Recent Research—High School Experiences of High Ability Males in an Urban Environment

Winter 1994 Masthead

Thomas P. Hébert
University of Alabama
Tuscaloosa, AL

High ability students from culturally diverse populations have existed in large urban environments for generations; yet many do not achieve at levels appropriate for their ability. Before urban school districts can address the educational needs of culturally diverse populations, educators must acquire a better understanding of these students’ educational needs. With this knowledge, policymakers can begin to plan educational programs which will not only effectively meet the needs of this changing population, but which will also improve the educational gains of all students. The problems addressed in this study, therefore, were how high ability students’ needs were met in an urban school setting, and what factors distinguished high ability youth who achieved from those who underachieved?

This ethnographic study examined the high school experiences of 12 high ability, male teenagers in an inner-city school in Hartford, Connecticut. Data were collected through participant observation, ethnographic interviews, and document review. Descriptions of culturally diverse high ability students who achieved and underachieved emerged from the data analyses, as well as suggestions for meeting the needs of these high ability teenagers in their urban setting.

Grounded Theory Which Evolved

When examining the everyday challenges that young people in inner-city schools face in their struggle to achieve a better life, we realize that some who reach their goals face greater obstacles than others. A young man living in the projects may go to sleep each night with the sound of drunken neighbors outside his bedroom window, yet he is able to overcome his environment, graduate from high school, attend college, and later help his parents and seven younger brothers and sisters. Another young man who lives in a more peaceful community and faces less hardship may never get beyond the tenth grade. His climb should certainly be an easier journey. Why doesn’t he succeed?

The story of the high school student from the inner-city housing project who succeeded is inspirational, and we can assume that he must have developed personal strategies to overcome his adversity that can be shared. There are young people in our public schools who look at life and know what they want. They have developed a strong belief in themselves which provides them with the energy, the drive, and the tools they need to face challenges. This strong belief in self is the driving force which allows them to succeed in school and in later life. They are successful because they have determined who they are, and they have confidence in themselves.

In this study, grounded theory emerged to explain the differences in the life experiences of high ability achievers and high ability underachievers. In the life stories of the high ability achievers in the study, one trait which consistently appeared was a “strong belief in self.” Several qualities merged to form this belief: sensitivity, multicultural appreciation, inner will, and aspirations. Part of the strong belief in self was a heightened sensitivity. This quality allowed them to appreciate individual differences in people around them, the beauty of language in a poem, or a relationship with a younger handicapped child learning to swim. They knew they were sensitive and appreciated that quality within themselves. With that sensitivity was an appreciation for people from a diversity of cultures and an appreciation for the racial diversity of their high school peers. They knew that their association with people of diverse cultural backgrounds provided them with more opportunities to understand humanity, and with this knowledge of diverse people, they came to understand themselves and to believe in themselves. Also, they had an inner will that fed the strong drive needed to reach for their goals. This strong belief in self naturally incorporated aspirations which included dreams, goals, and visions of a future where they were helping make the world a better place. Through their strong belief in self, they knew they would reach their goals and realize their dreams.

This strong belief in self was reinforced in the high ability achievers in three ways. First, they were supported by a variety of adults who helped them understand that their struggle to succeed was a worthwhile effort. These young men were nurtured by adults who cared, supportive teachers who inspired, counselors who listened and believed in them, and coaches who thought of them as more than just athletes. All of these adults impacted how these students saw themselves and whether they would achieve their goals. Along with adults who cared, they had families who supported them and their abilities. One young man had a family who prayed together and provided him with a deep spirituality. Others had parents who faced economic hardships but believed that tomorrow would be better and helped inspire their sons to believe that they too would see a better day. Along with their strong families and other supportive adults in their lives, these young men became involved in a variety of experiences which allowed them to develop their talents and to be exposed to the world beyond their urban communities. The combination of family support, support from significant adults, and experiences in which they began to see themselves as valued individuals strengthened their belief in self until they knew they were well prepared to succeed.

