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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Changing Friendship Networks and Access to Academic Capital : : The Transitions of Middle School Students

  • Author(s): Greenstein, Samantha Brooke
  • et al.

Academic tracking is a ubiquitous feature of American high schools (Argys, Rees, Brewer, 1996). Academic tracking is the process in which students are placed into levels of classes based on how school personnel perceive their abilities. Less is known about how students are placed into classes when they first encounter tracking, which is typically at the beginning of middle school. Middle school is the transitional period between elementary school, where academic tracking is less institutionalized, and high school, where tracking is widespread. Academic tracking has scholastic as well as social implications for students. Research shows that academic tracking occurs along ethnic lines and has social implications (Carter, 2005; Flores-González, 2002). This study attempted to understand how friendship networks change when middle school students first experience academic tracking and how knowledge about educational opportunities is embedded within different friendship groups. The research question guiding this study was : how do institutional practices and friendship networks interact to constrain or facilitate the access to academic capital among middle school students? Nine eighth-grade students who had been members of interethnic friendship networks in elementary school were interviewed about their former and current friendship networks. School documents including student class schedules were analyzed to determine how students' friendship networks had changed, how students accounted for these changes, and about students' access to academic capital. Data analysis produced three main findings. First, the ethnic distribution of students in academic tracks did not match the ethnic distribution of the overall school population. Second, course tracking affects existing friendship networks and the development of new friendship networks. Third, students rely on both peers and adults they trust for information about college, and if people they trust have limited academic capital, there are consequences for these students' own academic capital formation. There are important implications of these findings: secondary school personnel need to examine more closely the school policies and practices that influence course enrollments and how the unintended social consequences of course enrollments affect friendship networks and the access students have to academic capital

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