Life as a student at an independent day school

Life as a student at an independent day school

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Life as a student at an independent day school
Torres, Diana R
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[Tampa, Fla]
University of South Florida
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Subjects / Keywords:
Cultural capital
High school students
Student experience
Prep schools
Independent schools
Elite culture
Social class
Adviser: James Cavendish, Ph.D
Dissertations, Academic -- Sociology -- Masters -- USF ( lcsh )
bibliography ( marcgt )
theses ( marcgt )
non-fiction ( marcgt )


ABSTRACT: This study explores the interconnectedness of social class, education, and cultural capital. Considered academically elite, the independent school is be an ideal environment to find increased instances and opportunities for the acquisition and reproduction of elite, or "dominant" cultural capital. By implementing an ethnographic approach within an independent school setting, this study attempts to illuminate the student experience through adolescents' eyes. Past cultural capital studies focus on the relationship between cultural capital and academic achievement and/or social reproduction; instead, this study focuses on the everyday student experiences as they point to potential indicators of cultural capital. Results suggest that students' perception of 'place' is primarily defined by the presence or absence of money. Overall, the students interviewed expressed contradictory feelings towards having money, rejecting and distancing themselves from some of the advantages associated with wealth while accepting and welcoming other aspects.
Thesis (M.A.)--University of South Florida, 2007.
Includes bibliographical references.
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Document formatted into pages; contains 60 pages.
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by Diana R. Torres.

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Life as a student at an independent day school
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by Diana R. Torres.
[Tampa, Fla] :
b University of South Florida,
3 520
ABSTRACT: This study explores the interconnectedness of social class, education, and cultural capital. Considered academically elite, the independent school is be an ideal environment to find increased instances and opportunities for the acquisition and reproduction of elite, or "dominant" cultural capital. By implementing an ethnographic approach within an independent school setting, this study attempts to illuminate the student experience through adolescents' eyes. Past cultural capital studies focus on the relationship between cultural capital and academic achievement and/or social reproduction; instead, this study focuses on the everyday student experiences as they point to potential indicators of cultural capital. Results suggest that students' perception of 'place' is primarily defined by the presence or absence of money. Overall, the students interviewed expressed contradictory feelings towards having money, rejecting and distancing themselves from some of the advantages associated with wealth while accepting and welcoming other aspects.
Thesis (M.A.)--University of South Florida, 2007.
Includes bibliographical references.
Text (Electronic thesis) in PDF format.
System requirements: World Wide Web browser and PDF reader.
Mode of access: World Wide Web.
Title from PDF of title page.
Document formatted into pages; contains 60 pages.
Cultural capital.
High school students.
Student experience.
Prep schools.
Independent schools.
Elite culture.
Social class.
Adviser: James Cavendish, Ph.D.
Dissertations, Academic
x Sociology
t USF Electronic Theses and Dissertations.
4 856


Life as a Student at an Independent Day School by Diana R. Torres A thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts Department of Sociology College of Arts and Sciences University of South Florida Major Professor: James Cavendish, Ph.D. Donileen Loseke, Ph.D. David Stamps, Ph.D. Date of Approval: March 28, 2007 Keywords: cultural capital, interviews, hi gh school students, student experience, adolescents, education, prep schools, independent schools, elite culture, social class Copyright 2007, Diana R. Torres


Dedication This study is dedicated to independent school students everywhere. We have been privileged in our education and should aspi re to make a difference in our society.


