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Up Where We Belong: Helping African American and Latino Students Rise in School and in Life

reviewed by Kay McDuffie - July 31, 2007

coverTitle: Up Where We Belong: Helping African American and Latino Students Rise in School and in Life
Author(s): Gail L. Thompson
Publisher: Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco
ISBN: 0787995975 , Pages: 352, Year: 2007
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Thompson examines some of the reasons a significant number of African American and Latino students’ academic and social experiences place them on the negative side of the Achievement Gap. Thompson presents the results from a case study that was conducted with the African American, Latino, and White students who attend American High School (pseudonym). Thompson identifies the African American and Latino students as America’s “stepchildren” because of the general perception held by a large number of American citizens. The students who participated in this study are representative of not only the student body attending American High School (AHS), but of a large number of students enrolled in America’s public schools. Students from all grade levels and academic tracks were included in the study. The student participants share some of their daily experiences as they interact with the administration, their teachers, and each other. Many of the interactions the students have are negative and could potentially lead to poor student academic and social performance. However, despite the negative mindsets of some of the persons with whom they come in contact and the lack of support to facilitate their academic success, a significant number of the minority participants in this study are intrinsically motivated to succeed. As the study continues and the teachers are interviewed, it becomes apparent that not only is student performance affected by the learning environment, but in many instances the teachers’ ability to impart the knowledge the students are required to possess not only for the present, but also in the future, is affected as well.

Thompson introduces the reader to the book by sharing a personal experience from her high school years. The White teacher who was to prepare Thompson and her classmates for the U.S. Constitution test had such low expectations for them that he did not adequately prepare them to master this assessment. To make sure it did not appear that he had not carried out his duties successfully, he was observed changing the students’ answers so they would pass. As she has reflected upon this incident she wondered if the teacher was incompetent or was it that he believed the poor African American children from southeast San Diego lacked the aptitude to pass the assessment. Thompson relates this teacher-cheating incident to the pressure a significant number of teachers of “America’s Stepchildren” are experiencing because of the required Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) that is a fundamental part of the No Child Left Behind (2001) legislation (NCLB). How many teachers enter America’s classrooms daily with the belief that their students because of their ethnicity or family socioeconomic status are incapable of mastering what is being taught? Thompson’s reflection also raises the issue of the possibility that in far too many instances the least qualified teachers are educating the children, “America’s Stepchildren,” who deserve to be taught by the best and brightest teachers that education programs have to offer.

In the opening chapters of the book, Thompson shares demographic information about the AHS teachers. She also includes the responses of the focus group participants about teacher quality, their beliefs about how the teachers perceived them, and the teachers’ instructional practices. At the end of each chapter of the book Thompson offers recommendations for teachers, parents, policymakers, and administrators that could potentially correct some of the problems of public school education nationwide.

In Chapter Five, Thompson addresses the racial issues that are typically characteristic of a significant number of urban schools where the student body is overwhelmingly African American or Latino. Only 17% of the AHS teachers believed the students’ race or ethnicity had a bearing on their ability to succeed academically. The majority of the student focus group participants’ responses refuted the teachers’ perceptions about this issue. Almost 40% of the African American, Latino, and White students reported experiencing racial prejudice from their teachers. However, a significant number of the student participants revealed they were more likely to experience racial prejudice from their peers. According to the Latino male student participants’ responses, they were more likely to experience racial prejudice from the administrators.


Chapter Six will likely prove extremely relevant for many who will read this book, especially taking into consideration the increased violence within and outside our nation’s schools. For example, during the 2006-2007 school year more than 30 Chicago Public School students have been murdered (Zorn, 2007). This chapter is one that should be read by all teachers, administrators, community leaders, policymakers, and parents. Thompson indicates this chapter was difficult for her to write because it appears the guidelines of the school reform initiatives, as well as the policymakers who implement these guidelines, are not committed to improving the lives of poor or minority students and their families. Thompson also points out that adults have preached about violence, noting that it is not the most appropriate way to resolve problems. However, since Biblical times that is generally how mankind has dealt with conflict. Therefore, it is little wonder that our schools and communities have become battlegrounds.  

Chapter Seven is devoted to gathering data from the African American male student focus group members. Thompson’s data from the focus group members negated several of the stereotypes about African American males dominating the news media and research data available. According to the student participants of Thompson’s African American male focus group, 76% indicated they liked attending school. Among the reasons they enjoyed attending school was the opportunity to socialize. The school environment was likely the safest place for many of these young men to meet with their friends, even though specific information about this opinion did not emerge from the interviews. A significant observation made by the student respondents about the negative statistics and stereotypes that are generally reported about how African American males feel about schooling was that most of the surveys from which data are gathered for most studies are usually based upon the opinions of young African American males who live in areas where there is minimal support and encouragement to achieve “The American Dream.” The respondents believe if the interview process included African American males who are not forced to overcome monumental challenges as they strive to contribute positively to our society, the research data would be vastly different. The majority of the student respondents in Thompson’s study were determined to challenge the stereotypes. However, this goal is typically made more difficult because of the disparity between how males of other ethnic groups and females of all ethnic groups are treated by most teachers and administrators. However, it is worthy of noting that a significantly large number of the African American males rated their teachers as “good.” The data that were gathered from this study can be found in the Appendices.

