Dr. Julio Cammarota is an assistant professor in the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology and the Mexican-American Studies and Research Center at the University of Arizona, who also co–directs the Social Justice Education Project (SJEP), a youth participatory action research program.
Throughout the 1990’s, I documented the education, work and family experiences of Latino youth in California (see my book, Suenos Americanos). My intention was to understand how young Latinos might achieve some success (i.e. educational achievement or decent employment) in a hostile political and economic environment. The most surprising finding of my research was that Latina females fared much better than Latino males, sometimes within the same family.
I report in Suenos Americanos:
“The gender split in attainment has undergone a flip flop so to speak, in which Latino rates of achievement have plummeted drastically while Latina college enrollment and high school graduation rates have risen and surpassed males. Nowadays Latinas are more likely to graduate from high school and attend college than Latinos. This gender shift in Latina/o attainment is a recent reverse of the historical pattern of school success and failure among Latinas/os. Latina/o communities throughout the country are witnessing the gender achievement gap among their youth. This gender difference is now prevalent across race and ethnic groups within the United States, yet most evident among Latinas/os and African Americans.” Thus, young women are more likely to attend college than young men, and this holds true for all social and cultural groups. As recent as just a decade or so ago, it was the exact opposite.
Since Suenos Americanos, I have conducted research on Latino students in Arizona. The same gender pattern I noticed in California in the 1990’s is also prevalent in Arizona. The gender difference between Latino students has become my prime research focus for the last year or so. Trying to understand the gender gap is a topic of national importance; the Ford and the Gates Foundations recently held forums on this very topic.
This past year I spent every week in a high school classroom located in Tucson, Arizona. The course is a special yearlong social science program in which students receive credit for graduation and learn how to conduct original qualitative research on topics they select. My role in the class is to teach students qualitative research.
The students organize themselves into separate research groups focusing on specific topics. The class was organized into five different research groups, and I focused my own observations on one in particular. This group was composed of six first-generation Latinas who researched ESL language policies at the school. This group fascinated me because research tells us that not too long ago such a group might not exist or at least not appear in the same way. They all sat in the front of the class, were rarely absent, always prepared to work, and excelled with their research assignments. In other words, they were all high achieving immigrant females who were prepared not only to graduate but to enroll in college.
I started to talk to this group every chance I had, trying to identify the special qualities that led to their success. I noticed immediately that they represented a tight peer group of friends and students. They supported each other not only as friends, often discussing matters pertaining to family and personal relationships (boyfriends!), but helped each other with school assignments as well. Scholars describe these helpful relationships as “social capital” such that they hold the purpose of supporting students with their goals of educational success.
The second apparent quality of this group was that they spoke Spanish to each other every chance they had, whether they were discussing personal or educational matters. We (the teacher of record and myself) encouraged them to speak in Spanish, even allowing them to ask questions in Spanish to the entire class. Arizona language politics actually scorns this kind of encouragement. However, we felt that allowing students to speak Spanish would tighten the bonds between them and with us. Research (See Valenzuela’s Subtractive Schooling) confirms this critical relationship between culture and social capital, in which social capital relationships develop and expand through cultural practices. In other words, helpful relationships form through cultural connections.
Finally, this peer group was formed not by the institution, but informally. They became friends at school and worked it out with their counselors to take classes together, and they have been attending the same classes for years. The informal quality of the research group worked to their advantage, because schools tend to formalize student peer groups or cohorts through an antiquated and inefficient way. For instance, this particular school has a “house” system for freshmen in which students are grouped together according to ability. Ability grouping, according to research (See Jeanne Oakes at UCLA), reinforces failure among “at risk” students. The female immigrant peer group was actually comprised of a range of abilities, from A students to barely passing and from perfect English fluency to just learning English. It didn’t matter. They all helped each other to succeed. My preliminary research points to the possibilities of informal peer groups facilitating academic success. The apparent success of the female immigrant group is related to its social capital qualities, cultural connections, and mixed-ability levels. The questions that remain are whether similar male academically-oriented groups exist (I didn’t see any in this class), or whether male and female mixed groups could exist. Most importantly, how can schools facilitate the development of these informal peer groups?