the school!" Because I smelled something burning. And I thought they had a lighter and they were going to use it.

They were creating some sort of smoke, but not with a lighter, or any thing like that. But I gave out referrals and turned them in [to the counseling office]. And they were very upset. They knew that somehow I had just done them an injustice.

Ms. Araujo added that she was torn about honestly admitting her mistake in front of the class: "What? Say that now in front of the other 30 kids?" To save face, she followed through on her disciplinary action. As a result, "their relationship with me overall is not as lovely as with the girls." In the Latino boys' eyes, Ms. Araujo's response was just one more example of how teachers criminalized them.


While Latino students resented being treated as a single group, teachers saw "peer pressure" as a negative force for the Latino students, assuming it would serve to bring down those students who were trying to achieve. When a teacher sensed that a student is heavily influenced by a peer group with a negative attitude towards school, the teacher tended to withdraw energy from that student in the belief that the peer group has more power than the teacher. This process occurred most acutely when the teacher perceived the student as being involved in a gang. Teachers sometimes inaccurately used cultural symbols, such as dress or hair styles, to indicate gang membership.

For instance, Ms. Copeland assumed that the four focal females were gang members, although they actually were not at the time. When asked what were the signs, she responded: "The whole culture, oh, the make-up, the writing style . . .just little things like that. And the fads that they pick up, like the baby bottle. Whatever is the latest fad, they've got to do it." Ms. Copeland believed that the girls were highly influenced by peer pressure, as evidenced by their styles of fashion and handwriting. As she described: "Certainly, if one of them got involved, it would have to be all of them."

For a short time, the girls had adopted a fad of carrying plastic baby bottles filled with water and drinking them in class. This trend seemed to bring out their contradiction of early adolescence; they were trying hard to act like sophisticated young ladies, but inside they were still little girls. The fact that the girls influenced each other greatly bothered Ms. Copeland: "One of them starts giggling, or passing notes, or something like that, and it sets the others off. And they just don' t get back."

While a teacher will decide to not invest in a student viewed as highly susceptible to peer pressure, that same teacher will devote attention to a student trying to disengage from peer pressure in order to succeed in school. In this case, the teacher will feel that he or she might have a greater influence.

Eduardo was under fire to succeed in school by his immediate family in Nicaragua, yet to fail in school by his peers at Coolidge. When asked the question, "How come you did so well in elementary school and then every year your grades got worse?" Eduardo answered, "I don't know. 'Cause of friends." He completed just enough assignments and attended just enough classes to satisfy his teachers, while simultaneously receiving just enough referrals for misbehavior and cutting just enough classes to satisfy his peers. Eduardo learned how to play both systems, receiving the payoffs of passing grades from his teachers and acceptance from his friends.

As a result, Eduardo would occasionally separate from his friends and make an effort to succeed in the classroom. When he did break from his peer group and stopped cutting Ms. Copeland's class, she expressed a sense of victory and praised him as being "one of the best students in the class." Frequently, she moved his seat to be away from Ruben, Hector, and Julio. That made her job easier because then he behaved better, in her view. What she did not consider, though, was how that separation made his own life more difficult. She did not understand how Eduardo was walking a fine line between trying to please his family by making the most of his educational opportunities and trying to please his friends by cutting classes. She did not seriously consider his struggle for cultural identity in the United States.

Teachers at Coolidge Middle School, like most teachers in the United States, were trained and encouraged to value characteristics exemplified in a "successful student." At Coolidge, these characteristics were shaped by the dominant group at school who were perceived as having the most privileges (i.e., the GATE students). These traits included Asian or European American ethnicity, high grades, polite behavior in class, neat dress and hairstyles, use of Standard English without slang in speech, and use of school penmanship in writing. But Julio, Alicia, and the other focal students did not possess these traits, consciously adopting others to give them a distinctive sense of cultural identity. Does that mean that these students should have been discarded? How can teachers in a school such as Coolidge learn to do otherwise?