Thompson’s student male focus group, that included representation from all ethnic groups, provided data that refuted the typical mindsets held by society as it relates to the value that is placed upon schoolwork by most male students. Even though less than half of the African American respondents indicated their schoolwork was important to them, the percentages of White males (44%) and Latino males (39%) were lower. Equally encouraging as it relates to the opinion of the African American male students was the response of 73% of the participants in this subgroup who indicated receiving good grades was important to them. The revelations from these data are interesting when most data from research studies indicate White, and sometimes Latino students are achieving academically in a manner that places them on the positive side of the Achievement Gap, with a large number of African American students remaining on the negative end of the Gap (Education Trust, 2004; Braun, Wang, Jenkins, & Weinbaum, 2006). If there is a correlation between yearning to acquire all of the skills and knowledge available and the degree of academic success a student experiences, the African American male students participating in Thompson’s study will likely contribute to shrinking the current Achievement Gap. It was promising to note that the African American and Latino students agreed that their teachers’ instructional practices prepared them to achieve a high level of mastery on the standardized tests administered to them. The female students from all ethnic groups participating in this study typically experienced minimal disciplinary or academic problems.

Contrary to the statistics reported about student behavior, the majority of the African American male students (60%) attending AHS had never been suspended. Most of the male students who had experienced any type of disciplinary actions stated they usually received only warnings. The African American male students who participated in this study defied another stereotype with only 29% of the respondents indicating their peers would consider them “nerds” if they earned good grades. In some subcultures if you are African American and your goal is to achieve academic excellence, you are considered “acting White.” The largest percentages of male student respondents participating in this study planning to attend college were the African American male students. Data presented by Thompson in this chapter supports the need for society in general, but especially educational personnel who come in contact with poor and minority students, to facilitate their individual educational needs to achieve their goals regardless of their family’s socioeconomic status. At the end of the chapter, Thompson presents an informative summary of the characteristics of the male student respondents. This information will likely prove beneficial to those genuinely committed to reforming our educational system to meet the needs of not only the female, White or Asian student population, but also a significant segment of “America’s Stepchildren,” the African American and Latino male students. The members of this subgroup are typically disproportionately placed in Special Education classes, receive harsher punitive disciplinary actions, or drop out of school in larger numbers. Thompson’s list of characteristics of the male participants (p. 195) should prove beneficial to elementary and secondary school administrators, teachers, and parents as they address these concerns. Additionally, following the same format found in previous chapters, at the end of the chapter Thompson summarizes the needs of ninth grade students, and offers recommendations to administrators, teachers, parents, and policymakers about what they should implement that could potentially reverse the negative direction in which our country’s educational system is headed for African American male students. Thompson’s reference to Kunjufu’s proposal (p. 197) that more male teachers are needed in all grades is significant for teacher education programs, as well as administrators when hiring their staff.

Chapter Eight addresses the students’ assessment of AHS’s physical plant. The majority of the students (all genders and ethnicities) agreed that the physical plant was not an inviting place to receive their instruction. Additionally, the area where the food was prepared and served frequently failed to meet minimal sanitation standards. The lack of sanitary conditions within the cafeteria area is significant for all children, but especially those students for whom the meal they eat at school may be the only nutritious meal they have all day. Therefore, if the students are not eating their meal at school, their physical and mental well-being may be threatened. Several of the student respondents indicated a small segment of the student population was responsible for creating some of the unsanitary conditions not only in the cafeteria area but throughout the entire physical plant. The majority of the respondents believe the administration and janitorial staff did the best they could relative to the upkeep of the physical plant, considering the challenges they faced daily. A small percentage (30%) of the teaching staff felt American High School was among the best of the schools within the district. However, the same percentage of teachers participating in this study indicated they would not enroll their children in the school. This practice is somewhat common among public school teachers in general (Doyle, Diepold, & De Schryver, 2004). Thompson concludes this chapter by reflecting on another one of her high school experiences. Even though many of her high school experiences were similar to those of the respondents to this study, what was different was the sense of family and community created by a large number of the school administrators and teachers. It is for this reason she admonishes educational personnel to “…examine and address their own mental baggage that may impede their progress with any group of students” (p. 199). By making this statement it appears Thompson wants administrators and teachers to realize they may have to provide what is not present within the students’ homes or neighborhoods in which they live, or at least support what is provided therein.

