The Transition to High School for Academically Promising, Urban, Low-Income African American Youth

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

In nine urban Ohio school systems, low-income minority students identified as academically promising in sixth grade are eligible to participate in an intervention program. In the present study, twenty-two African American students in the program were asked to provide their perceptions of the transition to ninth grade. Specifically, the role of motivating factors, peers, school, teachers, parents, and neighborhood were examined. These students faced similar stressors, yet some were more able to achieve academic success. Results highlight the salience of mothers, the challenges of the ninth-grade curriculum, and adjustment to a bigger, more complex school environment for high and low performers. The implications for improving cooperation between school and family are discussed.

The transition to high school presents many challenges. High school students typically have more assignments, and there are more distractions due to the increasing complexity of peer relations. Further, the high school is a more anonymous setting than is the middle school. Some students experience role loss, such as no longer being among the top athletes or scholars. Research has shown that participation in extracurricular activities significantly declines in the first year of high school (Seidman et al., 1996; Gifford & Dean, 1990).

Low-income minority youth are vulnerable to declines in academic motivation and performance during the transition to ninth grade, which may not be regained in the subsequent years of high school (Eccles et al., 1991, 1993; Reyes et al., 1994). Clearly, the ability to cope with school transitions in ways that sustain high levels of academic motivation, knowledge, and skills is essential for student progression toward college.

In a study comparing the experiences of African American and white students during the transition to junior high school, researchers found that African American males liked school less as they got older, their grades dropped, they were more likely to experience behavior problems, and their parents were less likely to approve of their friends (Simmons et al., 1991). The students themselves experienced increased stress concerning their academic future.

Students of low socioeconomic status are eight times less likely to graduate from college than are other students. Although the percentage of African American students attending and graduating from college has greatly increased in the last fifty years, they are still only half as likely to complete four years of college as are white students. Students who do not succeed academically have been scrutinized, but far less is known about the students who do succeed despite substantial barriers (Mortenson, 1993; Mortenson & Wu, 1990). Who comprises their support systems? What motivates them? How do they overcome barriers to educational success?

The present study was designed to identify factors that contribute to the academic success of African American students who are making the transition to high school. The subjects were students participating in the Young Scholars Program (YSP), an early intervention program focusing on urban, low-income minority youth identified during the sixth grade as showing academic promise. They were all doing well in eighth grade, and the study took a qualitative approach in seeking to understand the challenges they faced as well as the strategies they used to meet the new demands of ninth grade. It drew on students' perceptions, as well as those of YSP staff and other supportive individuals.

The theoretical framework for this study was ecological systems theory (Bronfenbrenner, 1979). The following section addresses the ecological perspective, reviewing the literature on the four major microsystems that are likely to impact academic achievement for African American students during their transition to ninth grade: family, peers, school, and neighborhood. …