Streetsmart Schoolsmart: Urban Poverty and the Education of Adolescent Boys

reviewed by Yolanda Abel - October 12, 2012

coverTitle: Streetsmart Schoolsmart: Urban Poverty and the Education of Adolescent Boys
Author(s): Gilberto Q. Conchas & James Diego Vigil
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807753181, Pages: 216, Year: 2012
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Public education, especially in urban areas within the United States, has received all types of attention, with a focus on what is not working and why some students are perpetually underachieving. One group of underperforming students is African American males (Holzman, 2006). There are African American male students who are achieving, but there are substantial numbers who are not achieving or maintaining school-related success. Graham and Anderson (2008) conducted a case study investigation with three academically successfully African American males, with an emphasis on the tension between academic identity and ethnic identity. These students identified a personal commitment to school and doing well, a commitment to their ethnic identity and its legacy within the United States, and a network that both supported them and challenged them to be and do their best.  While we are proud and thankful for them, what about the others who are not doing as well academically? How do we help them?

Conchas and Vigil, the authors of Streetsmart Schoolsmart, provide a timely and critical assessment of the challenges facing adolescent boys of color. In today’s global world, one of the aspects most appreciated about this book is its broadness in defining adolescents of color. Using a case study format they share aspects of the lives of several different adolescent boys across ethnic groups and ground their experiences in the historical happenings of our country and the current political climate, while offering hope and a process for successfully helping adolescent boys, living in impoverished environments, to navigate between street culture and school culture.

The book begins with a critical analysis of the impact or effects of poverty. The authors are very clear that they are not espousing a deficit perspective, but examining how poverty or limited resources contribute to behaviors or norms that make it challenging to move beyond poverty. Much like Graham and Anderson (2008), the authors ponder why some children living in economically challenged communities fare poorly in schools and others do well. The common theme among research addressing this issue is the pivotal impact of resources gained through social networks. Conchas and Vigil inform us that the boys they spoke with commonly referred to the people who helped them make connections or who showed belief in them as they were navigating between street culture and school culture. This forms the premise of the text that resources accessed through the boys’ relationships in communities and schools can facilitate productive pathways and the adoption of behaviors more likely to result in school success, thereby providing them with more choices in their lives. The book focuses on three contexts that impact boys living in economically challenged areas: a) the formation of a gang-orientation, b) community based organizations as a strategy of reengagement, and c) high school (reform) efforts which target success outcomes through initiatives such as career academies.

Conchas and Vigil offer a multiple marginality framework to capture the myriad factors and influences of Asian, Latino and African American youth living in poor neighborhoods. It addresses ecological, economic, sociocultural, and psychological factors that impact gangs and youths’ participation with them. With an understanding of why and/or how boys of color interact with gang presence in their neighborhoods, schools and communities can better support, nurture, and educate boys in such a way that gang or street culture is less appealing. To help illustrate this understanding, the authors share the story of a Vietnamese American boy living in California. With a synthesis of the Vietnamese experience in California, the authors help us understand the rise of gangs within the communities and through one boy’s story to personalize the multitude of forces that impact one young man as he experiences life. The next case study focuses on a mixed African American youth. In contextualizing his story, the authors present us with key economic and historical forces, such as the Great Migration, the Watts Riots, the trajectory of the Crips and Bloods and the impact of unemployment to help us better understand the choices a mixed African American male youth is faced with today. In sharing his story we see the interweaving of close calls and second chances and how they can result in positive life outcomes.

The next story is about a Chicano youth. In telling his story, the authors help us to examine the conditions that were supportive of the creation of Latino street gangs and how the criminalization of Latino youth impacts and limits choices. However, one person can make a difference in someone’s life. Is it an easy process? No. Is it a process that can work? Yes. This chapter in particular brought to mind Langston Hughes’ poem, Mother to Son, and the need for our youth to have champions who will remind them that it is possible to make it through and supporters who encourage them to keep climbing when things seem insurmountable. The authors then proceed to discuss how community-based initiatives are empowering urban youth.

The truancy rates for Hispanic and African American students are provided, and the percentage among these two groups is substantially higher than the overall rates for large urban school districts in general. Staying true to the theoretical underpinnings of the text, the issue of truancy is linked back to street culture and school culture with reference to how community initiatives can provide more options and choices for youth.  High school reform initiatives, such as Career Academies, are also discussed, including both the positive outcomes and the danger of tracking and limited outcomes that can result if careful consideration is not given to how programs are integrating academics and real-world experience. Another facet of career exploration is examined by the authors through their interviews of African American males shortly after President Obama was elected. In this professed age of post-racial equality, and after the nation elected its first African American president, the authors were interested in how African American males viewed themselves and their opportunities. Without giving away their responses, what they have to say is worth reading and using to create other comparable conversations with youth you know personally and to expand the dialogue as we work to support youth in general and youth in urban areas in particular.  

The authors conclude with strategies and action areas that can collaboratively and positively impact the life opportunities of adolescent males of color. Like Graham and Anderson (2008) and the successful African American males in their study, the authors also share their stories and demonstrate the veracity of their work as they lived the experience of navigating street and school cultures, as well as the impact of individuals and community-based programs that provided them with options and choices. This is a book for anyone concerned with education in the United States, and particularly with a focus on young men of color experiencing urban poverty in their schools and neighborhoods. Let us make a difference and encourage someone to keep climbing.


Graham, A., & Anderson, K.A. (2008). “I have to be three steps ahead”: Academically gifted African American male students in an urban high school on the tension between ethnic and academic identity. Urban Review, 40, 472-499.

Holzman, M. (2006). Public education and Black male students: The 2006 State Report Card. Cambridge, MA: Schott Educational Inequity Index, The Schott Foundation for Public Education.

Hughes, L. (1994). The collected poems of Langston Hughes. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 12, 2012 ID Number: 16901, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 9:55:19 AM

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