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School Connectedness for Students in Low-Income Urban High Schools

by Na’ilah Suad Nasir, Amina Jones & Milbrey Wallin McLaughlin - 2011

Background/Context: In this article, we explore school connectedness for students in a high-poverty urban school. Current approaches to measuring connection conflate behavior and attitudinal measures of connection and rarely explore school connection in urban school settings.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: We examine interpersonal (attitudinal) and institutional (behavioral) connection in the context of an urban high school. We ask, How are affective and behavioral dimensions of school connection related to one another for African American students in a high-poverty urban high school? How does affective and behavioral connection and disconnection play out in the school lives of students? And how is it related to the specifics of the school context?

Research Design: We surveyed 120 high school students and collected observational and interview data on a subset of 20 case study students at an urban high school. Surveys, observations, and interviews focused on capturing students’ interpersonal and institutional connection as well as students’ academic achievement and academic identities.

Findings: Data indicate that in this urban school context, dual dimensions of connectedness (interpersonal connection and institutional connection) operated in different ways for students. Specifically, we describe four connectedness quadrants, highlighting both academic outcomes for students in these quadrants and detailing the ways in which interpersonal and institutional connectedness played out in the context of the school. Students who were connected both interpersonally and institutionally had higher grades and graduation rates. Students who were high on institutional connection but low on interpersonal connection fared next best, and students who were institutionally disconnected were worse off on a variety of outcomes. Students’ institutional and interpersonal connection were also deeply tied to aspects of the local school context.

Conclusions/Recommendations: These findings raise important concerns with respect to using traditional connectedness measures in urban school contexts and suggest the use of more nuanced measures of connectedness in future studies. Findings also suggest that schools play an important role in structuring experiences of connection or disconnection for students.

Students connection to school relates significantly to a range of outcomes. Studies in psychology, health, and education feature school connectedness as important to student learning, achievement, and well-being (Furrer & Skinner, 2003; Roeser, Midgley, & Urdan, 1996; Wentzel, 1997). When students feel a sense of connection (also referred to as attachment, membership, bonding, engagement, or belonging), they are more engaged in instructional activities and express greater commitment to school (Libbey, 2004; Nasir, Lee, Roseberry, & Warren, 2006). For example, Hawkins, Guo, Hill, Battin-Pearson, and Abbott (2001) found that an increase in school bonding between Grades 7 and 12 correlated positively with students grade point average (GPA) and negatively with school misbehavior in 12th grade. Further, school bonding in the senior year of high school was positively related to senior year GPA and associated negatively with grade repetition, dropping out, school misbehavior, and suspension/expulsion. Other scholars have noted similar positive effects of connectedness on educational outcomes (Anderman, 2003; Croninger & Lee, 2001; Finn & Rock, 1997; Furrer & Skinner; Klem & Connell, 2004).


Although the findings with respect to the positive effects of school connection are consistent with the literature, studies have operationalized and measured connectedness in different ways. Heather Libbey (2004) provided a useful summary of the various terms, lexicons, tools, and definitions found in the literature on student connection to school. Her review of literature details nine conceptually interrelated terms associated with school connectedness, such as positive orientation to school, school attachment, and school bonding, and arrays the items that researchers have used to measure them. One important distinction in the literature is that between connectedness as particular kinds of behaviors in school, and connectedness as attitudes or feelings. Both ways of operationalizing connectedness are common in the literature.


Some researchers measure connectedness by focusing on student behaviors such as homework completion, bringing supplies to class, tardiness, and discipline referrals (for example, Finn & Voelkl, 1993; Lee & Smith, 1993). For instance, Ryan and Patrick (2001) measured student engagement on two dimensions: self-regulated learning and disruptive behaviors. Self-regulated learning contains items about students awareness or understanding of their schoolwork and whether they check their work. Disruptive behavior, as assessed by teachers reports, consists of questions about the extent to which students disturb class, annoy the teacher, and do not follow directions. Similarly, Finn (1993) used a measure of school engagement that included teacher perceptions of student academic participation and identification with school: Attendance, preparation for class, absences/tardies, teacher report of student withdrawal and lack of compliance, and number of office visits for misbehavior measured academic participation.


Other researchers measure connectedness by employing attitudinal or affective measures: students feelings of belonging, safety, peer and teacher relationships, and commitment to learning (Mouton, Hawkins, McPherson, & Copley, 1996; Smerdon, 2002). For example, to measure school attachment, Moody and Bearman (1998) used a three-item scale termed school attachment. The scale includes the degree to which students feel close to people at school, are happy to be at school, and feel like a part of school. Goodenow (1993a) developed the Psychological Sense of Membership survey to measure school membership based on Wehlagess theory of social membership. Within this theoretical framework, school attachment measured studentteacher relationships, students concern about what others think, and their investment in meeting other peoples expectations.


Some studies employ both attitudinal and behavioral items to examine various conceptions of school connectedness. For example, Markss (2000) study of classroom engagement measured students perceptions of boredom and attentiveness and reported assignment completion. Klem and Connell (2004) developed measures of two forms of engagement: ongoing engagement and reaction to challenge, and behavioral engagement. The former represents students attitudes, feelings, and sense of belonging, and the latter focuses on what students do in schoolattendance, participation in class, and attention to instructional tasks. Karcher (2005) and Karcher and Finn (2005) also took into account both involvement and caring. In summary, although these studies have collected and analyzed both behavioral and attitudinal data, analyses have not considered the ways in which these two aspects of connection might operate separately in specific school contexts.


By and large, connectedness research has rarely focused on high-poverty urban schools that serve African American and Latino students. Thus, we know little about how these measures and definitions of school connectedness operate for students from diverse social and economic backgrounds and school settings. Disconnection in its ultimate formdropping outis most severe for African American, Latino, and poor students. Graduation rates in districts and schools with high minority concentrations remain at crisis-level proportions. Reports by the Urban Institute Education Policy Center and Harvards Civil Rights Project (Swanson, 2003, 2004) found that California graduated an estimated 71% of its high school students in 2002. Estimated graduation rates for minority students for that year were substantially lower: 57% for African Americans, 60% for Latinos, and 52% for Native Americans. In contrast, White students graduated at a rate of 78%. In California, African American and Latino students are three times more likely than White students to attend a high school where graduation is not the norm (i.e., attrition of 40% or more; Losen & Wald, 2005).

Despite the pervasiveness of disconnection in urban schools, African American and Latino youth are underrepresented in the developmental studies that form the core of the school connectedness research. This underrepresentation is not specific to studies of school connectedness. Some have argued that the categories and definitional boundaries established to understand adolescent development have been derived primarily from research based in the experience of White middle-class adolescents (Way, 1998).

The absence of the experiences and perspectives of a diverse range of students in the literature on school connection is also problematic for understanding school connection because the school settings within and through which different populations of youth move differ in fundamental ways. Contrasts between the advantaged suburban high school and its inner-city counterpart are stark on many of the dimensions of school life that matter for connectedness: teacher quality and preparation, academic offerings, books and supplies, extracurricular activities, safety, building maintenance, and even cafeteria fare (Catalano, Berglund, Ryan, Lonczak, & Hawkins, 2004; Darling-Hammond, 2001, 2005; Goodenow, 1993b; King, 2005).

Not only are urban schools that serve minority and high-poverty youth less likely to provide conditions that support connectedness, but some aspects of urban schools may affect connection differently than they do in suburban low-poverty schools. For example, research shows that discipline policies affect students sense of school connection. Schools that apply fair and consistent disciplinary policies foster student connection, sense of safety, and ability to focus on academics (Blum, McNeely, & Nonnemaker, 2002; Croninger & Lee, 2001). Yet many urban high schools struggle to ensure student safety in the context of gang violence and drug transactions, and the zero tolerance policies adopted to deal with these threats to student safety often are experienced by students as arbitrary and punitive.


In our view, these challenges with respect to operationalizing and measuring connectedness in high-poverty urban schools raise three critical issues of validity. Eisenhart and Howe (1992) defined validity generally as the trustworthiness of inferences dawn from data (p. 642). In this article, we highlight three key issues that bear on the trustworthiness of the data in current accounts of school connectedness for understanding youth connection and disconnection in high-poverty urban schools.