A teacher at Coolidge who did learn to do otherwise and decided to invest in the focal students was Mr. Dylan, a young Irish American man who was fluent in Spanish from travels throughout Latin America. Mr. Dylan taught the students both language arts and social studies while they were in sixth grade at Coolidge, but was not rehired the following year even though he wanted to return. Instead Mr. Dylan was assigned to a special school for runaway youth where he has remained ever since, building a highly successful program.

Although no reason was ever explicitly stated for his transfer, Mr. Dylan was convinced that the reason was political. He was the sole member of the Principal Selection Committee who did not vote for the acting principal, in his belief that Coolidge needed a total change of administration. Moreover, he was proudly open about being gay, having participated in Bahia's first public legal gay marriage ceremony and having no qualms to admit his sexual preference at school. Instead of alienating the students, Mr. Dylan's openness won them over, convincing them that this was a man who would go out on a limb and stand up for his convictions. Mr. Dylan's honesty transcended any inklings of homophobia the students, being adolescents, might have had initially. As he noted:

The whole thing about asking if I'm gay two, three months in [to] the school [year], completely expecting that I would deny it, or say "It's none of their business," but to handle it as a natural thing that they ask questions, that they get an answer, we move on. That was a crucial time for them to say that "here is somebody that is going to be honest with us."

The students loved Mr. Dylan for who he was as a human being, and because he clearly loved and respected them. Unlike some other teachers who saw the focal students as future gangsters, Mr. Dylan saw them as potential leaders. He described the students in this way:

What I remember specifically about that group was the way they would enter the room . . . that their personalities were strong and I think that they kind of created an environment in which it was okay to be, it was okay to laugh, it was okay to joke, it was okay to talk, it was okay to speak, it was okay to be alive in the classroom. And they were supportive of me as a teacher in the classroom, that they wanted to be respectful of me and they wanted other students to be respectful of me. To give respect to them, we traded a situation in which they would create boundaries in the classroom for me. . . . I let them have the role of leaders of the class. By giving them that role, I think the class went smoothly because I didn't have to tell people to quiet down. If I asked for people's attention, they would chime in and quiet people down.

Instead of treating the students as discipline problems and forcing them to leave the classroom, Mr. Dylan welcomed their presence, even relying on them as classroom managers.

The Latino students who felt marginalized at Coolidge could look to Mr. Dylan and see a human being who also was marginalizednot only at school but also in the dominant society. Personally he did not conform to the mainstream definition of "success," nor did he hold his students to that definition. But when they looked to him, they did not see a bitter or self-pitying victim; they saw a courageous man. His relationship with the focal students was based on mutual trust; he invested in teaching them, the students invested in learning from him.


Yet Mr. Dylan was not rehired at Coolidge. Despite all the research and common wisdom about the importance of caring for students, schooling as an institution seems to only discourage its existence. As Stanton-Salazar (1997) was cited earlier in this paper, "The established social order in schools does not allow the consummation or formalization of long-term committed relations. All relationships remain superficial, transitory, and interwoven with hidden-and-not-so-hidden forms of hierarchical power and institutionalized inequality" (p. 19). Mutually caring teacher-student relationships, such as those established between Mr. Dylan and the focal students, cannot be nurtured due to structural conditions that become part of the ongoing life of the institution.


A foremost example of such a structural condition is tracking, or the practice -of sorting on the basis of achievement or ability. Standardized test scores serve as the device to accomplish this sorting (Oakes, 1985). Tracking was at the heart of inequity at Coolidge Middle School, seriously impacting the way teachers viewed and treated students. As described earlier, tracking was coupled with institutional racism in the way that the higher echelons seemed reserved for European Americans and Asians, with Latinos and African Americans relegated to the bottom. Moreover, tracking served to perpetuate individual attitudes of prejudice against students from neighborhoods like Las Palmas and Oakdale. All in all, those who benefited the least were students such as the eight focal Latinos, relegated to the bottom with the dual labels of "Limited English Proficient" and "at risk," labels which are determined by low standardized test scores.

