Navigating networks of opportunity : understanding how social networks connect students to postsecondary resources in integrated and segregated high schools



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Low-income students of color have the difficult task of navigating their educational pathways in an era of resegregation, where they have higher chances of being tracked to lower academic courses (Mickleson & Heath, 1999) and are more likely to attend low-performing, racially and socioeconomically isolated high schools (Orfield & Lee, 2005). Research promotes the positive educational outcomes of integrated school settings (Wells, 1995), but limited research contextualizes (Wells, 2001) the experiences of low-income students of color in these settings. In light of research on the impact of the racial and socioeconomic composition of a high school on students’ educational outcomes, this dissertation used social capital and network theory to examine how networks of opportunity in accessing postsecondary resources differed between one integrated and one high poverty, high minority high school. Interviews of students and faculty identified by students as institutional agents (Stanton-Salazar, 1997)—individuals who connect students to postsecondary resources—helped frame the two high school portraits (see Lawrence-Lightfoot & Davis, 1997). Without systematic supports in both the integrated and segregated high school settings, only a select group of students were tied to resources that would lead them to their postsecondary aspirations. Students connected to postsecondary resources were at a structural advantage due to opportunities, such as enrollment in advanced placement (AP) courses, which would help broaden their networks of opportunity. In contrast, most students without the same structural advantages as high achieving students often felt lost navigating high school, disconnected from academics, and misdirected in navigating their postsecondary trajectories. Consequently, although the integrated high school was perceived as the gateway to accessing better educational opportunities, stratification occurred, tracking low-income and students of color to non-college preparatory courses. Therefore, low-income and students of color who transferred to the integrated high school in search of better educational opportunities received limited academic preparation similar to what was offered to them in their former low-performing, high poverty, high minority high school. The findings suggest that without both institutional and structural transformations and systematic supports, school integration alone is not the single element to offering greater educational opportunities to low-income and students of color.