The first concern has to do with the external validity of both measures and interpretations of findings about connectedness. By external validity, we mean the extent to which we can generalize findings from one study to other populations and contexts. Can we adequately measure and draw conclusions about connectedness in high-poverty settings with current conceptualizations? Do current measures apply equally well to all student populations and all school settings?

The racial and demographic makeup of studies that measure and interpret the meaning of various indicators of connectedness often do not adequately represent students from nondominant groups. For instance, Blum et al. (2002) used data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health to identify ways to increase students connectedness to school. The schools in their sample were primarily suburban (60%), and the racial/ethnic composition of the schools was 14% Black and 11% Latino; 75% of the students came from two-parent families. McNeely et al. reported that the average level of school connectedness in all schools is 3.64 on a scale of 1 to 5, indicating that most students in most schools feel quite attached to school (p. 144), and linked evidence of positive school connectedness with school characteristics such as positive classroom management, tolerant discipline policies, participation in extracurricular activities, and small school size.

These findings are at odds with other evidence about high school students engagement. For example, Klem and Connell (2004) drew on their research and that of others to write that by high school, as many as 40%60% of students become chronically disengaged from school (p. 263). Existing research on school connectedness may generalize to the typical American high school but may be limited in providing insight about factors affecting school connection for students of color in urban high schools, where connection and disconnection may look quite different than in a suburban or high-resourced school.

Second, potential differences in the nature of connection and disconnection in urban schools may raise issues of analytical conflation between students school-related attitudes and behaviors. As we have noted, although research has established that school connection is positively related to achievement and engagement, prior research has not examined the ways that attitudes and behaviors with respect to connection may operate differently in different settings. However, there is some evidence that attitudes and behaviors may not be aligned. For example, students in secondary schools with high levels of academic press often say that they are not engaged in their classes; they take an instrumental view of their coursework in order to maintain a high GPA and boost their college admission prospects (Pope, 2001; Sedlak, Wheeler, Pullin, & Cusick, 1996). Conversely, research has shown that African American students in urban settings often endorse achievement ideology, yet do not exhibit achievement-related behaviors (Carter, 2005; Mickelson, 1990). These findings support the idea that behaviors and attitudes about school may not always be aligned and thus may operate quite differently.

Third, both affective and behavioral measures of connectedness raise questions of predictive validitythat is, the extent to which findings from a study have fidelity for a future time point. Measures typically provide global appraisals of students attitudes and behaviors in and about school, that is, students are asked about school in general. Such measures do not capture the diverse places and spaces within a school where a student within the course of a school day may experience a range in levels of connection and disconnection. For example, a high school junior we came to know experienced the stark contrasts of a social studies class, where his teacher thought him academically weak and without promise, and his English class, where he was praised as a gifted writer and encouraged to take on more difficult work (McLaughlin & Talbert, 2001; Phelan, Yu, & Davidson, 1994). Measures of these student perceptions on average mask variation of experience within the school context and so offer limited assistance as a guide to policy.

Also an issue of predictive validity, these measures provide static assessments of students connection to school and cannot capture the dynamic nature of students interactions with school, which might change significantly over time. In some ways, the problems of global appraisals and static assessments speak to the limitations of surveys as research tools (Miles & Huberman, 1994).

In the study described in this article, we investigated the meaning of school connection for high-poverty African American students attending a comprehensive urban high school. We undertook a multimethod 2-year study of the nature of connection expressed by studentsboth as attitude and behaviorand focused on the personal and institutional characteristics that supported or frayed connection to school. We attended to the concerns raised in the preceding paragraphs about the measurement and interpretation of connectedness: the student and setting characteristics particular to a high-poverty urban high school; the possible conflation of affective and behavioral measures of connection; and the validity of global assessments.

Our work focused on the following questions:


How are affective and behavioral dimensions of school connection related to one another for African American students in a high-poverty urban high school?


How does affective and behavioral connection and disconnection play out in the school lives of students? And how is it related to the specifics of the school context?


Our research assumes that school connection is always an interaction between the individual and his or her school and broader social context. This assumption is consistent with both ecological and sociocultural perspectives on development (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, 1993; Cole, 1996; Lerner, 1991; Rogoff, 2003; Saxe, 1991; Spencer, 2006). Ecological theory argues that development cannot be understood without a deep consideration of the multiple layers of context surrounding the developing individual, including families, schools, communities, and society writ large (Bronfenbrenner, 1979, 1993; Spencer). Sociocultural theory has a similar premise with respect to the critical nature of the social and cultural context, and focuses on the local practices and activities communities organize in which individuals participate in a variety of ways (Cole; Nasir & Hand, 2006). Sociocultural analyses highlight both the organization of local activities, and the nature of the social interactions and opportunities for engagement within them. Central to both of these theoretical frames is the idea that the context offers affordances and constraints for particular kinds of development. Sociocultural and ecological theory inform our work, as we highlight the contextual nature of connectedness, and the ways that experiences of connection are organized for students in the local practices of an urban high school.

More specifically, in this article, we are concerned with the ways in which processes that we have viewed as individual processes are deeply linked to social, cultural, and institutional processes. Thus, we highlight the ways in which experiences of connection and disconnection are socially and culturally organized for youth, and how the institution (through making available particular cultural practices to particular students) differentially structures access to different kinds of connection.


Our study was a multimethod 2-year study of students connection to school and the significance of connection for their pathways through high school. Following, we describe the study site, the participants, methods, and data analysis procedures.


The site for the study was a predominantly African American urban high school located in a large Northern California city. Jackson High School is located in East Baysville, a high-poverty neighborhood of a large Northern California city.1 At the time of our study, almost 20,000 people lived in East Baysville: The population was 64% African Americans, 16% Latinos, and 9% Asian Pacific Islanders. Income levels in the neighborhood were the lowest in the county, and the teen birth rate was almost twice that of the county. Almost half (45%) of East Baysville residents aged 25 years and older did not have a high school degree.

Jackson High was one of the five traditional comprehensive high schools in the Baysville Unified School District. The school has struggled with chronic absenteeism and with difficulties in getting students to attend classes once they arrived at school. Although the building was constructed to serve 2,000 students, the school had fewer than 700 students officially enrolled, 80% of whom were African American. Faculty and staff estimated that approximately 500 students were present on an average school day. Lax norms with respect to attendance had a long history at Jackson (they are even mentioned in an autobiography of a political figure who attended Jackson in the 1960s). Large numbers of students regularly hung out in hallways, the gym, and other school spaces during class time instead of attending their classes. This norm with respect to attendance was something that school administration desired to change (and some felt that attendance had improved in recent years). However, poor attendance was proving to be a difficult tradition to shift.

The school also had a long history of poor academic performance and struggled to improve academic achievement in the face of an alarmingly high dropout rate and test scores that were among the lowest in the state. In June 2005, Jackson High graduated 33% of those students who matriculated as ninth graders in 2001. This context, typical of many large urban high schools, provides a complex setting within which to examine students connection to school.

Students family and neighborhood contexts are another distinguishing feature for this adolescent population. Not all sources of disconnection for Jackson High students were school based. Students were also negotiating neighborhoods where drug use, drug selling, and prostitution were common and visible. Further, a high proportion of Jackson students had nonconventional family situations; some lived in group homes, and some had parents who were incarcerated. These circumstances present students with additional disconnecting experiences to negotiate in addition to those they encounter at Jackson High.


To understand connection and disconnection at Jackson, our research combined focus groups, observations and interviews of case study students, teacher interviews, and survey methods.

Focus Groups

Our initial challenge in beginning our work at Jackson as a research team was how to build relationships with students and ensure that our perspective on connectedness at Jackson was grounded in student experiences and reflections. To accomplish this, we began our work with ongoing focus groups. These groups met weekly for nine sessions each in the fall and spring of Year 1, with two groups of students selected with the assistance of teachers and the guidance counselor: One group of students was identified as relatively connected, and the other group was seen as relatively disconnected.2

Participants. The connected group consisted of 11 African American students, 6 males and 5 females. The disconnected group consisted of 9 participants, 8 African American and 1 Asian, with 4 males and 5 females.3 Participants ranged between 10th and 12th grade, with the majority of the students in the 11th grade.

