In efforts to transform schools, federal- and state-driven agendas often disregard students as viable producers of meaningful educational space. Some scholars have centered the experiences, actions, and voices of students in transforming their unequal education, establishing that youth play an important role in the educational decisions that shape their lives. Other scholars have focused their research on the organized ways in which students create direct impact on educational and school change, such as through civic engagement, participatory action research programs, and organizing. Similar to the aims studied by these scholars, youths’ everyday interaction with space and place may also reflect their agentive capabilities.
This study is about how four Latina student leaders at one small school in Los Angeles created and maintained spaces of social membership, meaning, and belonging. Through an ethnographic approach, I set out to answer the following research questions: How do Latina student leaders at one urban high school in Los Angeles create place? In what ways is their place-making informed by their culture, identity, community context, or history? To what extent does their place-making shape school space?
Major findings from my work indicate that students’ community context plays a role in the way they understand their actions within their meaningful school spaces. Democratic practices are created and enacted as students claim school spaces, though these spaces are more about membership, meaning, and belonging than political means and ends. Nevertheless, through the spaces they are involved in at school, Latina student leaders learn about themselves, what they can do as a collective, how to be role models, and how to gain affirmations from their interactions with other Latinas.
My research offers insights into the ways students shape school spaces and places in order to represent themselves and their communities. At both theoretical and practical levels, I provide recommendations that call on educational scholars, leaders, and educators to be attentive to issues of space and place as ways to build upon notions of democratic practices and visions occurring within schools.