Mikaela Dufur, Curtis Child, Kristie Phillips, and Carol Ward, Sociology
This research expands the literature on school choice to take into account the impact of minority status and culture on parental schooling decisions. The purpose of this exploratory study is to identify the range of beliefs, experiences and expectations that inform Polynesian parents’ choice of school for enrolling their elementary-aged children. This case study is unique in terms of providing insights into the experiences and attitudes toward schooling among a group of minority parents about whom little is known. This population is of interest because of a bifurcated distribution of educational attainment, with large portions of the community facing educational challenges similar to other minority groups but a notable portion of the community obtaining bachelor’s degrees and beyond. In addition, recent increases in this population–as 1st- and 2nd-generation immigrants and migrants to Utah and other areas of the West–also suggest the need to improve understanding about the schooling needs and interests of this group. Using qualitative research methods and in-depth interviews, the study will also assess how actual experiences with the schools chosen relate to the criteria identified by parents participating in the study. The research results may provide greater understanding about how Polynesian parents make decisions about schools for their children and how those decisions relate to their actual experiences with the school they choose.
Evaluation of How Well the Academic Objectives of the Proposal Were Met
We feel the academic objectives of this proposal were well met. We provide as evidence the fact that two papers from the project were accepted for presentation at the 2015 meetings of the American Educational Research Association. AERA is a highly competitive conference, and rejected proposals are common. To have two papers accepted is notable, particularly when the papers are largely driven by student co-authors. Both of these papers were presented at the conference by students involved with the project, one by a graduate student and one by a team of undergraduate students. The papers were received well, and several attendees expressed astonishment that the students presenting the second paper were undergraduates. We believe that their success is a good indicator of the way their analytic, thinking, and presentation skills grew over the course of the project.
All of the proposed interviews were completed, which created a unique data set. Analyses of these data, described in more detail below in the results section, embody a unique contribution to the literature, as they uncover the thoughts, motivations, and decisions surrounding schooling of an understudied population (Polynesians).
Evaluation of the Mentoring Environment
We feel the mentoring environment worked well and improved over time. Faculty members observed students growing in skill and confidence. Initial meetings were driven by faculty; over time, however, as students became more conversant with the literature and more deeply embedded in the data, we swiveled the meetings so that student teams ran the meetings, determining the agenda and presenting information for their own papers. Under faculty supervision, students arranged and completed all of the proposed interviews, transcribed the interviews and field notes, and programmed the qualitative software to look for patterns. They also produced two papers accepted to the 2015 AERA meetings and made two additional public presentations, one to a community action group in the target neighborhood and one to school personnel from two of the schools from which the sample was drawn. In this way, students were able to practice producing outputs for a traditional academic audience and for more general audiences. This provided experience both for students who anticipate academic careers and for students who plan to go into business or non-profit jobs.
One very successful component of the mentoring environment was the use of a graduate student (Maika Tuala) to help oversee the undergraduate students. Not only did this maintain order and productivity, but the graduate student was able to solidify his own learning through teaching concepts and skills to the undergraduate. Maika also used the data produced in this project for his master’s thesis, which he successfully defended in Summer 2015. This successful defense is an additional indicator of skill acquisition and growth, this time at the graduate level. One improvement we made as we moved through the project was finding that students worked better in “permanent” teams rather pairing and unpairing across calendar availability for interviews. We initially planned to rotate students for interview pairs, but we found that teams really got into a groove when they could consistently work together. This carried over beyond the interviews into working on papers, as the interviewing teams worked well together in analyzing and presenting data, as well. In the future, we would create permanent pairs or teams from the beginning of a project like this.
List of Participating Students
Maika Tuala—2nd year master’s student. Primary co-author on paper accepted at AERA; co-author on second paper accepted at AERA. Will be primary author on paper submitted to journal from the AERA presentation. Used data generated by the project for his master’s thesis. Co-presenter on community group and school personnel presentations. Presented one of the papers at AERA.
Michelle Lucier—1st year master’s student. Co-author on third paper being prepared for submission to the American Sociological Association meetings; primary project manager as she enters her second year in the Master’s program.
Hoku Kobuta—undergraduate student. Co-author on both AERA papers. Accepted and enrolled in master’s of social work program; informed that participation on this project was noted in application.