Acknowledgements The work on this thesis has been an in spiring, exciting, challe nging, and interesting experience. It has been made possible by ma ny others who have supported me and I am deeply grateful for the invaluable guidan ce, support, and excellent advice of Jim Cavendish and Doni Loseke. Their consta nt encouragement (both professional and personal) and many discussions made this proj ect a success. I would also like to express my sincere thanks to David Stamps for his invaluable experience and willingness to embark on this project. I am thankful to Maralee Mayberry, Shawn Bingham, Pat Greene, Joan Jacobs, and the late Spencer Cahill for their genuine interest in my success at the University. I am also thankful for my colle agues in the graduate program for sharing experiences and knowledge during our time of study, particularly Sharla Alegria, Amy Leuders, Hosley-Moore, and Annie Wagganer. I take this opportunity to express my profound gratitude to my wonderful parents, my fabulous sister, and my incredible fianc, Jamie Hawken, for their moral support, patience, and love during the two years at USF. Above all, I am most indebted to th e fifteen students who vol unteered their stories and thoughts; this project would not be possible without them.


i Table of Contents Abstract ii Chapter 1: Introduction 1 Research Questions 4 Chapter 2: A Review of the Literature 5 Education 5 Elite Culture 7 Cultural Capital 9 Elite Education and Cultural Capital 12 Predictions and Possible Implications 14 Chapter 3: Methodology 17 Rosetta Day School 19 Chapter 4: Findings 22 Setting the Scene: The Dominant Culture 24 Elite Cultural Advantages 30 Rejection of and Distancing from Social and Cultural Indi cators of Elite Culture 35 Chapter 5: Discussion 41 Limitations 46 Chapter 6: Conclusion 48 References 52 Appendices 57 Appendix 1: Contact/Flyer Sheet 58 Appendix 2: Interview Questions 59


ii Life as a Student at an Independent Day School Diana R. Torres ABSTRACT This study explores the interconnectedness of social class, education, and cultural capital. Considered academically elite, the independent school is be an ideal environment to find increased instances and opportunities fo r the acquisition and reproduction of elite, or dominant cultural capital. By imple menting an ethnographic approach within an independent school setting, this study attempts to illuminate the student experience through adolescents eyes. Past cultural capi tal studies focus on the relationship between cultural capital and academic achievement and/ or social reproduction; instead, this study focuses on the everyday student experiences as they point to pote ntial indicators of cultural capital. Results suggest that students perception of place is primarily defined by the presence or absence of money. Over all, the students interviewed expressed contradictory feelings towards having mone y, rejecting and distan cing themselves from some of the advantages associated with wealth while accepting and welcoming other aspects.


1 Chapter 1 Introduction In recent years, there has been an incr eased interest among policy makers, social scientists, and the gene ral public in the kinds of educa tional opportunities for high school students. To a large extent, such a focus on education presents the controversy of differences between public and private schools (Greene 2005, Spring 2001, Cookson and Persell 1985, Falsey and Heyns 1984). To bett er understand the characteristics of and differences between public and private sc hools, a brief overview is warranted. American lawmakers have long recognized the importance of universal education by making school compulsory for all childre n. The importance of education is further highlighted in the sense that most of the edu cational institutions within the United States are public. The primary purpose of public school s is to ensure every child has access to an education, especially since upward social mobility is potentially possible; in the historical evolution of public schools, education was hailed as a means of ending poverty, providing equality of opportunity, a nd increasing national w ealth (Spring 2001: 6). Even federal policies such as the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 highlight the importance on the quality of public school education. Alternatives to public edu cation exist in the U.S., how ever, with private schools offering such opportunities. Instead of attending public schools free of charge (aside from taxes), private school students and parents ar e required to pay tuition. According to the