Methods. Each of the two focus groups met once a week for 9. The structure of the focus groups was informal. Students worked in groups on various tasks designed to elicit students perceptions of their school and community environments. For instance, one task involved students taking pictures of positive and negative spaces in their school, then creating a poster board and presenting the pictures on their board to the whole group. We saw these focus groups as way both to get to know students and to get them talking and sharing about their experiences in school as well as their experiences negotiating transitions from home to school. The sessions were audiotaped and transcribed. We also took field notes of the sessions in general, on the participation of particular students, and on our observations in the school more generally. We also collected and analyzed academic performance and attendance records for the 20 focus group participants.

Case Studies

Beginning at the end of Year 1 and extending into Year 2, we conducted in-depth case studies of 7 students, which involved shadowing of students, informal interviews, and collection of student data. Out of the 7 case study students, 6 were drawn from our focus group participants. The other student we came to know as we spent time in the school as a part of our general observations and as we had informal conversations with teachers and students. Students were chosen for inclusion as case study students by their willingness to be shadowed and to represent a range of academic success and connection levels.

Participants. Our case study students consisted of 7 students, all African American. Three of the students were considered disconnected by teachers and counselors (2 males and 1 female). Four students were considered connected by teachers and counselors (2 males and 2 females). One of these connected students was connected in Year 1 but became disconnected by Year 2 of the study. All students were in the 10th or 11th grade in Year 1.

Method. We accompanied students to classes and observed their interactions during class time, lunch time, and in passing through the halls between classes, including activities that sometimes violated school policy. We shadowed each student for at least 8 full days, resulting in at least 56 hours of observations for each case study student, in addition to observations of the same students in focus groups. Case study students participated in informal interviews on several occasions. They were asked to reflect on their class attendance behaviors, the importance of school to their sense of self, relationships with teachers, safety, and instructional practices. These interviews were audiotaped and transcribed. Academic performance and attendance records were collected and analyzed for all case study students.

Teacher Interviews

In Year 2, we spoke with teachers and staff about their perceptions of connection and disconnection among the student body, in addition to broader issues involving the school context.

Participants. We interviewed 8 faculty members and 5 other members of the school staff, including the attendance coordinator and the librarian. This was a convenience sample of teachers who were willing to be interviewed. Some, but not all, of these teachers were the teachers of case study students.

Method. These 30- to 55-minute interviews focused on school climate, counseling, instruction, attendance, security, and organization. We asked specific questions about instructional practices, the schools response to truancy, and the development of personal relationships with students. At times, teachers and staff referred to specific students to illustrate points they were making. The interviews were audiotaped and transcribed.


We conducted our survey in the spring of Year 2 in order to capture patterns of connection and disconnection in broad strokes, across a wider range of students.

Participants. We surveyed 120 students: 31% were 9th graders, 18% were 10th graders, 29% were 11th graders, and 22% were 12th graders. Gender was balanced: 49.5% were male and 50.5% were female. Racially, the sample was 66% African American, 12% Asian, 9% mixed, and 8% Latino. This sample was fairly representative of the school population.

Method. Our survey questionnaire consisted of five main scales: interpersonal connection, institutional connection, and academic identity, and two scales for students racial identities (see the appendix for the items that made up the scales and their origin). We also asked questions about students perception of their school environment, their personal and academic background, and school achievement.

We constructed the connection scales4 by drawing on existing measures of school connection and school bonding where appropriate (Brown & Evans, 2002; Eccles, Early, Fraiser, Belansky, & McCarthy, 1997; Jenkins, 1997; Resnick et al., 1997) and created our own items to capture aspects of connection and students experiences that we felt were missing, given our emerging qualitative findings.

We created the academic identity scale by drawing on prior research. All items had a response scale of 15, with 1 being not at all and 5 being a lot. Our achievement measure was derived from students answers on three questions with a yes/no response format: if they were on the honor roll, if they were enrolled in any Advanced Placement (AP) classes, and if they had failed a class within the last year. Our achievement measure was a 13 scale, 1 if they had failed a class and were not on the honor roll, 2 if they were on the honor roll and had not failed a class, and 3 if they were on the honor roll, were taking an AP class, and had not failed a class.5

We conducted the survey during one class period, administering the survey in classes, including one physical education class. Because absenteeism was so high, our procedure meant that we oversampled students who were more likely to go to class.


The focus group transcriptions, field notes, and other observational data (including field notes of both general observations and student shadowing) were interpreted qualitatively. Members of the research team (one African American female faculty member, one White female faculty member, and one African American female graduate student) met weekly over the course of the project, along with undergraduate students involved with the project to debrief the weeks activities and to explore emerging findings. These early syntheses and examinations of emerging findings guided later data collection efforts.

One example of our early observational data during our focus groups, leading to subsequent data collection, was that there seemed to be significant overlap between connected and disconnected students socially, but not academically. In other words, although the students in the two focus groups knew each other, and even considered one another friends to some degree, they had very few, if any, classes together. This early observation attuned us to the nature of the different academic spaces to which different groups of students were given access at Jackson.  We attended to this in our shadowing and subsequent observations.

As another example, in our early analysis of the qualitative data, we were struck by the fact that students held multiple conceptions of school connectedness. They spoke about what it meant to be connected to people in school and what it meant to be connected to the mission and goals of the school. The students showed clarity both verbally and through their behavior that one connection did not necessarily assume the other. We also quickly learned that many students who were considered connected by virtue of their relationships with teachers and staff were by another definition disconnected because they seldom attended their classes.

Based on our initial analysis of student focus group and interview data, we conceptualized ideas about school connection into two broad categories: interpersonal connection and institutional connection. Interpersonal connection represented students relationships with teachers and other adults in the school setting. Institutional connection characterized students attitudes and behaviors related to their student role. Based on the qualitative data, we conceptualized students as belonging to one of four possible quadrants, each representing a different profile of connection (see Table 1).

Table 1. Four Quadrants of Connectedness

Institutional Connectedness






Quadrant A

Quadrant C


Quadrant B

Quadrant D

Using these emerging qualitative findings, we constructed our survey to measure interpersonal and institutional connection separately. We included a measure of academic identity, or the extent to which students saw themselves as students and school as important to their lives, in order to examine its relationship to these forms of connection.

Formal data analysis on the qualitative data began in the spring of Year 2. Members of the research team read through all transcripts and field notes, and each conducted open coding (Emerson, Fretz, & Shaw, 1995; Miles & Huberman, 1994) separately. We then met to discuss these initial open codes. We narrowed down the initial list of codes into a set of preliminary codes. We then read through a subset of the data, again separately, applying the preliminary codes. We met again to compare codes and discuss how the codes were working, and points of convergence and disagreement. We conducted the process iteratively, each time refining the codes and discarding codes that did not occur with adequate frequency or on which we could not find agreement. Our final codes centered on three core issues: connection and disconnection (both how these were expressed by students and how the school offered opportunities for them), racial and academic identity, and an aspect of the organization of the school that we came to call the two schools phenomenon.

We also developed cases for each of our case study students. To build the cases, we drew on several data sources, including general and shadowing observations, student and teacher/staff interviews, focus group participation and interactions, and academic and attendance records. In writing these cases, our goal was to both bring together information from multiple data sources and create a portrait of the case study students: This included the nature of their participation and connection in the school setting, the type of teaching and discipline that they encountered at Jackson, their sense of themselves as students and as racial group members, and spaces in the school to which they had access. We also paid particular attention to the messages that were conveyed to students about who they were as students and as members of the school community. We draw from these cases in the second half of this article as we present portraits of connection and disconnection at Jackson.

Throughout our data analysis process, we used several processes to ensure reliability and validity of our data. As we developed our analytical codes and themes, we talked with teachers and students to check our interpretations. These conversations played an important part in our analysis process and pushed us to refine our arguments and ideas. We also worked to ensure that we were triangulating data across a number of sources and paying particular attention when findings from one data source were confirmed by other data sources. Finally, during the coding process, we checked for interrater reliability. When we did not agree on codes, we discussed them until we were in agreement or until we refined the code.

