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In study, black and Latino students explain their paths to college

One student credited a specific teacher who taught English like a college-level course. Some recalled their parents not allowing them to spend time outside to avoid gang activity. Others remembered teachers who calmed them before taking the SAT.

Those were some of the responses students gave in new study that worked backwards from male black and Latino students’ success, looking at college-bound, academically successful high school juniors and seniors at 40 schools and asking, what worked?

To find the answers, a group of University of Pennsylvania researchers in conjunction with the city interviewed more than 400 high school students and recent graduates who had at least a 3.0 grade point average, were involved in extracurricular activities, and planned to attend college (or were already attending). The students attended the 40 high schools selected last year to be a part of the Expanded Success Initiative, each with at least 60 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunch.

The results are a fascinating look at the students’ lives. You can read the whole study here, but we picked out some highlights:

Giving credit to families: Researchers said “nearly every student” told them that their families had presented college as their only post-high-school option. Most also said their home lives were very structured, and that parents had heavily restricted their time spent outdoors with others in the neighborhood.

Participants were well acquainted with the problematic educational status of young men of color in NYC high schools. Most did not perceive themselves as smarter or better than their peers – they just had stricter parents and made different choices, had clearer goals, and were more firmly committed to actualizing those goals. Their lower performing peers did not have the same kinds of structured home environments, many participants observed.

School as a safety mechanism: Students said that gang members in their neighborhoods hadn’t tried to recruit them because of their academic reputations, and a few even said they had been singled out by gang members who told them to study in order “to be the ones who grew up to be successful.”

For sure there were gangs in many of their communities, and they knew firsthand of peers from their blocks and schools who were affiliated. They often had to walk past neighbors who were engaged in gang-related activities during their commutes home from school. Despite this exposure, most were deemed unfit for membership. I think it’s because they know I am a good student and I’m not about that life, one participant theorized. Others explained that they had amassed for themselves reputations for being serious students and performing well in school. Therefore, gang members knew they were unlikely to respond favorably to invitations to join. Also, not spending much time outside provided some immunity from gang courtship. Those guys know that I don’t even hang out, they don’t even see me outside.

Challenges to working at home: Homework and studying are often not possible for students to do outside of school because of noise at home, family conflict, or other stresses. For some that meant doing homework elsewhere, and for others it meant studying less.

Prior to beginning each interview, we had participants complete a four-page profile form that included basic demographic information and other general questions (clubs in which they held membership, college campuses they visited, etc.). Half the students reported that they studied one hour or less each day; 52 indicated they spent zero hours doing homework and studying outside of school. Across the sample, students spent an average of 1.6 hours on schoolwork at home. Apparently, time was made available for them to do homework throughout the school day.

School as a second home: Those issues mean that students often stayed at school until as late as 7 p.m., even after extracurricular activities had ended.

Our research team members were occasionally at sites after the school day ended; in many instances, the buildings seemed as vibrant at 4:30 as they were several hours prior. Intriguing to us were the palpable cultures of trust. Adults clearly trusted students to hang out after school. Those who chose to remain in the school building (as opposed to being outside with other similarly-aged boys in their neighborhoods) were not the same students who routinely broke rules or performed poorly in their courses. Principals and teachers were there, but it was clear that students had enormous freedom to use the school buildings in assorted ways. It is worth noting here that no participant reported that peers were using after-hours access to the school buildings to do bad things.

Teachers who go the extra mile: Students often cited the adults with the highest academic expectations as their favorite teachers. They also pointed to moments in which teachers helped them get through their most difficult moments, a list researchers called “nearly innumerable.”

Here are five stories they told: (1) a teacher introduced one student who wants to be a physician to her own personal doctor; (2) a student who ran away from his abusive father received support and advice from a teacher at every juncture in the process; (3) a teacher permitted a sick student to nap at her desk during lunchtime and left the building to buy him hot chocolate from Dunkin’ Donuts; (4) one teacher offered marathon tutoring from 9am to 9pm on Saturdays for students who were at risk of failing algebra; and (5) a teacher visited one student’s mom in the hospital after she had a stroke.

Taking the next steps: Many students lack information about how to make the transition from high school to college, especially about the logistics of financing higher education. Overburdened guidance counselors are a common issue.

We occasionally asked if they knew about the Gates Millennium Scholars Program, income threshold and no-loans financial aid policies at elite private colleges and universities, or the Posse Foundation’s scholars program (financial aid initiatives for which their grade point averages and socioeconomic statuses would likely qualify them); their answers were almost always no.