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High-risk Neighborhoods

Avenues of inquiry regarding successful parenting in high-risk neighborhoods, particularly as it relates to students' ability to succeed in school, include the following: How do researchers define "high-risk," and how does the concept differ from "disadvantaged"? What is known about the socio-demographic conditions associated with individuals and neighborhoods characterized by "risk"?

To answer these questions, three intersecting lenses of analysis are examined: (1) individual: parenting and resilience; (2) community: social capital and capacity; and (3) interinstitutional: ecology of schooling. The discussion focuses upon the elements associated with educational management functions among families in high-risk neighborhoods.

Definition of "At-Risk"

The concept of a high-risk neighborhood is derived from the set of social and economic conditions that place individuals "at-risk" of failure, or of encountering significant problems related to employment, education, self-sufficiency, or a healthy lifestyle. At-risk conditions include both environmental or community characteristics, such as crime and limited employment opportunities, and individual qualities, such as poverty and low educational attainment. The problems or failures encountered by those labeled at-risk are oriented toward the future but linked to current conditions.

The understanding that interactions between particular environmental and individual characteristics may lead to a heightened risk of negative outcomes is rooted in the health and medical literature, and is widely examined in studies of social stratification, educational inequality, and social policy. Common arguments, such as those of sociologists Karl Alexander and Doris Entwisle, among others, suggest that individuals "disadvantaged" by low socioeconomic status are more susceptible to adverse environmental or community conditions, such as unsafe housing and poor quality schooling. Decades of social science research provide compelling evidence that the extent and concentration of neighborhood poverty and the presence (or absence) of affluent neighbors are associated with an array of outcomes, including rates of teenage pregnancy and school dropout. But policymakers and social scientists also underscore the finding that in socially depleted neighborhoods, residents are often constrained in their efforts to transmit positive values and productive norms because of a lack of community structure and effective social controls.

High-Risk Neighborhoods

Historically, neighborhoods have functioned as the social, political, and cultural webbing for families and children. This context links families and individuals to a set of norms, routines, and traditions. The social scripts embedded in the geography and culture of the neighborhood, if well known and well defined, become institutionalized practices for children and adults. Social actions flow from perceptions of safety and opportunity, expectations regarding appropriate parenting styles and child behavior, norms regarding home maintenance and respect for property. The neighborhood environment defines the formation of particular social networks among families and the levels of trust, familiarity, and face-to-face engagement among members.

Clusters of interlocking and corrosive conditions are persistent in high-risk neighborhoods, and are evidenced by the dense and dilapidated housing, a real and constant threat of violent crime, inadequate and inaccessible health care, a lack of employment opportunities that pay a living wage, and unreliable and limited public transportation. These concrete indicators of poverty and social isolation give rise to an insidious and entrenched culture of fear, disconnection, and distrust in high-risk neighborhoods. Families may be paralyzed by fear of gangs and guns. Omnipresent drug traffic and a constant threat of victimization minimize opportunities for interdependence and delimit social interaction among neighbors within the community. High transience rates in these neighborhoods lead to blocks of unstable and abandoned housing.

How does this social fabric influence children's well-being, particularly their success in schooling, when the population is so heavily marked by concentrated poverty, unemployment, low levels of education, and large numbers of struggling, single parents? How is a parent's pattern of involvement in home- and school-based learning activities affected by these neighborhood-level conditions–beyond individual characteristics (income, education, family structure)? These community-level conditions frame the challenging conditions for parents engaged in managing their children's educational experiences at home and at the school site. Researchers agree that these out-of-school environments constitute vital components that are deeply connected but external to students' experiences in formal school settings.

Resiliency and Community Capacity

Although it is clear that certain family conditions are associated with higher rates of poverty–low parent education, young parental age, and single parent status–it is less well understood how parenting practices in circumstances of poverty may overcome or mediate these "high-risk" conditions to produce successful educational outcomes for children. Emerging research findings point to the important role of resiliency in guiding the actions of individuals. Resiliency research refers to a long tradition of studies aimed at understanding how individuals or groups overcome high-risk conditions, such as poverty, or succeed despite severely adverse family situations, such as an alcoholic or abusive parent.