While the achievers in this study were successful in high school, a second group of high ability young men was not. The perplexing issue is why these young people who came from a similar environment, had similar cultural backgrounds, experienced similar types of families, and had similar access to support systems in their school and community did not succeed. They vacillated in their journey, became filled with despair, were confused, and eventually ended up losing site of their goals.

The high ability underachievers shared life stories filled with negative curricular and counseling experiences which were combined with problematic family issues. These problems grew more serious and had a rippling turmoil effect on the their high school experiences. The students grew to dislike school when they encountered teachers who did not address individual learning styles by modifying the curriculum to meet their needs. Issues at home, such as being overshadowed by a very intelligent, outgoing older sister or a straight A younger brother; a parent who drank heavily; or a religious belief system that was out of alignment with the values system of older siblings compounded the problem. All of these issues caused turmoil in the daily experiences of the young men who were already facing a dismal experience in school. The problems grew worse as the underachievers turned to the negative environment of other young people very much like themselves for excitement and a sense of well being.

One young man was intrigued with gangs, while another and his peers were in constant trouble in study halls and in the in-house suspension center. Together these young people became behavior problems and faced school disciplinary action. These problems often occurred when they were given too much unstructured time. Since they were not involved in positive experiences outside of their classrooms, they turned to their negative environment and troublesome friends for support. With their lack of positive support, the young men’s aspirations became unrealistic or confused. They continued to believe that they might achieve success, while their dismal school experience preempted it. A football player thought college athletic recruiters would overlook his poor academic record and would provide him with a scholarship. Another young man spoke of becoming a commercial artist, yet he did not respond to his art teacher’s advice concerning his art assignments. High school for these young men became a very tedious and upsetting experience, and they continued to look for direction as they struggled each day with the problem. Without direction and without a strong belief in self, they may never be able to determine goals and aspirations, and their experiences will likely dissipate into a life of unfulfilled potential.


High ability students in urban high schools across the country have educational needs which must be addressed if we are to help them reach their full potential. High school educators in urban settings must deal with the question of how to provide their high ability students with an educational program which will best provide for their needs. The following recommendations were made for the high school involved in this research, and they may be applicable to other urban schools.

• Reorganize schools to allow for smaller high school student populations.
In smaller schools, faculty and staff members would be better able to grasp the educational needs of the students and fewer students would be lost in the shuffle. Counselors would have more time to become familiar with the students and to provide them with more appropriate educational programs. In its reorganization, the urban school system should implement magnet schools in the visual and performing arts, sciences, and industrial technology. These alternative programs would provide a stronger match between student learning styles and curriculum.

• Employ a talent development specialist to facilitate appropriate educational programs for high ability students.
The talent development specialist could work closely with administrators, teachers, and counselors in planning programs. The specialist would also work with identified high ability underachievers and their teachers in a proactive manner.

• Conduct staff development sessions focused on the identification of high ability underachievers.
This training would help counselors and faculty members develop appropriate intervention programs for this population.

• Provide strong after school extracurricular experiences and athletic programs to nurture the special interests and talents of high ability youth.
Continuation of programs such as Upward Bound and summer enrichment programs associated with private colleges and state universities should be emphasized and strengthened.

• Provide inservice for coaches in academic counseling and motivational strategies.
A system to consistently monitor academic progress of all athletes should be implemented by the athletic department. Such a system would ensure more than basic eligibility for participation in sports. Coaches who have successfully kept athletes on task academically should be encouraged to share their strategies with their colleagues in the athletic department.

• Abolish study halls and replace them with more productive options.
This would eliminate many of the discipline problems that result from students being bored in study halls. Other options should include tutorial programs, guest lecture series featuring speakers from the urban community, and enrichment minicourses offered to students on a rotating basis. Additionally, workshops for students to plan for postsecondary education should be offered.

• Develop closer ties with family counseling centers in the inner-city to assist urban parents in addressing the developmental needs of their adolescent children.

This study is part of a larger, on-going NRC/GT sponsored study of 30 inner-city students.


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