2 2003-2004 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, private schools account for 24 percent of all sc hools in the U.S. and they en roll approximately 10 percent (or 5,122,772) of all elementary and secondary school students (Broughman and Swaim 2006). During the same academic school year of 2003-2004, the Nationa l Association of Independent Schools estimates its total studen t enrollment to be 487,618; this translates to about 9.5% of the entire private school student popula tion (NAIS, 2003-2004). Careful attention to independent schools is warranted as they are the elite institutions of education. Yet what makes thes e institutions elite? The primary distinction between independent schools and other privat e schools is their literal independence from other organizations: Independent sc hools own, govern, and finance themselves without the involvement from either the govern ment or private religious organizations. Some indendent schools may affiliate themselves with a religious faith, but oftentimes the union is solely historical as they were founded in the late eighteenth century. Independent schools have the abili ty and right to select specif ic students for enrollment according to their particular missions; conse quently, student admission is considered a privilege and not a right. Clearly, independent school ad mission is contrary to the public school model where every student is we lcomed. In addition, these institutions may hire faculty based on their own criteria, as well as creating their own standards for curriculum and student assessments. It is not rare to find that independent schools typically offer their students an array of additional opportunities including, but not limited to, athletic participation, music inst ruction, membership in school clubs and organizations, state of the art academic faci lities, athletic facilities, and college counseling.


3 According to the statistics from the 2005-2006 National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS 2006), there ar e 1,000 NAIS-member independent day schools, where the average tu ition for all grades was $15,012 for one academic year. Of the students enrolled at inde pendent schools, only 20.6% received some form of financial aid. These statistics indicate th at independent schools are financially exclusive. Not only is a childs admission to the school not guarantee d, but also the cost wi ll be prohibitive to manyif not mostfamilies because the median household income is $41,994 (1999 statistic, U.S. Census Bureau 2006). Even Pa trick Bassett, the Presid ent of NAIS, admits that: When we consider family income data carefully, we realize that probably only the top 4% of families in terms of income ( $200,000+) can readily afford an independent school education for their kids, and only th e top 20% of families ($100,000+) can stretch and sacrifice to pay, especial ly if they have more than one child (Bassett 2006, EBulletin). Not surprisingly, these o pportunities and resources typically allow these independent schools to be prep schools that prepare students for admission to prestigious colleges and universit ies. In fact, prior research suggests that graduating from a private school is positively correlated with attendance at a four-y ear college (Rouse and Barrow 2006, Falsey and Heyns 1984), and more notably, admission to highly selective undergraduate institutions (Golden 2006 Persell and Cookson 1985). In addition, there is arguably a special kind of relati onship between administrators at both colleges and select secondary schools that distinctly favors th e selection and admission of independent school students (Golden 2006, Greene 2005, Persell and Cookson 1985). A practice called bartering reveals the personal and in fluential relationships between officials at


4 certain prep schools and elit e institutions of higher e ducation. Persell and Cookson (1985) suggest that select boarding school s can negotiate ad missions cases with colleges[and] secondary school college adviso rs actively market their students (1212). Consequently, officials at the secondary schools have an increased role that unequivocally influences the college admission processes of their students. Understandably, this is a position of privil ege and power that favors students in independent school environments. While independent schools include both day schools and boarding schools, the following examination will focus exclusively on day schools. Research Questions Because the vast majority (about 80%) of independent day school students come from families in the top 20% of the U.S. so cioeconomic strata, independent schools offer an ideal setting to examine the interconnectedne ss of social class, education, and cultural capital. At the forefront are the followi ng questions: How do individual students understand and reflect on their everyday experiences at such privileged institutions? In what ways do independent school students disp lay and legitimate stude nts social class? How is what Bourdieu calls cultural capital demonstrated and reproduced?


5 Chapter 2 A Review of the Literature To consider the research questions, I first develop a preliminary framework through a review of what is known about the relationships among education, elite culture, and cultural capital as each relates to the present study. The last section in this chapter, Elite Education and Cultural Capital aims to connect all the sections to highlight the major concepts of this project. Education Research demonstrates that educational inst itutions reinforce the social division of labor through the social re lations experienced in school (Bowles and Gintis 1976). Relations in the educational system perpet uate the division of labor by channeling the lower-tracked students toward a certain kind of labor, a nd the higher tracked students toward another (Bowles and Gintis 1976). Th e result is reproducti on of educational and social differences, making social mobility di fficult to achieve. Other research indicates that low-income students and students of color may be tracked for vocational courses to avoid joblessness; however, schools and admi nistrators are unlikely to press these students from low-income and/or minority fa milies to exceed such expectations (Oakes and Guiton 1995). It is advantageous to be in a higher track in the schools, as research shows that these students are more likely to demonstr ate satisfaction and in terest in schooling,


