Reaching Out to Other People’s Children in an Urban Middle School: The Families’ Views

Jianzhong Xu




The School

During the 1996–97 school year, I spent an average of 10 to 12 days a month in a middle school community in New York City.1 The data collected in this study came from various sources: (1) formal and informal interviews with all staff members in the school, with families, and with students; (2) observations of classroom interaction, staff meetings, parent association meetings, and parent/child/teacher conferences; (3) travel with students on a schoolwide three-day camping trip, on field and museum trips, and to basketball games; (4) visits to students’ homes to meet their families and to parents’ workplaces; and (5) collection of instructional materials, student work, and the school director’s weekly memos.

In midyear, four students and their families were selected for an in-depth study. This is a purposeful sample (Fraenkel and Wallen, 1996) designed to reflect the students’ and their families’ diverse backgrounds. The selection process took into account the following dimensions: students’ ethnicity, gender, grade, social visibility, and academic growth; the number of parents present in a household; the family’s social and economic status. While most of the data on students were collected in school settings, most of the data on families were collected in their homes. I paid special attention to these parents in school settings (e.g., observing them in parent/child/teacher conferences and in parent association meetings). I visited their homes or workplaces an average of three times, from early February, 1997, to late August, 1997.

During the course of my fieldwork in the school community, I quickly developed trust with the school staff, students, and families, benefiting from the following factors: (1) the assistance of a colleague who had known the school director for many years; (2) my minority, but still relatively neutral, cultural identity (Chinese); (3) my perceived status as a young researcher who was sincerely interested in their world views; and (4) my previous experience working with families from diverse cultural backgrounds in the same geographic area (Xu, 1994; Xu and Corno, 1998).

The data collected from the school and from the students and parents of the four families consisted of more than 1,500 pages of interview transcripts, 500 pages of field notes, 20 hours of videotapes, and many pages of student work and other school documents.

The data reduction for this monograph was guided by the existing literature (discussed above) with the aid of SQR NUD*IST, a software program for analyzing qualitative data. It was also influenced by Banks’ (1993 and 1995) comprehensive reviews on multicultural education. Banks noted the danger embedded in this line of research pursued by cultural difference theorists who emphasize ethnic culture and devote little attention to other variables. He reminded us that “research related to effective teaching strategies for low-income students and students of color needs to examine the complex interactions of race, class, and gender” (1993, p. 36). Thus, when I wrote each case study, special attention was given to exploring these complex interactions. Although the emphasis of this article is on the families’ interpretation of their school’s efforts to reach out—and not on effective teaching strategies—I feel that Banks’ recommendation is equally relevant here. Perhaps, by exploring these interactions, we will understand better what effective teaching strategies mean to low-income students and students of color, and not just from the perspective of researchers and teachers. For example, in her study on culturally relevant pedagogy, Ladson-Billings (1994 and 1995) used parent nomination of their children’s teachers as a way to identify culturally relevant teachers. Once these teachers were identified, however, the mission of these parents was accomplished. Little data was drawn from parents’ or students’ perspectives. Instead, Ladson-Billings’ findings were based largely on her understanding of what each teacher said and did, leaving us little basis to judge how specific teaching strategies were perceived by students and their families.

Each case is presented separately to retain the holistic nature of the school/family interactions and perceptions in each family. The four cases then serve as a basis for cross-case discussion. Interpretation based on data from multiple cases is more compelling than from a single case study (Merriam, 1988; Yin, 1984).

The constant comparative method (Glaser and Strauss, 1967) was used to analyze the data from the four case reports. Triangulation of different data sources and different perspectives was used as a means of enhancing internal validity and safeguarding against researcher bias (Denzin, 1978; Patton, 1980; Yin, 1984).

I studied a middle school that represents a “new breed” of schools that has tried to create a more personalized environment to reduce the distance between school and home and to better serve the needs of early adolescents and their families from diverse backgrounds living in an urban environment. In 1990, the present director and two teachers founded the school on the fifth floor of a century-old building without an elevator. Since then, it has maintained its small enrollment, which numbers about 140 students in grades six through eight. During the 1996–97 school year, 74% of the student body received free lunch, and an additional 7% received reduced-price lunch. Fifty-eight percent of the students lived in a household with both parents.

According to the New York City Public Schools Official Class Ethnic Census Report, the student body during 1996-97 was 47% Latino, 34% African American, 10% Caucasian, 5% Asian/Pacific Islander, and 1% American Indian or Alaskan. The remaining 3% was grouped under “CODE NOT ENTERED.”2

Despite the school’s ongoing effort to recruit teachers of color, the staff was less diverse than the student body. Only one of the nine full-time teachers was non-Caucasian.

The school stressed three interrelated approaches to create “a home away from home” for these early adolescents and their families from diverse backgrounds: building a school community; attending to students’ personal and social needs; and emphasizing learning by experience. All of these approaches highlighted the school’s willingness to formulate its curriculum and practice based on the experiences and circumstances of the students and their families.

Building a School Community

To build a home away from home, the school strove to build a strong feeling of school community. The director stressed its importance for her students in this way:

Kids need to feel safe to learn. They need to feel safe to take chances when they learn, to try new things, to ask questions, to say that they’re wrong or that they need help. Communities that functioned in kids’ lives or people’s lives in the past are weaker now. Neighborhoods do not have the strength that they used to have, nor do churches. Families, extended families, are not as strong. We have more “only” children than we used to have. So the school for many kids is their community. As a country, if we’re going to be a democracy, kids have to learn to live in communities; and so the school must function that way if there aren’t other functioning communities in their lives.