Cassie Southworth—undergraduate student. Co-author on both AERA papers. Accepted and enrolled in master’s of social work program; informed that participation on this project was noted in application.
Maloni Langi—undergraduate student. Co-presenter on community group presentation and school personnel presentation. Graduated with bachelor’s degree and is working in for-profit sector in the area of SLC involved in the study.
Kawehi Ka’aa–—undergraduate student. Co-author on both AERA papers. Accepted and enrolled in master’s of public administration program; informed that participation on this project was noted in application.
Lavania Takapu– undergraduate student. Co-presenter on community group presentation. Completing bachelor’s degree and is working in for-profit sector in the area of SLC involved in the study.
Daniela Barriega– undergraduate student. Co-author on both AERA papers. Completing bachelor’s degree and still working on project. Intends to apply to BYU sociology master’s program; taking graduate-level courses in qualitative research as preparation for graduate school after being involved in this project. Co-presented one of the papers at AERA.
Camilla Trujillo– undergraduate student. Co-author on both AERA papers. Completed bachelor’s degree and was admitted to BYU sociology master’s program; took graduate-level courses in qualitative research as preparation for graduate school after being involved in this project. Co-presented one of the papers at AERA. Working in for-profit sector in another city.
Alyssa Alexander—undergraduate student. Alyssa worked on the report to the school district and was able to use that experience in her application to BYU sociology master’s program. Accepted to the program and continues to work on the project.
Descriptions of Results of Project
Polynesian parents are distinct in the ways they conceptualize quality schools. While scholars suggest that parents do and/or should take into account school characteristics like test scores, Polynesian parents were more likely to concentrate on school qualities like safety and teacher involvement with individual students. Polynesian parents had a strong feeling that non-Polynesian school personnel have negative stereotypes about Polynesians, so they especially prized teachers who they felt invested in their children and looked beyond ethnic stereotypes. They were also especially attached to school administrators who took the time to engage in Polynesian communities and relationships. Once these relationships were established, Polynesian parents were reluctant to part with them, even when schools with superior test scores or resources were available. This was in part because these parents were unsure that the accepting social resources they prized would be available at the new schools; they also reported feeling that relationships were particularly important in Polynesian culture. These parents are often either well-educated themselves or exposed to well-educated role models in the community, so they were aware of wanting quality academic opportunities for their children. But they also defined these social resources as part of quality academic opportunities, even if the schools where they were available did not have the highest test scores in the area. They were also very concerned with personal safety issues, and frequently mentioned concerns about how lack of a critical mass of Polynesian students in the school might create dangerous situations for their children. Parents valued being in a school with other Polynesian students and parents for safety reasons rather than social reasons, even if those schools were not the highest-performing. These results help us understand how parents in different racial or ethnic groups might be making well-considered, rational choices about their children’s schooling even when they are making choices that do not match scholars’ expectations.
Description of How the Budget Was Spent
The bulk of the budget went to two items: student wages to ensure deep participation in the study, and supplies and travel for the interviews. After students became engaged in the project through directed research credit and proved their dedication to the project, they were moved to paid labor to allow them to concentrate more effort on their portion of the project. The bulk of the budget went to this expense, supporting the undergraduate students for between 5-10 hours/week and providing summer support for master’s student Maika Tuala. The other major budgetary expense involved the interviews themselves. We spent $500 on six recorders and found quickly that we needed all of them, since having two recorders running in each interview prevented data loss. We spent $2000 on gift cards and BYU lanyards/candy as incentives for parent participation in the interviews. Finally, we made the decision to have students use BYU vehicles to travel from Provo to North Salt Lake City for the interviews. We made this choice for a number of reasons: the students could probably not have afforded to pay for the gas necessary to travel back and forth, and paying for the rental vehicles was preferred by our college controller over reimbursing for gas. It also prevented us from requiring students to bear the brunt of wear and tear on their personal vehicles. Some students did not have personal vehicles and would not have been able to participate in the project. Finally, we and our college controller were more comfortable knowing that students driving to perform interviews would be covered by BYU insurance and would be driving safe, well-maintained vehicles while on university business. This proved to be a good choice when one student returning from an interviewed was tapped from behind (by an elderly missionary!) while in a BYU vehicle. The incident was easily handled by BYU personnel without any cost or responsibility to the innocent student. While using the BYU vehicles was an additional expense, we do not believe the project could have been accomplished without them.