Revealing Colonial Schooling: Rejecting Racialized Norms of School Reputation and Student Worth Via Youth and Teacher Resistance
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Revealing Colonial Schooling: Rejecting Racialized Norms of School Reputation and Student Worth Via Youth and Teacher Resistance


Neoliberal advocates frame school choice as the solution to the many issues plaguing public schools, including not meeting state standards, the opportunity gap, and disengagement. This market-driven approach makes school reputation—ideas continuously made and remade about schools dependent on perceptions or experiences—a critical dimension that influences the investment and resources attached to schools. This dissertation asks: How does the reputation at two contrasting high schools shape the school culture and the worth attributed to students, teachers, and the overall school? To answer this question, I conducted a comparative ethnographic study of two high schools in an urban city in California. Logro High School, a diverse school with a growing White student population, showcases award-winning and notable student activities: theatre, engineering, robotics, computer science, orchestra, and tech innovation. Poder High School is also a diverse school but with a Latinx majority, perceived as underperforming and undesirable. Data collection for this study consisted of one academic school year of comparative ethnographic research, including 77 formal interviews, document analysis, and over 200 hours of classroom observations per site. Three main findings emerged from this study. First, Logro High has transformed a “failing urban school” into an academically rigorous and desirable school; nevertheless, the culture was experienced as divisive both socio-economically and racially with little intermingling. On the other hand, Poder High has maintained a longstanding negative reputation as a result of enduring instability and limited support; however, Poder students and teachers actively challenged these negative perceptions by highlighting caring teachers and a welcoming environment, which create a familial school culture. Second, racialized discourses—that is, language or communication that positioned one group as superior and another as inferior—in Logro framed working-class students of color as unworthy and influenced school-wide funding that prioritized prestigious programs that enrolled largely White students. Racialized discourses in Poder framed students as unable to achieve academically or think critically, which justified multi-generational disinvestment and district efforts to convert Poder into a charter school. Third, despite oppressive contexts, young people and teacher allies at both sites resisted; at Logro, students of color created safe spaces through student organizations. At Poder, students collectively engaged in grassroots organizing to challenge a charter takeover and a walkout to march in resistance to condemn the punitive assault of a school security officer on a student. By integrating theories of coloniality, decoloniality and school culture, this research provides a timely addition to a few studies that examine the multifaceted dimensions of K-12 school reputation. In line with scholarship that explores the processes related to gentrification and schools, my work reveals the profound impact of both a positive reputation, that is, a rigorous and academic school, and a negative reputation, that is, a dangerous and failing school on student and teacher experiences. In addition, my findings demonstrate how racialized discourses—about who is and is not worthy—solidify funding priorities that benefit those who experience the most privilege while creating instability for those most disadvantaged. Moreover, by examining the influences of market-driven neoliberal forces in schools, this work sheds new light on the ways that the school system is implicated in the dispossession and violence that vulnerable young people face in the urban context.

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