Harvard Educational Review
  1. Adolescent Lives in Transition

    How Social Class Influences the Adjustment to Middle School

    By Donna Marie San Antonio

    Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004. 352pp. $73.50 (cloth), $24.95 (paper)

    In Adolescent Lives in Transition: How Social Class Influences the Adjustment to Middle School, Donna Marie San Antonio identifies and addresses the intersection of three gaps in the educational literature: rural education, student perceptions of the middle school experience, and student understanding of class diversity. San Antonio presents an ethnographic account of thirty students’ experiences of the transition from two economically disparate single-town elementary schools to a single regional middle school in the rural northeastern United States. Using both sociological and psychological perspectives, and relying on observations, interviews, and questionnaires, San Antonio explores the contexts of the students’ transitions and the social-emotional aspects of their experience. Focusing on students who are identified as successful in their elementary schools, she sets out to isolate and explore the role that social class plays in the students’ transition experiences. She writes:

    This is the story of an economically hard-hit town and a tourist haven, side by side, and the children from these communities who go to school together for six years. It is the story of a well-resourced school with the experienced teachers, involved parents, and a generally supportive community. And it is a story of thirty extraordinary children who generously allowed me into their lives. (p. 27)

    In the introduction, San Antonio presents the literature informing her research. Using Uri Bronfenbrenner’s (1979) conceptual framework of ecological environments to organize her research, she explores the multiple social contexts of students’ lives. Offering a comprehensive discussion of the project design and research process, she provides a window into her two-year exploration of the Hillside and Lakeview communities, the schools, and the students and families involved in the study. San Antonio also provides a compelling story of the challenges she faced as a researcher whose findings challenged her initial assumptions. She writes, “Yes, social class makes a difference, but the conditions that led to student success or failure turned out to be far more complex and far less universal than I originally thought” (p. 6).

    In Part One, San Antonio provides ethnographic portraits of Hillside and Lakeview, contrasts the students’ home environments, and lays the groundwork for understanding “how these thirty students, from vastly different social class backgrounds and legacies, responded to the values that are implicit in the middle-school classroom curriculum, teaching styles, and school policies” (p. 73). She describes the joys and challenges associated with living in either a struggling working-class town or an affluent tourist haven. She depicts the two communities’ remarkably different sixth-grade graduation celebrations, illustrating students’ divergent experiences and varying norms and expectations with which they approach the transition from elementary to middle school.

    In Part Two, San Antonio presents the students’ experience of the middle school. She speaks to “how students from vastly different backgrounds are received and integrated in their new setting” (p. 134), and how they evaluate their new school from their varying perspectives. She looks at the contexts of adolescent development, the rationale behind middle schools, and the research on how adolescents adapt to new school environments. San Antonio also summarizes three major school-transition studies that provide a landscape for her study. Working from notions of adolescence as a problematic time for school transition, person-environment fit, and the relationship between alienation and achievement, she proposes “that the fit between the community and the school is as important to consider as the fit between the person and the environment” (p. 157).

    San Antonio describes a well-resourced middle school with a strong and experienced faculty, and explores the students’ experiences of the school, their new and more diverse peer groups, and the rights and responsibilities associated with middle school. She offers a rich account of the varying approaches that parents and teachers take to facilitate a successful middle-school transition, finding that “parents from different communities hold different expectations for schools, and . . . that parents do indeed perceive differences in power and status” (p. 203). Based on her findings, San Antonio offers advice to practitioners: “An essential task for these middle school educators, therefore, is to accurately assess power differences and to act appropriately to provide access and decision-making influence equitably” (p. 203). Relying primarily on observation and informal interview, San Antonio concludes, “Students do not necessarily lose ground when they transition to middle school. . . . Most research participants thrived in middle school because they had resources on several levels working for them” (p. 248).

    In Part Three, San Antonio explores issues of equity and self-esteem, and the ways unequal opportunities challenge students. Here she offers a more intimate look at a selection of adolescents’ experiences of middle school transition, looking at both social class and gender. She writes, “In the end, self-esteem seems to be very much influenced by how individuals perceive themselves to shape up to the things that are valued by the people they value” (p. 283). However, San Antonio asserts that self-esteem alone will not ensure future success. She also considers the role of extracurricular activities and academic ability and the implications of these factors on student access and opportunity. San Antonio offers a new perspective on ability groupings by questioning their academic and social implications. Noting that a disproportionate number of the more affluent Lakeview students participated in advanced courses, San Antonio considers the potential harm of such exclusivity. She writes, “In today’s world, no one can claim to be well educated without an ability to form reciprocal relationships across diverse boundaries” (p. 354).

    San Antonio presents a portrait of early adolescent experiences of the transition to a regional middle school and in so doing helps to both illustrate and complicate the literature that informs her work. She introduces student voices into the intersection of the work on rural education, student perceptions of the middle school experience, and student understanding of class diversity. Further, she helps give shape to their stories with her thoughtful analysis and her ability to speak to a broad audience. San Antonio presents an accessible and promising point of departure for practitioners and researchers alike, delineating both how her research can inform practice and how her methods can help to shape future research.

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