Can the Achievement Gaps be Overcome?
Gilberto Conchas studies a successful program to boost Latino students’ academic achievement and career opportunities at a California high school.
This reports some of the ideas and findings from the following source:
Conchas, G. Q. (2001). Structuring failure and success: Understanding the variability in Latino school engagement.Harvard Educational Review, 71,475-504. Retrieved August 8, 2002 from ProQuest database.
To see other reports that originated from this same citation, go to the bibliography.
As a bright spot in the often troubled Latino experience of high school, Gilberto Conchas singles out the Medical Academy program established at a high school in California. This program was designed to provide interested students with a head start in both curriculum and work experience for pursuing a future career in the medical profession. It also proved to be successful in providing the social and institutional supports that promoted strong academic achievement among Latino students.
Since Conchas argues that such supports are crucial ways of improving minorities’ experience of schooling, it is important to understand what makes the Medical Academy work. Conchas identifies three factors that account for this program’s success:
The racial make-up of the students in the Medical Academy paralleled the overall racial make-up in the rest of the school, which was unusual for advanced academic programs at the school. These programs tended to be made up mostly of white and Asian students. Blacks and Latino students were usually under-represented in advanced programs. But one thing that Juan, a student in the Academy, liked was that
". . . everybody is in there. The largest group was African Americans, then Asian, then Latino, then a few White. The school looked like that. The Medical Academy looks like the school." (Medical Academy Student Responses section, ¶ 16)
Conchas found that Latino students in the Academy credited the racial and ethnic diversity in the program with promoting intergroup contact. “Latino students became friends, colleagues, and, in many cases, the boyfriends or girlfriends of individuals of different racial and ethnic backgrounds,” Conchas writes (Medical Academy Student Responses section, ¶ 19). Students reported that this diversity helped debunk preconceived notions about other racial and ethnic groups.
Teachers in the Academy were aggressive about recruiting at-risk students from the minority groups. Integration, then, was a mission of this program. “The Medical Academy,” Conchas concludes, “took the initial step in forging racial and ethnic integration and breaking down segregation within the school” (Medical Academy Student Responses section, ¶ 19).
The Medical Academy fostered a unique culture that encouraged teamwork and community-building among the students. It was unique because other advanced programs at the high school Conchas studied, such as the AP program, tended to increase competition and anxiety among Latino students. As one student observed:
"We are like a community, because in the Medical Academy,they are always telling us to work together and more things are going on for us to unite. We help each other to fulfill our goals in school and go into health [professions]." (Medical Academy Student Responses section, ¶ 2)
The Latino students still reported pressure to work hard and sometimes worried that they might not be up to the high standards. But Conchas found that they usually expressed confidence that the skills they were learning and the group support would get them through difficulties.
This attitude is especially significant since it informs the students’ perception of their life opportunities. One student, Diego, declared that, “I’m sure I’ll find racism and financial difficulty, but race is no excuse though” (Medical Academy Student Responses section, ¶27).The community and teamwork ethic of the Medical Academy promoted realistic assessments of social obstacles while at the same time equipping students psychologically and practically to overcome those obstacles.
One of the most important supports the Medical Academy provided its students was a head start on their career trajectories. The program provided a strong academic experience as well as the opportunity to develop career goals.
The Academy’s graduation rate was excellent: 93% of the students graduated from the high school and 91% of the graduates went on to college. Part of the curriculum of the Academy included internships with health organizations and other valuable work experience. A student in the program named Ana appreciated that they
". . . get to experience the different careers in health, have mentors, and have more real goals because we see it and they bring it to us." (Medical Academy Student Responses section, ¶ 9)
Conchas identifies such opportunity structures as critical for helping Latino students to boost their achievement. Specifically, programs such as the Medical Academy establish institutional mechanisms to build students’ skills and help them navigate social difficulties related to their minority status. Although they cannot eliminate the disadvantaging effects of race, such programs assist students to overcome those disadvantages.
As such, Conchas suggests that programs based on the successful integrationary, community-building, and opportunity-granting example of the Medical Academy serve as a model for how institutional mechanisms can help Latino students.
This study is based on ethnographic data collected at a California high school. The data consist of observation of daily student-student and student-teacher interactions, interviews with students and teachers, maps of class seating arrangements, and documents such as report cards, student work, and teacher evaluations. The specific subjects of the data gathering were 26 Latino students in the tenth through twelfth grades. Interviews and focus groups were semi-structured, tended to last from one to two hours, and then were taped and transcribed.
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