Analysis of the survey data began in Year 2. Data were coded and entered into a data analysis program (SPSS). In addition to the achievement measure described earlier, we created three scales that are used in this article by taking a mean of students’ responses to the items in each scale: institutional connection, interpersonal connection, and academic identity (see the appendix). Each scale was tested for inter-item reliability using Cronbach’s alpha: interpersonal connection (α = .76, n = 107); institutional connection (α = .65, n = 99); and academic identity (α=.73, n = 108). Additionally, a confirmatory factor analysis supported the presence of these three scales.


As we report our findings, we address the two research questions that guided our inquiry. First, we examine the relation between interpersonal (attitudinal) and institutional (behavioral) connection for students, drawing primarily on survey findings. In this section, we present our conceptualization of the four profiles of interpersonal and institutional connection for students. Then, we present qualitative data that bear on the ways in which interpersonal and institutional connection and disconnection play out in the school lives of African American students in the school and the ways in which particular characteristics of the school were related to students experiences of connection and disconnection.


Survey data show that for the students in our study, interpersonal and institutional connection were not correlated with one another, but they both were significantly related to academic identity (see Table 2).6 Further, institutional connection (but not interpersonal connection) was significantly related to reported achievement.

Table 2. Correlations Among Main Study Variables






Type of Connection


I. Interpersonal connection



II. Institutional connection




III. Academic identity





IV. Achievement















N = 101104.

*p < .05. ** p < .01.

The lack of a significant correlation between reported achievement and interpersonal connection was surprising given the prior literature linking attitudinal connection and achievement. Also interesting is that both interpersonal and institutional connection were significantly related to academic identity, which could be conceptualized as a potential precursor to academic achievement, and that academic identity was related to reported achievement. It may be that interpersonally connected students were more likely to see themselves as students, but only with connection to the institution as a whole, and with academics in general, did this affect school performance. The observed relation between institutional connection and reported achievement is logical because reported achievement was measured by students enrollment in AP classes, their appearance on the honor roll, and whether they had recently failed a class. These outcomes are supported by attendance (which was one of the questions in the institutional connection scale).

To examine variation in both institutional and interpersonal connection, we sorted the students in our survey into four groups in line with the four quadrants in Table 1 by splitting students at the median on both interpersonal and institutional connection and creating four groups. We then compared students in each of these four groups on academic identity and reported achievement using analysis of variance (ANOVA) analyses. A one-way ANOVA was used to compare students reported achievement across the four connectedness quadrants, revealing a significant effect for connectedness quadrant (df = 3, f = 2.92, p = .04) on reported student achievement. Post hoc analyses showed that that only students in Quadrant A (high interpersonal connection, high institutional connection) were significantly different from students in Quadrant D (low interpersonal connection, low institutional connection) and that students in Quadrant D were also significantly different from students in Quadrant B (low interpersonal connection, high institutional connection). Another one-way ANOVA was used to compare students academic identity across the four connectedness quadrants and showed a significant effect for connectedness quadrant on academic identity (df = 3, f = 2.89, p = .04). Post hoc analyses showed that only students in Quadrants A and D were significantly different from one another. The means are summarized in Table 3.

Table 3. Achievement and Academic Identity by Quadrant (Survey Data)

Connectedness Quadrant



(range 13)


Academic Identity

(range 15)

Quadrant A

High/high  N = 2830



Quadrant B

Low/high  N = 2427



Quadrant C

High/low  N = 2426



Quadrant D

Low/low  N = 2527



Quadrant A: High interpersonal connection, high institutional connection

Quadrant B: Low interpersonal connection, high institutional connection

Quadrant C: High interpersonal connection, low institutional connection

Quadrant D: Low interpersonal connection, low institutional connection

In addition to using our survey data to examine the relation between interpersonal and institutional connectedness, we also explored this relationship using our qualitative data. Although we did not collect GPA data for our survey participants, we did have detailed academic records for our case study and focus group students. We sorted these students into one of the four quadrants based on what they said and on what we observed about their relationships with teachers and their behaviors in class.

Table 4 confirms the survey findings that students who were high on institutional connection displayed higher academic achievement. Students in Quadrant A had the highest average GPA, and students in Quadrant B had the next highest GPA, a full grade point below students in Quadrant A. Students in Quadrant D had a mean GPA of 1.3, though this number is a bit deceptive because all but one of these students had dropped out or were completely failing by their 12th-grade year. Other performance indicators for the students participating in this study, seen in Table 5, show similar patterns of engagement with school and academic performance.

Table 4. Average GPA by Connectedness Quadrant (Qualitative Data)

Connectedness Quadrant

Grades 912 Average

GPA Range

Grades 912 Mean GPA

Quadrant A

High/high  N = 9



Quadrant B

Low/high  N = 2



Quadrant C

High/low  N = 4



Quadrant D

Low/low  N = 6



Quadrant A: High interpersonal connection, high institutional connection

Quadrant B: Low interpersonal connection, high institutional connection

Quadrant C: High interpersonal connection, low institutional connection

Quadrant D: Low interpersonal connection, low institutional connection

Note. Cumulative GPA includes summer courses, weighted honors courses, and repeat courses.

Table 5. Other Performance Indicators: Attendance, CAHSEE status, Graduation Status, Course Failure



Mean Class







# of failed


Quadrant A

High/high N = 9


7 passed

2 failed

9 yes

1 failed 2

8 failed 0

Quadrant B

Low/high N = 2


2 passed

½ of the exam

2 yes

1 failed 5

1 failed 1

Quadrant C

High/low N = 4


2 not taken

1 passed

1 passed ½ of  the exam

1 yes

3 no

1 failed 3

1 failed 5

1 failed 11

1 failed 22

Quadrant D

Low/low N = 6


5 not taken

1 not passed

3 no

1 yes

2 unknown

1 failed 4

4 failed 9

1 failed 18

Quadrant A: High interpersonal connection, high institutional connection

Quadrant B: Low interpersonal connection, high institutional connection

Quadrant C: High interpersonal connection, low institutional connection

Quadrant D: Low interpersonal connection, low institutional connection

Note. Attendance sampled from randomly selected week, 2/28/05 through 3/11/05 or 2/23/04 through 3/05/04. CAHSEE = California High School Exit Examination.

Table 5 shows that across the board, Quadrant A students are better off academically than students in Quadrants B and C. Faring worst are students in Quadrant D. During a randomly selected week, students in Quadrant A attended, on average, 93% of their classes, and students in Quadrant C attended 87% of their classes. Students in Quadrant C actually attended fewer of their classes than did Quadrant D students, but the percentage reflects the behavior of one student who only attended 20% of his classes during that week. Further, whereas most students in Quadrants A and B had passed their competency exams, most students in Quadrants C and D had not. Strikingly, whereas all the students in Quadrants A and B graduated with their class, 3 out of 4 students in Quadrant C did not graduate; only one student in Quadrant D graduated with the class. Whereas only one student in Quadrant A had failed classes, all the students in the other quadrants had failed classes, with students in Quadrants C and D failing an average of 11 and 10 classes, respectively. By all measures, students who are institutionally connected fare better than those who are not, and students who are both institutionally and interpersonally connected have better academic outcomes.


Our second research question focused on the ways that connection and disconnection played out in the lives of students as they went about their days at school. We were also concerned with understanding the ways in which the school context had implications for these patterns of connection and disconnection for students. In this section, we draw on qualitative data to offer a finer grained analysis of the school lives of students who are connected or disconnected on each of these dimensions, exploring the nature of the school lives and achievement of students in each of these four quadrants. Here we draw on our observations, shadowing, and focus groups sessions to provide details of student experiences representative of each quadrant.

Quadrant A: High Institutional, High Interpersonal Connection to School: Do you want to go to a real class? Amanda

Students in Quadrant A exhibit high levels of both institutional and interpersonal connection to school. These are students like Amanda. She balances many school commitments throughout the day and often stays at school until late in the evening. She most often wears jeans and a tee shirt, often printed with statements of African American heritage or college logos. She easily and purposefully interfaces with teachers and her peers as she passes through the hall and into various classrooms. She has a pleasant disposition and an academic focus that grants her significant autonomy in designing projects, coordinating school-related activities, and completing special administrative tasks assigned by her teachers. She has a 100% attendance rate; her GPA is 3.8 over the four years, with a 4.0 in her junior year.

Amanda is African American and the youngest of three children. She was raised in a single-parent home, and her mother works full time. She will be the first in her family to attend college. She describes her mother as always encouraging her to remain focused on her academics.