Certain elements present in the individual or community, known as "protective factors" function to assist people in high-risk environments to over-come the adverse conditions. Internal protective factors include social competence (ability to form positive and productive relationships with others); problem solving (the ability to identify problems and apply appropriate resources to solving them); autonomy (an ability to act independently and with control over their environment); and sense of purpose (the disposition to set goals, persist in achieving them, and maintain a focus). These internal elements function in partnership with external protective factors to produce resiliency and positive outcomes. Thus, schools and neighborhoods that offer resiliency to individuals include the following properties: a sense of caring and heightened familiarity for individual members or students; high expectations coupled with appropriate resources to reach these goals; opportunities for meaningful participation and demands for personal responsibility.

The research literature on community capacity extends and elaborates upon the important influence that neighborhood conditions exert in shaping social action in positive ways that lead to productive outcomes among members. Robert Chaskin has identified four central elements that are often weak or tenuous in high-risk neighborhoods.

  1. A sense of community or degree of connectedness among neighbors–their sense of being similarly situated socially, economically, and geographically
  2. Level of commitment among neighbors who view themselves as stakeholders and assume responsibility for collective outcomes
  3. A mechanism for problem identification, planning and priority-setting, and problem solving
  4. Access to financial, political, and human resources

Community capacity focuses upon the significance of social interaction across individuals, organizations, and networks of organizations. A central asset required for community capacity is human capital–the skills, knowledge, and dispositions among individual members of a community that are profitable for both individuals and the neighborhood in optimizing the processes outlined in the communit-building literature. As James Coleman and Thomas Hoffer note, residents in high-risk neighborhoods who fit the traditional definition of "disadvantaged," that is, are marked by low levels of education and low income, have little human capital and face challenging obstacles in their efforts to build community capacity.

Social capital bridges human capital theory, which underscores the economic value of individuals for collective purposes, and social organization theory. The capacity of neighborhoods to provide constructive assets for parents engaged in managing their children's educational success can be examined through the concepts embedded in social capital.

Social Capital

The concept of social capital emphasizes the role of organizational (e.g., school) relationships in establishing social ties between members who share similar attitudes, norms, and values instrumental in promoting a strong sense of obligation, shared expectations, and trust. These critical elements of social capital help promote trust, facilitate open and fluid communication, and produce purposeful and meaningful activities that benefit students and adults alike. Social capital is sustained when there is "a sense of community" or a set of organizational and institutional affiliations (e.g., civic, religious, professional) that bind families in stable, predictable, and enduring social ties.

The economic and social environments in high-risk neighborhoods may militate against the development and sustainability of social capital. These neighborhoods often reflect their social and economic context: scarce economic resources, unstable social networks, limited social trust, and a perceived lack of consensus on parenting. There are few after-school programs, church-related youth groups, or recreation/civic programs for children, youth, and families. Research studies of parenting practices in high-risk neighborhoods–community contexts bereft of social capital assets–describe parenting as a highly private, protected, and isolated set of activities. Under manifestly dangerous conditions, parents in high-risk neighborhoods manage risk and opportunity by adopting stringent child monitoring and youth control, or "lock-down" strategies. These individual patterns of confinement and insularity in childrearing and parenting reflect the larger, collective neighborhood dynamics. As more and more parents adopt these defensive tactics, increasing numbers of neighbors are disconnected and social networks of support dissolve.

Thus, the capacity of parents in high-risk neighborhoods to manage and promote educational success and healthy outcomes for their children is powerfully influenced by the nature of, and the ability to activate, social capital assets and community capacity-building in the neighborhood. Successful parents, that is, parents whose children are thriving socially and academically despite the distracting and disabling conditions in their neighborhood environments, demonstrate resiliency and an ability to activate internal protective factors. These parents manage to capture "scarce opportunities" in ways that suggest "super motivation" and "unusual diligence," according to Frank Furstenberg and his colleagues, who have studied urban neighborhoods and youth development for decades in Baltimore.

