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September 7, 1998

UCSC study examines how peers influence academic achievement among students of Mexican descent

By Jennifer McNulty

Margaret Gibson

Peers can be a powerful influence among high school students, and a new study by a UCSC researcher seeks to shed light on the role such relationships play in academic achievement among students of Mexican descent. The study by Margaret A. Gibson, an associate professor of education and anthropology at UCSC, will look closely at students' informal relationships with each other, as well as with teachers and other school personnel, to learn how peers affect student identities and orientations toward schooling.

Gibson has received a grant for $459,500 from The Spencer Foundation to fund the two-year study. The project will be based at Aptos High School, where nearly half of the freshman class is white and half is of Mexican descent.

"High school students belong to multiple peer groups, and they move in and out of peer groups, so it's important to understand the role these relationships play in academic success," explained Gibson. "Previous research has tended to look at polar opposites--the burnouts versus the jocks--but we'll be looking at subtler levels of difference among peer groups."

The study, entitled "Student Identity, Peer Affiliations and Academic Engagement: A Comparative Study of Immigrant and Nonimmigrant High School Youth," begins this fall and will track the progress of the incoming freshman class for at least two years. The project has implications for school organization, classroom management, and teaching methods, said Gibson.

"We'll note both the positive and negative ways that peers influence school performance, and we'll also note the positive interventions that cut through the ambivalence, resistance, or sense of alienation that can prevent students from being engaged," she said. "We are hopeful that our findings will be useful to schools as they examine more effective ways to meet the needs of all students."

Aptos High is recognized for its strong academic programs, yet student performance reflects disturbing national and state patterns of disproportionately low academic achievement among students of Mexican descent. In 1996, only 20 percent of Aptos High seniors of Mexican descent who graduated had completed advanced math and science classes, compared to 74 percent of white seniors. Only 15 percent of Mexican-descent students had completed all of the courses required to attend a UC or a California State University campus, compared to 52 percent of white students.

Aptos High was actively looking for ways to solve this problem and is excited about Gibson's project, said Principal David Hare.

"This project is very timely in that our school and the Pajaro Valley Unified School District have set specific student achievement goals to significantly increase the number of students who are prepared to enter the university system over the next few years," he said. "Dr. Gibson's data will give us empowering insights into what helps all students reach their academic potential. We will be able to use the information in our efforts to design more effective programs for all students."

Gibson's study is part of a broader collaboration between UCSC and the Pajaro Valley Unified School District. Dubbed STARLINK, the project has brought together a "vertical slice" of educators from Starlight Elementary School, Rolling Hills Middle School, Aptos High School, and UCSC to develop strategies to raise student achievement.

At Aptos High, Gibson and a team of about six UCSC researchers will conduct in-depth interviews with members of the freshman class and will observe students during classes, lunch breaks, and extracurricular activities. Student participants will include members of both high- and low-achieving groups, immigrant and nonimmigrant groups, and males and females. Although some non-Mexican groups will be included, the focus will be on students of Mexican descent, said Gibson.

In addition to peer affiliations, other known factors that affect academic achievement include family background, social class, and the nature of the high school, said Gibson.

"We know that minority students who are on the college-prep track with mostly upper-middle-class white kids sometimes feel alienated and disassociated from their peers who are not in their class, to the point that some will voluntarily drop back to where they feel comfortable with their peers," said Gibson.

"Our goal is to untangle the impact of peers from these other factors and to understand the nuances of peer influence. Ultimately, we hope to determine the school and classroom environments that promote assent, trust, and involvement among learners from a wide variety of backgrounds. We hope to learn from the success stories so that we can promote more success."

The Spencer Foundation is a private Chicago-based organization that funds research to improve education.

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