The emphasis on building a school community was embedded in the activities throughout the year: from stressing the importance of teamwork in athletic games during the fall orientation; to advisory classes, held twice a week, nurturing a sense of belonging among students; to practicing multiage grouping in all subject areas (except math) and maximizing social interactions among students in all grades; to thirty-minute teacher/child/parent conferences, held twice a year, where all felt free to share home and school experience; to the annual three-day trip, where parent volunteers joined teachers and children to explore nature away from the congestion of city life; to the mid-December Festival of Lights, where students and their families came together to learn about and share their respective holiday traditions; to the end-of-year prom designed to make sure that all students could participate and enjoy the occasion. For example, during school orientation in early September, staff members took the students to a nearby park. The afternoon began with two structured group activities. One activity was to ask each advisory group to choose six students to participate in a team relay; another was to ask each advisory group to select three students to play basketball. Each group included at least one girl. Later, the staff organizer explained that these activities reflected the director’s belief in the importance of group activities and getting all students involved. The staff member explained that whether students were strong or weak, large or small, however different, everyone needed to learn how to work together as a team.

Attending to Students’ Personal and Social Needs

Also important in building a home away from home was the school’s emphasis on attending to the children’s personal and social needs. The director argued, “If you don’t deal with the whole child at this age in particular, students are not able to learn.” Also, “Learning to get along with each other is a part of the curriculum.” Not only was this considered an important learning experience in and of itself, but it also was a doorway that made other types of learning at school possible.

To accomplish this goal, the school was organized into advisory groups, with each staff member (except the director and counselor3) mentoring a group of about twelve students. Care was taken in matching student to staff member. In general, the director wanted each advisory group to include students from varying backgrounds, such as ethnicity, ability, gender, and grade. Students, too, could have input in the assignment process. For example, at midyear, the director shifted one eighth-grade Latino girl to a different advisory group because the girl felt that the advisor of that group shared more similar life experiences with her. Advisory classes, held twice a week, were a main forum where staff and students could voice concerns and share experiences. For example, one mother noted that, while her son generally did not want to reveal himself to others, in his advisory class, he was quite willing to discuss issues that he never mentioned at home to his parents.

The advisory groups also became one of the main vehicles to connect staff and families. At the first meeting with parents and staff held at the beginning of the school year, the director stressed the importance of the school and parents working together, and let the parents know that they could call her or their children’s advisors “day and night” when something important arose. For example, during the first meeting with parents and guardians in an advisory group, one staff member gave them three telephone numbers to reach her: one for weekdays, another for weekends, and a third for long weekends. Seeing that many parents looked puzzled as to why she gave out all these numbers, she explained that it was the tradition of the school and she welcomed them or their children to call her or leave a message.

In addition to the advisory system, there were other built-in avenues for the school to attend to students’ personal and social needs. One avenue was a weekly ninety-minute staff meeting, which often became a regular forum where the staff shared their experiences of working with various groups of students, including important issues and concerns that frequently emerged. Another avenue was a thirty-minute parent/teacher/child conference held twice a year. For example, during the conferences, it was not rare for a teacher to ask a student, in front of a parent, such questions as, “How do you feel here socially?”

During the spring of 1997, there were classes called “Boys Talk” and “Girls Talk,” led by a male and a female staff member, respectively, to address a wide range of issues facing early adolescents in an urban environment, including drugs, sex, and domestic violence. Interestingly, the discussions in both advisory classes and “Boys Talk”4 helped raise the voices of a group of students who rarely spoke in other classes.

The emphasis on attending to students’ personal and social needs was also evident in that several times during the school year some students received awards for their social and personal growth, or personal maturity, just as other students received awards for academic and athletic achievement.

Emphasizing Learning by Experience

Another related approach to building a home away from home emphasized the importance of learning by experience by organizing various educational trips. Each fall a local agency sponsored a free schoolwide, three-day camping trip to upstate New York, which was open to all students, staff, and parent volunteers. The trip gave the children an opportunity to explore nature through such activities as boating, fishing, hiking, building a shelter, and tracking animals. However, one of the challenges in organizing the trip was to persuade Latino parents to allow their adolescent daughters to attend, which meant staying away from home overnight. A school aide from the Latino community, who worked as the school secretary, acted as an outreach person to the Latino parents. She explained to them the benefits of the trip as well as the precautions the school took to ensure their daughters’ safety. Some of these parents were invited to go on the trip with their daughters and to stay in their daughters’ cabins at night. Because of the school’s persistent efforts, many eighth-grade Latino girls were finally allowed by their parents to participate.

Other experiential activities included collecting leaves in the school neighborhood for study in a science class, visiting art and immigrant history museums in a humanities class, and drawing sketches of a neighborhood building according to scale in a math class. Hands-on projects, like building a motor-powered car, were made a part of classroom activities.


1The names of school, staff, students, and families have been changed to protect their identities. return to text

2In reality, the student body was more diverse than indicated in the official census data. In a survey on homework, which I distributed to the students, their self-identification presented a different picture. The self-identification of Latino, Caucasian, Asian/Pacific, and American Indian/Alaskan was comparable to the official ethnic census report, with no more than a 3% difference. However, a striking 21% of the students identified themselves as “mixed.” Another difference was that only 24% of the students identified themselves as African American, 10% less than shown in the official data. return to text

3Both the director and the counselor worked with all the students. return to text

4As a male, I refrained from asking to observe “Girls Talk” for fear of making the group uncomfortable. return to text

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