6 experience greater self-esteem, and willingness to engage in extracurricular activities and athletics (Vanfossen et al. 1987). Most signifi cant are the end results of tracking: Low track studentsreported lower educational as pirations and more negative academic selfconceptsattest[ing] to the existence of diffe rent expectations for the future roles in society among students (Oakes 1982: 208). Lo ng-term effects of tracking reveal another dimension of difference: in a study compar ing two school systems, tracking practices resulted in African-American and Latino stude nts being much less likely than Whites or Asians with comparable scores to be placed in high-track courses. Furthermore, the lower-track placements further disadvantage d minority students' achievement outcomes. That is, those who were placed in lower-lev el courses showed lesser academic gains over time when compared to similar students placed in higher-level courses. Ultimately, tracking created a cycl e of limited opportunities and nega tive outcomes, and enhanced the differences between African-American a nd Latino and White students (Oakes 1995). Research also shows that social class di fferences in educati onal institutions are influenced by the students parents. Diffe rent styles of child rearing, disciplining, communicating, and reading, tend to transmit, and hence perpetuate their existing class condition (Rothstein 2004). Despite this str ong link between social class and education, most people still believe in the American Dream, or meritocracy. According to McNamee and Miller (2004: 2), Most American s not only believe that meritocracy is the way the system should work; they also believe that meritocracy is the way the system does work. In a study conducted by OConnor (1999), the author interviewed poor African-American students and found that even these students, despite their dire socioeconomic situations, maintained a beli ef in meritocracy. Although they could point


7 to the structural constraint s preventing them from getting ahead, they believed that individual effort, hard work, and education [is] necessary for getti ng ahead in American society (OConnor 1999: 153). This is an im portant finding because it attests to a contradiction. While articulating a general acceptance of the American Dream, these students simultaneously recognized social limita tions due to their social locations. In sum, McNamee and Miller (2004), OConnor (1999), Oakes (1982), and MacLeod (1995) conclude that their rese arch indicates the American Dream is more an illusion than a reality. Thus, education can be considered not as a cause but rather an effect of social class (McNamee and Miller 2004, Cookson a nd Persell 1991, Lewis and Wanner 1979). For example, working-class children get wo rking-class educations middle-class children get middle-class education, and upper-class chil dren get upper-class ed ucations. In each case, children from these different class b ackgrounds are groomed for the various roles they will likely fill as adults (McNam ee and Miller 2004). Instead of a realized meritocracy, the educational system refl ects, legitimizes, and reproduces class inequalities. In its end result, educa tion denies equality and opportunity. Elite Culture The most significant variable in the reproduction of educational and social differences is social class, which in turn im pacts students educational tracking (Rothstein 2004, McNamee and Miller 2004, OConnor 1999, MacLeod 1995, Oakes 1995, Cookson and Persell 1991, Oakes 1982, Bowles a nd Gintis 1976). If social class shapes students abilities in the classroom, it is important to understand how economic conditions function to determine the value of individual characteris tics and dispositions