Institutional connection. Amanda is president of the schools national honor society and the student council. She is a committed and accomplished four-year member of the schools track team. She has chosen not to attend class field trips in instances when she has a track meet later in the day that [she does] not want to miss. Amanda is enrolled in multiple AP courses and was ranked first in her class for her junior and senior years. She is an active and confident participant in these classes and offers quick responses to teachers regarding her completion of assignments and the readings. She demonstrates a belief in the purposes of school and connection to the school as an institution. Further, she proactively seeks out these institutional connections in instances in which the physical space is not immediately conducive to teaching and learning. Without hesitation, Amanda has walked out of her poorly equipped and chaotic music class in search of a real class. Amanda later explained that it is her routine to sign into this particular class and then leave in search of a more engaging lesson. On one occasion, after visiting several classes that were showing movies, Amanda settled on an algebra class and then a chemistry class, where the teacher begged her to take AP Chemistry the following term because the majority of other students who will be placed in the class will not be qualified.

Interpersonal connection. As a student council representative, Amanda spends a great deal of her free time in the classroom of her student council advisor, history teacher, and assigned faculty mentor, Ms. Shane. As a caring teacher and confidant, this teacher has provided personal and academic support for Amanda since her freshman year. Ms. Shane, Amanda, and a handful of Amandas friends often eat lunch together in Ms. Shanes classroom and discuss friendships, family, and life choices. In Amandas senior year, Ms. Shane started a girls support group that sponsored weekend activities and celebrated holidays together. Amanda and her peers were actively involved. Ms. Shane closely monitors Amandas academic progress. When asked about Amandas college plans, she replied, You know I got her covered, she is my mentee. Her college applications have been in. During casual conversations, Amanda and her friends discuss their GPAs, what it means to be a first-generation college student, the status of their scholarship applications, and the availability of financial aid.

Amandas pathway through high school affirms prior research on the relationship between connectedness broadly considered and achievement. Her experience at Jackson High shows how attitudes and behaviors associated with positive connection are mutually supportive, especially in this urban school setting. This case illustrates the potential optimal academic outcomes when students like Amanda are both committed to their school and find personal connections to caring adults who actively support them.

Quadrant B: High Institutional Connection, Low Interpersonal Connection: Burden of Talent Talana

Students within Quadrant B demonstrate high institutional connectedness but have few interpersonal connections with staff and peers. Talana, who is quiet and keeps to herself, is typical of this group. At the beginning of her senior year, she spent a lot of her time in the counseling and mental health office. She is short and fuller figured and dresses very casually, often in an oversized sweat suit. During her freshman year of high school, she commuted over an hour from East Baysville to attend a school that was near her mothers workplace. Talana transferred to Jackson High in the middle of her sophomore year, when her mother lost her job. Talana is African American and the third generation in her family to attend Jackson High. She has four younger siblings, two of whom were removed from the home by social services and now live with their biological father. Talana also was removed temporarily from her home during her junior year because of allegations of abuse and neglect.

Institutional connection. Talanas academic career at Jackson High had a rough beginning, but school ranked high in her sense of what is important. She recalls having trouble adjusting to the transfer and getting on pace with many of her classes during the middle of her sophomore year. She told us, [I was] determined to do well. I know that I have to graduate out of high school. Talana is a conscientious student who manages a full course load, including makeup classes from those she did not pass sophomore year, and a job at a local fast food restaurant that takes approximately 20 hours a week after school and on weekends. She is enrolled in basic-level courses (nonhonors), and in a few of them, she is the only senior. She attends all her classes and completes her assignments on time. She is not outspoken in class, but her teachers characterize her as a good student who uses class time to complete her work. During her senior year, Talana became pregnant and gave birth to her son in March. She returned to school two weeks later, following spring break, having missed only five school days, and she graduated in June. Talana participated in a school leadership class during her junior and senior years because she hoped it would provide her with additional skill-building opportunities.

Interpersonal connection. Talana wrote a poem, Burden of Talent, that laments the isolation felt by a boy who is unable to fit in and be appreciated by his peers because of his academic and artistic gifts. By her own reports and the reports of her teachers, Talana is a social isolate. Among her list of friends at school, Talana included three young people who had officially dropped out and another who attended irregularly. When asked if she could have chosen a high school, would it have been Jackson High, she replied, No it wouldnt have been Jackson High. I didnt feel comfortable here that much. I didnt fit in well . . . just the way it is around here. Although Talana attended all but one of the scheduled focus group sessions and participated in the writing activities, she sat in a row by herself and did not did engage with the other students in the open-ended discussions. When asked whom in the faculty she felt close to, she replied, Bob, just Bob, the school-based mental health practitioner. When she became pregnant, he was the only school staff in whom she confided. Talanas relationships with teachers were not close, and her quietness made it possible for teachers to overlook her.

Talanas story illustrates how school connection in institutional or behavioral terms does not necessarily correlate to feelings of school connection. Her case counsels that survey measures that do not separate institutional and interpersonal measures of connection risk misrepresentation of the nature and function of connectedness. Talana could be mislabeled either as unproblematically connected to school (though emotionally she seems to feel quite isolated and alone), she could be mislabeled as disconnected (though she believes in school and is committed to school as a part of her future), or she might even simply score average on both (if the scale included both kinds of measures). Her sporadic achievement may underscore the importance of interpersonal connection for consistent achievement.

Quadrant C: Low Institutional Connection, High Interpersonal Connection to School: Well, I dont go to all my classes Jerri

Students located within Quadrant C demonstrate high interpersonal connectedness and a lack of institutional connection as evidenced by nonattendance in class and lack of preparation for, and participation in, class. Jerri is well liked by other students, and her clique of girlfriends are stylish and chatty. She usually has her T-Mobile Sidekick (a trendy cell phone that also sends text messages) sticking out from the back pocket of her designer apple-bottom jeans. Her quick, dry wit makes her seem more mature and guarded than most of her peers. She is African American and is an only child who lives with her father, within walking distance of the school in East Baysville. Her father is retired, and Jerri often complains to her friends about the generation gap between them.

Institutional connection. Jerri doesnt carry a backpack to school or around the building during the day. She keeps most of her personal belongings underneath the counter in the attendance office, where she spends long segments of the school day. Most students who are enrolled in an independent work experience (IWE) have it for one period a day. IWE was designed to be a noncredit study period during which students can work independently under the supervision of a faculty/staff member or perform selected administrative duties for that staff member. Jerri has two IWE periods, both in the afternoon, during fourth and sixth periods. She uses the time to help in the attendance office and chat with her friends passing through the office, as well as with those who also have an IWE that period. She often cuts her fifth-period class, gym, and spends that time in and around the attendance office as well. From September through April, Jerri had 49 absences and 11 tardy reports for fifth period. During her senior year, Jerri was also enrolled in economics, American government, and English 4 AP, in which she had 30 unverified absences and 29 tardy marks. With a 2.03 academic GPA, Jerri is ranked 50 in her class of 127. When Jerri does attend class, she often arrives unprepared and does not participate. During our observations in her chemistry class during her junior year, she often sat with her head down on her desk. In conversations with the chemistry teacher about her performance, he seemed frustrated and explained, Jerri is smart, but she doesnt come to class and doesnt do her work. When we approached Jerri about participating in the shadowing phase of the study, she reluctantly agreed to participate, stating, Well, I dont go to all my classes. On another occasion, when we passed Jerri in the hallway and questioned her about not being able to find her in ROTC class, she reiterated this point, smiling, waving her hand, and saying, You know I dont go to that class.

Interpersonal connection. Jerri is well connected interpersonally with both classmates and faculty. She spends a great deal of her time socializing with peers, often in the center of the huddle conversing on the bleachers during gym class or in the back of the room during core subject classes. She is not a hall walker; when she skips classes and during free periods, she is most often sitting behind the counter in the front of the attendance office. She is assigned to this office as a student helper for IWE.