In Part Three of the book (Chapters 9, 10, and 11) Thompson addresses the importance of parental involvement within the school and with their children’s educational activities. Parental involvement is fundamental to reversing the negative mindsets a large number of administrators and teachers avow as one of the reasons many poor or minority students struggle academically. Contrary to a significant body of data that poor or minority parents are not typically actively involved with their children’s school activities or the various parent organizations found in schools, Thompson’s research found that a large number of the AHS parents were actively involved in their children’s educational pursuits. The AHS African American and Latino parents were among the most likely to provide activities outside of school to facilitate their children’s academic interests. The only category of parental support for their children’s academic activities where the African American, Latino, and White parents were not as involved was in taking their children to the library. Asian parents were more supportive of engaging their children in this type of activity. White parents of all of the ethnic groups represented at AHS were more involved in serving on committees, fund-raising activities or volunteering in other capacities within the school. The recommendations that Thompson proposes to the administrators, teachers, parents, and policymakers in these chapters should become an integral part of all school or district improvement plans.

If we are to increase the number of well-educated people who graduate from America’s public schools, those persons committed to school reform are compelled to reverse the trend of a half million Americans who obtained a GED in 1998. This was more than twice the number of Americans (231,000) who received this credential in 1971 (Murnane & Tyler, 2000, May 3). In Chapter Ten Thompson advocates for a curriculum that will prepare “America’s Stepchildren” for postsecondary education. To dispel the mindset that poor or minority children are less likely to aspire to complete high school and pursue their education beyond high school, Thompson shares the stories of Francisco Jimenez and Dr. Ben Carson, as well as her personal experiences while attending high school. Although each story is different in some ways, the common thread that links these life stories together is that the relevance of the curriculum each was exposed to made the difference in not only their lives, but the countless number of people they have touched in their chosen fields.

The information Thompson shares in Chapter Eleven is essential to true school reform coming to fruition. Taking into consideration the mediocre public support for the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, Thompson’s synopsis of the seven lessons learned from her research should be reflected upon for possible implementation. This chapter has a wealth of information especially for educational policymakers. Lesson Four (pp. 275-277) has information that could prove useful in teacher education programs.

I strongly recommend that this book become an integral part of all teacher education programs, as well as professional development sessions held at the school, district, state, and national levels. The appendices contain data that should prove beneficial to those persons who develop curriculum and educational policies. Appendices F and H contain exercises to assist teachers with classroom management issues. Taking into consideration the large number of people entering the field of education who will likely come from backgrounds quite different from their students, the information gathered from the AHS students, teachers, administrators, parents, and policymakers will likely enhance the ability of a larger audience of professional educators to meet the needs of a significant number of “America’s Stepchildren.” The information in this book has the potential to become extremely valuable to pre-service, novice, and veteran educators. The challenges of the 21st Century family structure, the psychological and physical hurdles a large number of students bring to America’s classrooms, as well as the reinstatement of legally sanctioned segregation of America’s public schools, compels us to listen to the students who will be most affected by the policies that are implemented. Thompson has presented information to bring about change using the students’ eyes and voice.


Braun, H. I., Wang, A., Jenkins, F. & Weinbaum, E. (2006). The Black-white achievement gap: Do state policies matter? Education Policy Analysis Archives, 14 (8). Retrieved April 24, 2005, from http://epas.asu.edu/epaa/v14n8.

Doyle, D. P., Diepold, B., & DeSchryver, D. A. (2004, September 7). Where do public school teachers send their children to school? Fwd: Arresting insights in education, Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Retrieved July 10, 2007, from http://thewheelerreport.com/releases/Sept04/Sept7/0907choicesstudy.pdf

Murnane, R. J., & Tyler, J. H. (2000, May 3). The increasing role of the GED in American education. Education Week.  Retrieved July 10, 2007, from http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2000/05/03/34murnane.h19.html?levelId=1000&rale

No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (2002). Retrieved, June 24, 2007, from http://www.ed.gov/nclb/landing.html

Education Trust. (2004, March 17). The educational imperative: What do we know about student achievement? America’s Career Resource Network (ACRN) National Training Conference, Alexandria VA. Retrieved July 10, 2007, from http://www.acrnetwork.org/Documents/cjerald.ppt#594,1

Zorn, E. (2007, June 26). Should we be counting the violent deaths of Chicago Public School students? Chicago Tribune. Retrieved July 4, 2007, from http://blogs.chicagotribune.com/news_columnists_ezorn/2007/06/should-we-be-co.html

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: July 31, 2007
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 14570, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 10:13:16 AM

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About the Author
  • Kay McDuffie
    Indiana Wesleyan University
    E-mail Author
    KAY F WARD MCDUFFIE, Ed. D, is a retired Chicago Public Schools educator. She is currently an Online Facilitator at Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion IN. She facilitates the Curriculum Design class in the Master’s of Education Program. Her research involves the reasons parents enroll their children in private schools (dissertation); the appropriate classroom environment for African American male students; and curriculum materials and strategies to facilitate the academic achievement of urban students. Her presentation at the Coalition for Essential Schools Conference (2002) was entitled, Responsive Teaching for the African American Male: An Ongoing Search. She is the 2nd Vice President of the Chicago State University Chapter of Phi Delta Kappa; a member of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD); and a member of the Illinois State University Chapter of Kappa Delta Pi (International Honor Society).
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