8 associated with different soci al classes. Pierre Bourdieu (Bourdieu [1973] 2006: 271) is at the forefront of this debate, and he conte nds the reproduction of social hierarchies in educational institutions appear[s] to be based upon the hierarchy of gifts, merits, or skills. In reality, however, it is a perpetuation of the social order, or the evolution of the power relationship between classes. Implicit in this hierarchy is the assumption that certain traits are better, or at least more revered, than others. Bourdieu ([1984] 2006: 291) demonstrates such a relationship between the characteristics of economic and social conditio ns and the distinctive features associated with the corresponding position. That is, Bour dieu emphasizes the value of high culture as cultural capital, thereby suggesting that the culture of elites is more valuable than that of the working class (Bourdieu [1973] 2006). Co nsequently, lower class cultural capital is marginalized; by establishing binary rela tionships such as high/low, pure/impure, distinguished/vulgar, the categ orization identifies and legitimates a dominant culture (Bourdieu [1984] 2006: 293). This binary fr amework posits high cu lture as not only a dominant culture, but also as superior to all others. Independent schools in particular have the ability to con centrate many elite members children under one roof, and these a ssociations have helped these children reproduce their parents statuses, and thus perpetuate soci al inequalities. Not surprisingly, these schools have historically educated a nd produced prominent and influential members of society (Golden 2006, Cookson and Persel l 1991, Falsey and Heyns 1984). Because of their right to set their own admission criter ia, independent schools may serve as the ultimate example of curriculum high-tracki ng and the method by which dominant culture is maintained. The select population who can afford to pay for an independent school


9 education also exert their power in societ y as members of what C. Wright Mills ( [ 1956] 2006: 72) called the power elite. These indivi duals are in positions to make decisions with major consequences, being they are in command of the major hierarchies and organizations of modern society. More importantly, the power elite are aware of themselves existing as a social class. By sh aring the top social stratum, the elite feel themselves to be, and are felt by others to be, the inner circle of the upper social classes (Mills [ 1956] 2006: 72). Thus, elite schools reflect the preferential treatment and reward children of the privileged (read: high socioeconomic class) with more valuable diplomas and degrees that provide access to further occupational and economic opportunity (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977). Independent schools socialize students in to an upper-class elite culture and effectively provide opportunities to establish fr iendships and connecti ons with other elite families; it is this advantage that facilitates the reproduction of social class inequalities (Lewis and Wanner 1979, Mills [1956] 2000). Admission into such schools can be considered a rite of passage where the goa l is to transform the neophyte into a fullfledged member of the upper class (Cooks on and Persell 1991: 225). Consequently, wealth is a financial resource that can be tr ansformed into other types of capital which have very real social consequences: the ability to purchase items such as books, computers, travel, status symbols and even a private education results in increased cultural capital (Orr 2003). Cultural Capital Cultural capital is learned and promoted in many ways at independent schools (Cookson and Persell 1991). Cultural capital th eory argues that the culture transmitted


10 and rewarded by the educational system reflects the culture of the dominant class. To acquire cultural capital, the st udent must have the capacity to receive it and then decode it. Thus, cultural capital must not only must be recognized, but also understood in order to be reproduced (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977). But just what is cultural capital? Generally speaking, capital can be defi ned as resources that are acquired, accumulate, and are of value in certain situations orare of worth in particular markets (Spillane, Hallet and Diamond 2003). The possess ion of capital, whether it is cultural, social, human, educational, economic, political, symbolic, family or any other type of capital, has important implica tions for individual actors. Ac cording to Bourdieu ([1973] 2006), cultural capital is the most valuable form of capital in the fiel d of education. It is defined as the class-stratifi ed cultural dispositions and appreciation of cultural goods where individuals with high cultural capital enjoy favorable life chances because their cultural style is that of the dominant class. Cultural capital is comprised of cultural resources, or bodies of specialized informa tion and knowledge including style, bearing, manner, and self-presentation skills, that ar e needed to travel and be fully accepted in elite social circles (McNamee and Miller 2004) Cultural capital can al so be defined as high-status cultural signals such as attitudes, behaviors, pr eferences, and credentials that are commonly used for social and cultural inclusion and exclusion (Lamont and Lareau 1988). The following list provides examples of cultural capital as high status cultural signals: knowing how to consume and evaluate wine, owning a luxury car or large house, being thin and healthy, being comfortable with abstract thinking, knowing the appropriate topics for conversations in specific settings, and having a we ll-rounded cultural knowledge (Lamont and Lareau 1998: 156).