Jerri is a very visible student and well known by the faculty. From her post near the main office, she often interfaces with school administrators, who need to locate forms. She is entrusted by guidance counselors, who often request help with processing student paperwork. Jerri shares a close bond with one of the younger administrators, who describes their relationship as similar to a motherdaughter relationship. This administrator often organizes informal female-only discussion circles and weekend enrichment activities for Jerri and the others in her small group of mentees. She reached out to Jerri because she is an only child and lives with her single father who is considerably older. Jerri also felt close to the art teacher and often volunteered to help with organizing supplies and prepping for class. Jerri led a group in creating a special collage gift for her when the teacher retired after more than 20 years at the school.

Jerris most significant teacher/coach relationship is with the attendance coordinator, whom most students call by his first name, Joe. Although her IWE assignment with Joe is officially listed in her course schedule as a single period, Jerri drifts in and out throughout the day to chat with her friends about daily events, relationships, life plans, and even to eat lunch. On several occasions, Joe purchased lunch for Jerri and her friends in the attendance office when they did not have any money. Jerri and her friends often call on Joe for advice or to settle differences of opinion in the middle of very personal conversations. He is caring and committed to helping students resolve both personal and academic problems. Jerri confided in him when she became pregnant, and he counseled her through her decision to end the pregnancy.

On affective measures, then, Jerri would score relatively high, whereas on behavioral measures of connection, she would score low. Typical measures of connectedness would miss the nuance of the nature of Jerris participation in schoolshe is connected to the people, but not to the school as an institution. And although her strong relationship with Joe, the attendance officer, functions in some way as a protective factor in her personal life, given that he counseled her on whether to end her pregnancy, her relatively high level of interpersonal connection translated not at all to her course through Jackson as a student.

Quadrant D: Low Institutional Connection, Low Interpersonal Connection to School: He aint going to college. Counselor

Students in Quadrant D report low levels of both institutional and interpersonal connectedness. John illustrates many of the experiences of these students, most of whom are labeled as at risk for dropping out of school before graduation. John is African American and transferred to Jackson High at the beginning of his third year of high school. He spent the first two years at two different high schools in the area. John was not on schedule to graduate at the end of his third year because he had accumulated only 170 of the 235 credits necessary to qualify. He is a quiet young man, with a well-maintained fade haircut and braces, who often passes through the halls unnoticed. The mental health practitioner at the school recommended that he participate in our study, and he sporadically dropped in on focus groups during the first year.

Institutional connection. John comes to school but attends classes only episodically; he spends much of his time walking through the halls without any books or a backpack. He has more than 20 absences in each of his eight period classes. Yet, in his opinion, Jackson High is a good school with a lot of opportunities for students. He explained how school staff told him that with his GPA, he would be better off going to a junior college for two years and then transferring to a university later on. A year later, John was not on track to graduate and not in a position to apply to junior colleges. He had an academic GPA of 1.23 and was ranked 125 in his class of 130. He had not passed any of the competency examinations, although he did complete a senior project and a service learning project. However, in passing conversation, he continued to ask about college requirements and express a desire to study computers. When we shared this information with a counseling administrator, she replied, He aint going to college. Johns academic record is poor, and his course placement history is haphazard. He failed chemistry both semesters of his junior year but was placed in physics the following year. By April of his senior year, John had 47 unexcused absences for physics class and was failing the course. He was also enrolled in English 4 after having failed English 3 the previous year. John, like Jerri, was assigned two periods of IWE as filler for his schedule. Unlike Jerri, however, John often skips the IWE period.

Interpersonal connection. John does not have a steady group of friends. He is most often seen walking by himself around the school building or on the sidewalk just outside the school. He attended only two of the focus group sessions and did not socialize with the others in the group. He does not participate in any after-school or extracurricular activities. He is not connected with any teachers. In fact, a teacher asked him, Are you in this class? when he arrived tardy to the period one day. John does not have any supportive interpersonal connections at the school, among either adults or peers.

John thus is disconnected by just about any definition of the term. In his case, although conflated measures of connectedness would predict the same outcome, they offer less rich information about how John experiences and negotiates school. Instances of this include how opaque information about his achievement level and requirements for graduation pose a major hurdle for John, and how his class misplacements create impossible demands and discourage his effort despite his desire to graduate.


An important consideration is the extent to which the experiences of disconnection are related to transfer status, given that our case study students for both Quadrants B and D were students who transferred into Jackson after their freshman year. We know that transfer students may be less connected, and the presence of transfer students in the interpersonally disconnected quadrants may problematize the argument we are making about the role of the school context in supporting connection. However, our analyses reveal that John and Talana were the only two transfer students in our sample (thus, the other student in Quadrant B and the other 5 students in Quadrant D were not transfer students). John and Talana did not differ in any significant ways from others in their quadrants. We further explored this with our survey data and found that there was a slightly higher proportion of transfer students in the interpersonally disconnected quadrants (see Table 6).

Table 6. Transfer and Nontransfer Students in Each Quadrant






23 (82%)

5 (18%)

28 (100%)


19 (73%)

7 (27%)

26 (100%)


19 (82%)

4 (17%)

23 (100%)


16 (70%)

7 (30%)

23 (100%)

Quadrant A: High interpersonal connection, high institutional connection

Quadrant B: Low interpersonal connection, high institutional connection

Quadrant C: High interpersonal connection, low institutional connection

Quadrant D: Low interpersonal connection, low institutional connection

However, a one-way ANOVA comparing transfer and nontransfer students on interpersonal connection revealed no significant differences on interpersonal connection (df = 1, f = .42, p = .52). Thus, transfer status was not significantly related to interpersonal connection.


It is critical to note that students institutional and interpersonal connections were related to their experiences in the school setting. In many ways, Jackson High School de facto is two schools: one school being the AP track, and the other being the general track. Students experience a significantly different school contextdifferent supports, opportunities, and relationshipsdepending on their academic assignment. One school context offers students higher than average academic standards, views students as capable and college bound, provides information about college, and incorporates students in the leadership of the school. Another school context provides students with little academic content and no information about college or even their own academic standing and requirements to graduate.

The presence of these two schools was evident in interviews with teachers and school staff. For instance, one staff member described the wide disparity in student pathways at Jackson:

We have actually cornered kids here whove murdered people. Weve had kids here who have gone to MIT. We had kids who left out of here this past year that are attending UC Berkeley . . . I mean the range. Weve had em all, from the extremely dangerous kid up to the extremely positive kid. So its a wide variety of kids that go to this school. The good part about this school is that its small enough and close enough in terms of the community that everybody has a sense of family.

This staff member highlighted the wide diversity in the student population. Another teacher similarly pointed to the population of students at both ends of the achievement continuum. He told us, I think its a polarized community, that theres far too many struggling and not succeeding with a total lack of connection. And then theres the smaller but still relatively significant population of students who are succeeding despite incredible adversity. He further described the discrepancies in instruction for which students have access: Well, I still think our biggest challenge is the experience of young people in the instructional moment. I think its still far too uneven across the school. The unevenness that this teacher referred to indicates the range in instructional practices between teachers. His reference to a polarized community also emphasizes that some students have access to optimal instruction whereas others do not.

Students like Amanda and her Quadrant A colleagues experience careful mentoring, have access to special resources (such as the key to the Senior Room, with its college application materials and computers), and receive intensive coaching on how to apply to college. For example, two of her Quadrant A peers developed close relationships with a school staff member who provided a space for them to store books and work between classes, and gave them access to copiers and a central messaging board. One teacher explicitly made reference to the kinds of access to support for college to which this small subsection of the student population has access. She said,

Theres college assistance in so many ways. But I think its just not a lot of students. . . . So its like the students that go to college are just the superstars and they are just like the kings and queens that have access to a ridiculous amount of stuff. But then you have a large majority of students that are just . . . thats not their focus.

Whereas some students have access to this kind of intense mentoring around college, students such as Jerri and John, found in Quadrants C and D, do not. For them, school is a place where they are largely invisible, where academic work is not demanded and attendance is optional, where they are allowed to fail and have little access to information about college. A staff member said of resources for college for the general school population, We havent had a college nothing on this damn campus for a number of years. We dont have a college counselor. Later in his interview, he lamented the large number of students failing classes: Then we have teachers that 97% of their class gets Fs every report card.

