Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Peer Networks of African American Students in Independent Schools: Affirming Academic Success and Racial Identity

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Peer Networks of African American Students in Independent Schools: Affirming Academic Success and Racial Identity

Article excerpt

Analysis of qualitative data reveals that the formal and informal peer networks of African American students in predominantly White elite independent schools support these students' academic success, create opportunities for them to reaffirm their racial identities, and facilitate their adjustment to settings that are otherwise difficult for Blacks toit into. Contrasted to research showing that adopting academically successful behaviors leads Black students to being labeled as "acting White," the sampled students made social gains within school when they were academically successful. However, this success did not result in full acceptance by African American peers outside the school. The authors conclude that the dynamics and ideologies of African American peer groups are more complex than prior research has suggested.

INTRODUCTION

A plethora of research documents the educational experiences of African American students. Early research in this area primarily focused on the failures of African American students to achieve at the same academic level as their White counterparts (Coleman et al., 1969; Jencks et al., 1972). More recently, the emphasis in research has shifted from studies of academic failure to studies of the factors that contribute to African American student success (Ladson-Billings, 1990; Lee, Winfield, & Wilson, 1991). Since the 1960s, increasing numbers of African American students have been enrolling in predominantly White elite independent schools known to prepare students for positions of power and leadership (Cookson & Persell, 1985). Much of the increase in enrollment can be attributed to the efforts of a number of organizations, including A Better Chance (ABC), Prep for Prep, Black Student Fund (BSF), and the Baltimore Educational Scholarship Trust (BEST), that have initiated and maintained the presence and participation of African American students in these schools (Cookson & Persell, 1991; Johnson & Anderson,1992). Additionally, the majority of these schools have enacted policies of nondiscrimination, and a growing number actively recruit minority students in their efforts to create more diverse student bodies on their campuses (Speede-Franklin, 1988).

Despite these efforts, research shows that predominantly White elite independent schools, with their history of racial exclusion, are often places where African American students find it difficult to fit in (Brookins, 1988; Zweigenhaft & Domhoff, 1991). Moreover, African American students in such institutions have frequently reported that they feel caught between two cultures and consequently doubly marginalized.' They have also indicated that often they feel alienated from the culture of the school and from their own parents and friends, particularly in boarding school environments (Cookson & Persell, 1991). This is not surprising, as NELS:88 data indicate that African American students at predominantly White elite independent schools have substantially fewer family economic resources relative to the school populations as a whole (Schneider & Shouse, 1992). Research also suggests that African American students at these institutions may have weaker social relationships with their teachers than do their peers at the schools, and that this lack of connection may affect their motivation and academic performance (Schneider & Shouse, 1992).

Given these findings, it appears that the social bonds that African American students at predominantly White elite independent schools develop with each other may provide an important but as yet unexplored support network that could potentially contribute to their academic performance and sense of identity and belonging. Although African American students in such settings often form their own cliques and clubs (Cookson & Persell, 1991), the functions served by these peer networks are not clearly understood. Thus, the study presented here used qualitative interview data to explore the peer networks developed by African American students enrolled in predominantly White elite independent schools through the Baltimore Educational Scholarship Trust (BEST). …

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