11 Possessing the dominant or elite form of cultural capital serves as a power resource by enabling groups to remain dominant or to gain status (Dumais 2002). Cultural capital functions like money, where it can be saved, invested, and used to obtain other resources; it is valuable because it has currency becau se its signals are broadly accepted (Kingston 2001: 89). The inevitable result is th at cultural capital enables the reproduction of the class struct ure by positing value on the dominant groups form(s) of cultural capital. Hence, cultural cap ital includes those aspects of a particular lifestyle that serve to separate its possessi ons from middle-, workingand lower-class individuals (Lamont and Lareau 1988). The conceptualization of cultural capital is generally unde rstandable in the context of our everyday lives, but almost im possible to operationalize in social research. This is not to suggest that attempts have not been made. On the contrary, numerous studies have sought to identify and locate cultural capital in everyday social life (Roscino and Ainsworth-Darnell 1999, Aschaffenburg and Maas 1997, Kalmijin and Kraaykamp 1996, Granfield 1992, Katsillis and Robi nson 1990, DiMaggio 1982, Bourdieu [1973] 2006). However, social science research doe s not always have precise measures of theoretical concepts, and instead uses the clos est measures available to test theoretical concepts empirically (Kao 2004). Bourdieu, for example, utilized indicators such as consumers of the museum, theatre, concert, and other such examples of legitimate culture. These activities are most likely to be done by members of the upper class who also possess greater education (Bourdieu [1973] 2006). Other so ciologists have measured cultural capital as participation in elite cultura l practices such as trips to museums and art galleries (DiMaggio 1982, Katsillis and Robinson 1990, Kalmijin and Kraaykamp 1996,


12 Roscino and Ainsworth-Darnell 1999), while still others have measured it through participation in activities such as dan ce and art classes in high-culture areas (Aschaffenburg and Maas 1997). Elite Education and Cultural Capital Several studies show that cultural capita l plays a pivotal role in the reproduction of educational inequalities (Brantlinge r 2003, Aschaffenburg and Maas 1997, Kalmijin and Kraaykamp 1996, Katsillis and Robi nson 1990, DiMaggio 1982, Lewis and Wanner 1979). Other studies demonstrate how cultural capital reproduces social inequalities because they are based on socioeconomic cla ss. For example, Aschaffenburg and Maas (1997) concluded the effects of parental cu ltural capital and cultu ral participation at varying ages have long-lasting impacts acro ss the educational caree r, thereby indicating social class origin and cultu ral capital are connected. Si milarly, other studies have demonstrated that cultural capital advantages are tied to higher socioeconomic status (Kalmijin and Kraaykamp 1996, DiMaggio 1982). Most important for the present study, re search on cultural capi tal suggests that cultural capital matters for students. Those who possess high cultural capital reap the rewards from educational institutions in terms of academic success (Roscino and Ainsworth-Darnell 1999, Aschaffenburg a nd Maas 1997, Kalmijin and Kraaykamp 1996, DiMaggios 1982). It has been shown that th ere a positive relationship between cultural capital and school success, which can be demonstrated by high school grades (Roscino and Ainsworth-Darnell 1999, DiMaggio 1982). In addition, possessi ng and exhibiting cultural capital is considered beneficial in schools because children who are exposed to cultural capital are better pr epared to achieve academica lly, better understand abstract


