Strong neighborhoods, parenting can bridge ‘achievement gap’

Henrika McCoy

Henrika McCoy, assistant professor, Jane Addams College of Social Work (click on image for larger file).

A University of Illinois at Chicago study of academic achievement suggests that urban youth may benefit from strong families and safe neighborhoods in addition to child-centered interventions.

The study aimed to learn what factors influence how young people develop their future aspirations — and how those aspirations shape their experiences at school.

“The results of this study indicate that when youth in urban environments have supportive parents and feel safe in their neighborhoods, they are positive about their future and believe they can be successful in school,” says lead author Henrika McCoy, assistant professor at UIC’s Jane Addams College of Social Work.

The study, published online in advance of print in Child & Adolescent Social Work Journal, leads the authors to question what additional efforts can support and motivate young students beyond a focus on counseling, tutoring and mentoring.

The study analyzed data collected from 489 youth in the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods — a multidisciplinary study of the effects of family, school and neighborhood-level factors on child and adolescent development and success in school.

McCoy examined agreement with 14 statements on a questionnaire the youth completed and how their responses linked to their neighborhood environment, future aspirations, parent relationships, and school “self-efficacy,” or belief in one’s ability to accomplish in school.

The statements with the strongest correlation with academic achievement were: “I can be successful” (indicating future aspirations); “I can talk with parents about bad things” (positive parental relationships); and “I can be safe within a few blocks from home” (safe neighborhood environment).

The findings suggest that, in urban environments, neighborhood safety and supportive parental relationships help youth maintain their future aspirations, and those hopes serve as a source of motivation that allows youth to feel positive when facing academic challenges.

“Because success in school can serve as a precursor to future success, it is important to understand what factors will enable youth to be successful in school,” McCoy said, and the results suggest that “it is essential to strengthen the support mechanisms needed to engage parents and make our neighborhoods safer.”

Very little research has examined these concepts together. The research that has been conducted has focused primarily on peer influences or resiliency, McCoy said.

“The larger implications — particularly in Chicago, given the challenges experienced right now with neighborhood violence and school closings — highlight, at the practice and policy levels, the need to invest in communities, parents and youth,” she said.

Elizabeth Bowen, at the University of Buffalo’s School of Social Work, is co-author of the study titled “Hope in the Social Environment: Factors Affecting Future Aspirations and School Self-Efficacy for Youth in Urban Environments.”

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