In this context, teachers at Coolidge viewed the focal students as very low priorities for investment. Not only were these students in the ESL program, but also they were considered "at risk" due to having standardized test scores below the 26th percentile, grades of Ds and Fs, and siblings or close friends involved in gangs. Teachers had been given the strong message: invest in the students who test well for they provide the greatest payoff. Consequently, veteran teachers like Ms. Copeland put more energy into students other than the eight focal Latinos. These teachers had learned that standardized test scores are the most powerful measure of not only student learning but also teacher performance and school reputation. In fact, in certain urban school districts like Bahia, entire faculties have been fired because their students' test scores remained low for years on end. Quantitative measures alone are often used to evaluate the success or failure of a school and its teachers.


Another structural condition at Coolidge that created an obstacle toward building positive teacher-student relationships was teacher turnover. Interestingly, the average rate of teacher turnover at Coolidge was low (18%) compared to the district average (24%; Bahia District Profiles, 1991-1992). As with standardized test scores, the very low rate of teacher turnover overall offset the very high rate in the ESL program (nearly 75%). In 1992-1993, three ESL teachers were hired without full credentials, two (Ms. Gutman, Mr. Yang) on the day before school started and one in October (Ms. Araujo). Ms. Araujo, for example, had not yet completed student teaching. She was hired for her fluency in Tagalog (not a common language among the students), but she lacked training in classroom management and other skills, resulting in the fire incident when she could not control the class. Being new, unprepared, and overwhelmed, Ms. Araujo left teaching after that one year. Thus her lack of preparation impeded her ability to form mutually respectful relationships with die students.

High teacher turnover impacts upon caring in that, as Noddings (1992) describes, caring requires "continuity of people" (p. 68). Students need to know their teachers are going to be around, if they are going to invest in learning from them.


The purpose of this article was to explore what role the teacher-student relationship plays in the alienation of Latino youth from school in the United States. The bottom line is not that positive teacher-student relationships "feel" better, but that they facilitate learning. As McDermott states, "trusting relations are framed by the contexts in which people are asked to relate, and where trusting relations occur, learning is a possibility" (p. 199). Inversely, if trusting relations cannot occur, learning will be impeded. I have attempted to demonstrate how the contexts of Coolidge Middle School shaped the attitudes and practices of the teachers of the focal Latino students, and how these attitudes and practices led to the students' perception of racism against them as Latinos.

Coolidge Middle Schoolwith its newly arrived immigrant students in the bungalows and its special education students in the basementmay appear to be an extreme example. But it is far too typical a school in the United States.7 The structural factors of tracking, resegregation, English-only curriculum, and reliance upon standardized test scores along with high teacher turnover in all but the GATE programs together contributed to an environment that greatly limited the Latino students' opportunities for success. They also discouraged the establishment of productive teacher-student relationships.

What makes an excellent school? Coolidge Middle School consistently ranks among the top three schools in the district for its standardized test scores. What makes an excellent teacher? Ms. Copeland won a competition to become a mentor teacher in the State of California because of her innovative curriculum projects. The answers to these questions depend upon one's point of view. If we always evaluate from the perspective of those at the top, we are always going to be blind to the experiences of those at the bottom.

Research for this article began during the 1995 Summer Institute at the Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences, supported by the Spencer Foundation, on Linking Educational Research to Policy and Practice. I thank Professors Carol H. Weiss and Martin Rein, codirectors of the Summer Institute, for their initial mentorship, and Professors Chandra Mutter and L, Janelle Dance, fellow participants, for their ongoing collaboration and feedback on this project.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 100 Number 4, 1999, p. 809-840
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10343, Date Accessed: 1/19/2022 2:29:21 PM

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About the Author
  • Susan Katz
    University of San Francisco
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    Susan Roberta Katz is assistant professor and chairperson of the Teacher Education Department in the School of Education at the University of San Francisco. Her research study from which the data for this article are drawn won the National Association of Bilingual Education (NABE) Outstanding Dissertation Award for 1996.
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