Another teacher described a student who realized how such practices had left him without enough credits to graduate. She related, Well, what I notice is that a lot of kids, when they see their transcripts, they feel like theres no hope. I mean [one young man], hall-walker, white t-shirt, I didnt even know him. He was crying, like crying . . . [saying] Im not in the right grade. This teacher went on to pull the students transcript from the office and continued her conversation with him: Got his transcript, I came out, I said this is the problem. You failed everything. The situation that this teacher described as relatively common is the predicament of many students who attend this second school, who end up behind grade level and unable to graduate.

Interestingly, this teacher used the term hall-walker to describe this young man, alluding to the group of students who hang out in the hallways during class time. Many teachers and staff raised the issue of the large number of students roaming the halls rather than attending classes. For instance, one teacher said, Students would do a whole lot better if they were held to higher standards. And although we talk about holding kids to standards, if we let them be in the hallway, theyre not being held to a standard. Another teacher similarly made reference to students in the hall and roaming around. A staff member elaborated on what he viewed as lenience in the school with respect to attendance. He reported,

Theres no supervision at the back or front gate. Administrators will go to a meeting. They will drive through a crowd of kids at the store, a crowd of kids at the corner, go through the back gate, there might be a dice game going on over there, park, get out of their car and walk to their damn office.

A security guard also reflected on the common practice of teachers permitting students to leave classrooms at will: The teachers let them go. They [the teachers] know that they arent in their class when they should be. These quotes from interviews with adults in the school space make apparent the norm of not attending class for many students in the school.

The particular Jackson High School that a student attended determined the kinds of resources that students were offered, both for learning and for seeing themselves as learners, as well as images of their futures. However, students also managed the same schoolwide environment constraints differently. Connected students like Amanda seemed to focus on making use of the resources that were available, for instance, leaving a poorly taught class to find a class where she would have the opportunity to learn. Institutionally disconnected students are in regular contact with students who bear the greatest brunt of the resource-poor school and so have more direct experience with the structural inefficiencies of the school.


In this article, we have taken up several key issues that bear on understanding the nature of school connectedness for African American students in a high-poverty urban high school. Our research surfaces multiple issues with respect to the external and predictive validity of many school connectedness measures and highlights the importance of capturing the context-rich nature of school connection and disconnection processes.

One key point concerned external validity, and our data support the idea that current research on connectedness in suburban schools may not generalize well to high-poverty urban schools like Jackson. In low-resourced urban schools, the issues of connection and disconnection that students must negotiate are complex and fluid, varying both with the students positionality within the school and with frequent changes in teaching and administrative staff. The configuration of widely experienced disconnecting factors and less widely distributed connecting experiences found at Jackson High School constitute one critical feature of many high-poverty urban comprehensive high schools.

When one considers the school community, the history of the school, and the institutional structures that inform what teachers and students do at Jackson, it becomes apparent that the way in which achievement values and teaching practices are distributed in the school is potentially at play in the lack of relationship between interpersonal connection and achievement. In other words, Jackson, as a small school with a strong sense of community and a long history of poor academic achievement, fosters relationships between teachers and students that are often supportive but not necessarily inclusive of academic press for learning. This may differ from typical teacherstudent relationships in other school contexts where academic press is the norm and where students face less challenging lives outside of school. This may explain the experiences of the Quadrant C students, who had solid, positive relationships with teachers (and even relied on them for support with personal issues) but did not achieve at high levels academically.

A second point focused on analytical conflation between measuring connectedness as attitudes, and measuring connectedness as behaviors. This study highlights significant concerns about measurement and interpretation of school connectedness both generally and for high-poverty urban students. Our findings indicate that interpersonal and institutional connections were not related to one another for Jackson High students.

Specifically, findings indicate that interpersonal and institutional connection measured different aspects of connection that operated differently in the school context and in students lives. These two aspects of connection were not correlated, and students in each of our quadrants experienced different outcomes with respect to achievement and, to a lesser extent, academic identity. The cases offered a rich picture of the lives and different pathways through school for students in each of the four quadrants.

Interestingly, we also found that interpersonal connectedness was not related to school achievement in the survey data. This finding is both counterintuitive and in opposition to some of the literature on teacherstudent relationships. Although we do not have conclusive evidence as to why interpersonal connection was not related to achievement, our qualitative data do offer some potential considerations. Specifically, the school was relatively strong on supporting interpersonal connectionmany described it as a family-like space, a small school where everyone knew each other. However, as we noted, such personal relationships were not accompanied by high academic expectations.

A related issue is why the combination of interpersonal and institutional connections was optimal for the students in our study. We hypothesize that this combination was useful because students were both committed to academics as a means of success and able to find social and psychological support in the school context. Thus, the Quadrant A students were able to both succeed academically and feel psychologically safe and connected in the school setting. These findings raise concerns about the conflation of these measures in the broad literature on school connectedness, and highlight issues of interpretation.

Finally, we have raised issues of predictive validitythat is, the extent to which asking students for global appraisals of their school environments predicts similar ratings as the student moves between various micro-contexts of the school. Our research at Jackson High School shows how such global appraisals can misrepresent school as experienced by many students. For instance, items, such as My teacher tries to help me, I feel like I belong in this school, I come to class prepared, or I feel tense or anxious when I am in school fail to capture the environment particular to the various classrooms a student encounters. For instance, Jerris answers to these questions may have been quite different in Joes office than in her classes.  

We also saw how global, static measures of school connectedness might have misrepresented both the reality of Jackson High School and students pathways through it. As we noted, Jackson High School in practice is two schoolsone school consisting of the students taking the AP courses, and the other school consisting of the students taking the general coursesproviding substantively different experiences of school to students. On a social and emotional level, students navigated the complex social environment of Jackson High and differentiated between places and times when they felt safe and places and times when they did not. Measures of these student perceptions on average mask variation of experience within the school context and so offer limited assistance as a guide to policy.

We have also highlighted the ways in which school connection is a process that is rooted in social, cultural, and institutional arrangements. That is, both institutional and interpersonal connections were fundamentally related to the ways in which the school context made personal connections with others and investment in academics available to students at varied levels. Institutional arrangements (like the tracking system) made cultural practices (i.e., applying to college, going to class) a part of the school experience for a small group of students, but not the student body as a whole. Thus, this work offers a perspective on connection as involving both individual processes and social, cultural, and institutional arrangements.


Our findings highlight the extent to which connection is an inherently relational construct, one that involves both what a student brings to the environment (from a history of their interaction in other environments and their personal lives) and what the environment offers to support school achievement, to promote school failure and disengagement or to anticipate disconnection for that student. Yet few such relational measures of connectedness currently exist. We also see in our research at Jackson High the many ways in which, for this student population, predetermined indicator categories fail to capture the multilayered, complex factors that affect students interpersonal or institutional connection with school. Studying connection to school in ways that more accurately reflect and assess the everyday realities of urban schools such as Jackson High, that distinguish between institutional and interpersonal elements, and that consider students life circumstances can provide needed insight and foundation for programs and policies intending to change school outcomes for youth.


Several limitations of this study should be considered when interpreting the findings. First, there are two limitations with respect to sampling. For one, the small number of students in each quadrant, especially Quadrants B and D, for the case studies makes generalization difficult. The second sampling limitation has to do with the administration of the survey. We noted that attendance on any given day was quite low in relation to the student population as a whole. Thus, our survey sampled only students who attended class on the day we administered the survey and may have oversampled more connected students. There were also sampling limitations in our qualitative data. The students in our focus groups were recommended by teachers, and the results might have varied had we selected students for focus groups with a more objective measure. Additionally, the students we shadowed were limited to those students who were willing to be shadowed and who attended school; this may have resulted in a student population for the case studies that was more connected than students who might not have agreed to be shadowed.

Another limitation involves the potential confound between interpersonal connection and transfer status. It is noteworthy that in the case study data, transfer students only appeared in Quadrants B and D. Quantitative data reveal that although transfer students were more common in these two quadrants, there was a small percentage of transfer students in the other quadrants as well. However, there were no differences in interpersonal connection for transfer and nontransfer students. It stands to reason that transfer students would be less likely to be interpersonally connected, however, it also seems that there are additional factors with respect to the school context at play between students in the four quadrants. It should also be noted that the quantitative results reported in this study are correlational in nature and provide no evidence for causality.