What role do schools play in promoting enduring social ties between families and educators in high-risk neighborhoods? Against this backdrop of distracting and disabling social contexts, how does a school community bind families in networks of support that enhance parents' abilities to promote positive educational outcomes for their children?

School Community

Research suggests that the type and strength of community in schools differentially affects the critical social connections that bond families and schools in the joint enterprise of education. This concept of community refers to two types: functional and value. Functional communities are characterized by structural consistency between generations in which social norms and sanctions arise out of the social structure itself, and both reinforce and perpetuate that structure. Functional communities exhibit a high degree of uniformity and cohesion within geographical, social, economic, and ideological boundaries. Value communities describe a collection of people who share similar values about education and childrearing but who are not a functional community; they are strangers from various neighborhoods, backgrounds, and occupations united around an educational organization–their children's school. Re-search findings indicate that Catholic schools often reflect the elements of functional communities; magnet schools sometimes suggest the elements of a value community.

The families of students in high-risk neighborhoods, however, may possess few if any of the constitutive elements of either a functional or value community. Although public neighborhood schools a century ago served residential areas that were functional communities, social, economic, and technological changes have transformed many of these communities from enclaves of shared values and daily face-to-face talk, to somewhat disparate sets of interests and weak affiliations.

Parent Involvement

Substantial research evidence indicates the positive effects of both home- and school-based parent involvement programs for all parents, teachers, and students. Findings, such as those of Carole Ames in 1993, indicate that parent involvement enhances parents' attitudes about themselves, school, school personnel, and the role each plays in the development of the child. This increased understanding promotes greater cooperation, commitment, and trust between parents and teachers. Finally, evidence, such as that of James Comer in 1980 suggests that students' achievement and cognitive development increases when effective parent involvement practices are in place.

Most significant in the generally positive and optimistic reports on parent involvement may be the evidence that patterns of parental participation are related to differences in socioeconomic status: Higher income and more educated parents participate at higher rates than lower class parents, both in terms of school-based activities and home learning exercises. Studies have identified educative enrichment activities that are crucial for children's cognitive development and school success (reading to children, taking children to the library, attending school-based events) that middle-class parents engage in more frequently than lower class parents. Beyond the benefit of home-based activities (reading, math games, inquisitive conversation) on children's learning, there are strong indications of the connection between teachers' expectations for student performance and the actions and attitudes of parents. Decisions regarding retention/promotion and ability grouping may well hinge on teachers' perceptions of parental interest and commitment.

Research by Deborah Vandell and colleagues in 1999 suggests that parents' patterns of participation (as reported by teachers) may be an important factor in mediating the negative impact of neighborhood risk on academic performance of elementary school students. The types of involvement reported by teachers to benefit children in high-risk neighborhoods include visiting the school for discussions with teachers, supervising homework, and providing children with enrichment activities at home. Vandell and colleagues point to resilience factors evidenced among parents to explain these families' active and purposeful participation in a range of home and school-based activities that benefit their children's academic performance.

School-Linked Social Services

The critical interaction between social structure and school organization in high-risk neighborhoods is amplified by the school-linked social services movement launched more than 100 years ago and rekindled with new programmatic priorities in the late 1980s. The school-linked social services movement has triggered a shift from a model of education based upon separate spheres between home and school to an ecological perspective of family life that considers the human context of need and locates the school as the nexus for expanded social and economic services.

Rebuilding community-based groups and youth development organizations, such as neighborhood centers, recreation programs, youth groups, and after-school art and educational enrichment programs, is critical to improved family functioning in high-risk neighborhoods. The research on family functioning, poverty, and neighborhoods is clear: A multipronged community-capacity building effort is necessary to enhance the ability of parents who are embedded in a context of economic survival and social isolation. Only then can parents overcome the daunting array of formidable obstacles to manage successfully their children's educational experiences in the neighborhood and inside the classroom.


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