A final limitation concerns generalizability. Part of our argument has been that findings and measures from prior studies of connectedness that focused on nonurban, nonpoor students and schools cannot be imported wholesale to the study of connectedness in an urban high-poverty school. Our findings may be similarly limited in generalizability. We argue that an important point is that researchers consider deeply the school and community contexts within which students develop connectedness.


Despite these limitations, findings from this study have implications for research seeking to understand why a disproportionate number poor urban youth drop out of school and to identify ways in which policy and practice might productively respond. For one, many current survey measures fail to maintain an analytical distinction between behaviors (institutional connection) and attitudes or caring (interpersonal connection). This distinction is less about the specific items used in a scale, and more about how the items are considered in analyses. Toward this end, findings from this study suggest the importance of analyzing items that involve behavior separately from those that involve attitudes.

In addition, survey measures are limited in their ability to capture the contextual and dynamic nature of school connection. When possible, they should be augmented by more contextually sensitive qualitative methods, such as interviews, focus groups, or observations. Such research would listen to youth about how they experience school and life. Consistent with conclusions of researchers such as Way (1998), we find that for Jackson High School students, overreliance on predefined indicators and categories can misrepresent students pathways through school as they experience them, and so limit theoretical or practical understanding about factors affecting their connections to school.

Given the correlational nature of the analyses presented in this article, another implication for future research might be that research on school connection could begin to tease apart the causal elements in the tangle of variables highlighted in this study by using quasi-experimental designs. Such studies might make internal changes at schools like Jackson, intended to increase connectedness for a greater number of students, and see if such interventions improve outcomes. For instance, one might increase institutional connection by offering higher quality instruction and raising academic expectations for all students. With respect to interpersonal connection, one might support the purposeful building of school community, and/or work with teachers to encourage stronger teacherstudent relationships. At Jackson, this might involve extending the kinds of resources that the AP track students experienced to a wider student population.

Finally, policy and practice seeking to strengthen school connectedness for students attending low-income urban high schools would benefit from research that conceptually and analytically distinguishes the experience of this student population from that of students more advantaged in terms of neighborhood, school, and family contexts. Such research might also move the field forward in efforts to account for varying experiences and outcomes in what are ostensibly the same school context, and in better understanding the role of school connection in achievement and school completion for students in urban schools.


We thank the Hewlett Foundation and Michael Wald for their support of this research. The opinions expressed in this paper do not represent those of the funding agencies.


1. Jackson High School and East Baysville are pseudonyms, as are all personal names of students.

2. By connected, we meant students who seemed to have solid relationships with teachers and peers and who were viewed as participating in the ways one might expect that students would participate in school: They went to class and completed school work with some degree of regularity. By disconnected, we meant students who teachers and counselors felt might be at risk for dropping out.

3. Attendance in both groups was good. All the connected students attended regularly (no student missed more than two sessions). For disconnected students, attendance was regular (the mean attendance was 5.8 sessions), though this group did have some attrition (it started out with 12 students and lost 3). In the disconnected group, 3 students had less regular attendance and attended only four of the nine sessions (2 of these students dropped out of school during the course of our study).

4. It is important to note that our measure of interpersonal connection focused primarily on relationships with teachers (and not peers), though we did include an item on the survey that asked about closeness to peers. We focused on teachers because we thought relationships with teachers might be particularly powerful for students feeling connected to school for this student population, given that Jackson was a neighborhood school, and closeness to peers might reflect neighborhood ties rather than ties that were specific to school. We checked our assumption that closeness to teachers was different from closeness to peers by correlating students response to the item that asked about perceived closeness to peers with the interpersonal connection scale that focused on teachers; we found that the two were not significantly correlated (r = .16, p = .10, n = 110).

5. We used these questions instead of student grades because our pilot work and conversations with students revealed that students rarely knew their own GPA or grades, and our survey was anonymous, so we could not match survey responses with student records.

6. In our quantitative analyses, the sample size varies across subscales of the questionnaire because of missing data.


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Author & Measurement Name

Interpersonal connection

1) How comfortable are you with talking to teachers at this school about your problems?

2) How interested are your teachers in the things you say?

3) How much do your teachers care about you as a person?

4) How much do the teachers respect you?

5) How close do you feel to students at this school?

1) Brown & Evans (2002) School Connection: Belonging

2) Jenkins (1997) based on Hirschis social bonding theory

3) Resnick et al. (1997) School Connectedness

4) Voelkl (1996) Student Identification w/ School

5) Resnick et al. (1997) School Connectedness

Institutional connection

6) How often are you late to class?

7) How often do you go to all of your classes?

8) How often do you cut two or more classes per day?

9) How often do you come to class without a pencil, paper, or homework?

10) How often do you pay attention in class?

11) How often do you attend after-school events?

6) Finn (1993) School Engagement: Attendance

7) Finn (1993) School Engagement: Attendance

8) Created by authors

9) Finn (1993) School Engagement: Preparation

10) Simons-Morton and Crump (2003) School Engagement

11) Jenkins (1997) based on Hirschis social bonding theory

Academic identity

12) How important is doing well in school to who you are?

13) How much do your grades matter to you?

14) How often do you take school seriously?

15) How often do you consider yourself to be a good student?

12) Created by authors

13) Jenkins (1997) based on Hirschis social bonding theory

14) Simons-Morton and Crump (2003) School Engagement

15) Created by authors


16) Have you been on the honor roll in the past two years?

17) Did you fail any classes this year?

18) Are you enrolled in at least one AP (Advanced Placement) class?

16) Jenkins (1997) based on Hirschis social bonding theory

17) Jenkins (1997) based on Hirschis social bonding theory

18) Created by authors


Brown, R., & Evans, W. (2002). Extracurricular activity and ethnicity: Creating greater school connection among diverse student populations. Urban Education, 37(1), 4158.

Finn, J. (1993). School engagement and students at risk. Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics.

Jenkins,  P. A. (1997) School delinquency and the school social bond. Journal of Research on Crime and Delinquency, 34, 337367.

Resnick, M., Bearman, P., Blum, R., Bauman, K., Harris, K., Jones, J., et al. (1997). Protecting adolescents from harm: Findings from the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health. Journal of the American Medical Association, 278, 823832.

Simons-Morton, B., & Crump, A.D. (2003). Association of parental involvement and social competence with school adjustment and engagement among sixth graders. Journal of School Health, 73, 121126.

Voelkl, K. (1996). Measuring students identification with school. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 56, 760770.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 113 Number 8, 2011, p. 1755-1793
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16173, Date Accessed: 10/26/2021 10:58:34 AM

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About the Author
  • Na’ilah Suad Nasir
    University of California, Berkeley
    E-mail Author
    NA’ILAH SUAD NASIR is an associate professor in the School of Education and the African American Studies Department at the University of California, Berkeley. Her areas of specialization include race, culture, and out-of-school learning, identity processes and educational trajectories, and redressing inequities in educational access and outcomes. Recent publications include (with J. Cooks) “Becoming a Hurdler: How Learning Settings Afford Identities,” published in Anthropology & Education Quarterly.
  • Amina Jones
    Stanford University
    AMINA JONES is a doctoral student in the School of Education at Stanford University. She is interested in disenfranchised and disconnected youth, the social construction of educational pathways, and emerging adulthood. Recent publications include (with N. Nasir & M. McLaughlin) “What Does It Mean to Be African American? Constructions of Racial/Ethnic Identity and School Performance in an Urban Public High School,” published in the American Educational Research Journal.
  • Milbrey McLaughlin
    Stanford University
    MILBREY MCLAUGHLIN is the David Jacks Professor of Education and Public Policy at Stanford University. Professor McLaughlin is codirector of the Center for Research on the Context of Teaching, an interdisciplinary research center engaged in analyses of how teaching and learning are shaped by teachers’ organizational, institutional, and social cultural contexts. McLaughlin also is founding director of the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities, a partnership between Stanford University and Bay Area communities to build new practices, knowledge, and capacity for youth development and learning both in communities and at Stanford. She is the author or coauthor of books, articles, and chapters on education policy issues, contexts for teaching and learning, productive environments for youth, and community based organizations. Her books include Building School-Based Teacher Learning Communities (with Joan Talbert, Teachers College Press, 2006), and School Districts and Instructional Renewal (with Amy Hightower, Michael Knapp, and Julie Marsh, Teachers College Press, 2002).
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