13 and intellectual material, and may be fa vored by teachers (Kalmijin and Kraaykamp 1996). Students who demonstrate cultural proficiency of higher status groups are rewarded by teachers in schools because they value it themselves or because they recognize that it is valued by elites and re ward it accordingly (Aschaffenburg and Maas 1997: 577). Furthermore, students who particip ated in activities considered valuable cultural practices (such as visiting art museums and attending classical music performances) were favored by schools and teach ers as they were perceived to be more intelligent than students w ho lacked those experiences (DiMaggio 1982). Ultimately, schools reproduce the class social structure wi thin the educational system by recognizing students awareness, acceptance, and perfor mance of such elite cultural norms and values; thus, students are rewarded by ha ving the dominant form of cultural capital (Bourdieu [1973] 2006). By contrast, students who do not possess dominant cultural capital experience more difficulties in their acad emic careers. A lack of cu ltural capital can discourage students from staying in school, and by otherwise negatively influencing their academic achievement, including the experience of being overlooked and/or neglected by teachers (Aschaffenburg and Maas 1997, Kalmijin and Kraaykamp 1996) These students tend to be in lower status groups in which member s have resource-poor networks, have limited access to high cultural capital, and are preven ted from obtaining access to the rewards of elite cultural capital (McNamee and Miller 2004). Granfields (1991) study of working-cl ass students explored the negotiating processes of students who lack cultura l capital at an elite law school. Through observation, interviews, and surveys, Gr anfield (1991: 127) found that while these


14 students were initially proud to identify with their working class roots, many came to consider themselves cultural outsiders. Ma ny working class students experienced much more anxiety about their academic and social inadequacy than their middle-class counterparts. Granfield attribut ed this deficiency to a lack of cultural capital, and as a result these students learned to strategically manage their identities. One way was to implement appearance management, where by these students successfully mimicked their more privileged counterparts (Gra nfield 1991: 129). By looking the part, students were successfully welcomed and pr omoted into professional advancement. Impression management is important to crea ting a sense of belonging. In the same way, Goffman (1951: 294) illuminates the importan ce of status symbols, which indicate a presence of cues which select for a person the status that is to be imputed to him and the way in which others are to treat him. By a dopting expected status signs, the students in Granfields study were better equipped to fulfill the expectations of th eir status as elite lawyers. Predictions and Possible Implications I am predicting that cultural capital pr omoted by the independent school setting and displayed by the students is the same domi nant type of high-brow cultural capital that is revered and rewarded in the larger United States soci ety. Applying Bourdieus ([1973] 2006) reproduction model, students who come from lower social classes with less financial capital may be at a disadvantage in the indepe ndent school, whereas students with more financial capital from wea lthier populations may experience certain advantages. Consequently, if students possess indicators of increased cultural capital, then the students self-esteem, comfort, and academic success in the school should be


15 greater. Conversely, students w ith less or limited indicators of dominant cultural capital (or with non-dominant types of cultural capita l) may experience greater challenges at the school. Although current research has looked at the long-term effects of students and cultural capital, this study aims to examin e how adolescent students currently perceive and experience their everyday lives in an independent school environment. By implementing an ethnographic approach within the independent school setting, this study attempts to illuminate the student experi ence through these adoles cents eyes. Much of the research on cultural capital has been dist anced from the students themselves, making the need to recognize and acknowledge the meanings created by the students more apparent. This research aims to give adolescents a voice, and by focusing on their experiences, challenges, and rewards, I intend to learn from the students (as prompted by Corsaro 1992). In addition, all of the previous ly cited cultural capital studies focus on the relationship between cultural capital a nd academic achievement and/or social reproduction; instead, my study will focus on th e everyday experiences of the students as they point to instances of potential cultura l capital indicators. C onsidered academically elite, the independent school should be an ideal environment to find increased instances and opportunities for the acquisition and reproduc tion of high-brow, or elite, cultural capital. In this study, cultural capital will be operationalized in whatever ways the students indicate in their exchanges with me Since this study focuses on the student experience at an independent school, many student reflections will likely demonstrate privilege that is facilitated by social class. Ultimately, however, th is study is based on the


16 belief that everyone, regardless of their soci al class, possesses so me form of cultural capital. The degree to which students are legitim ated should be of pa rticular interest to sociologists because it will inevitably transc end class divisions and may also extend to a myriad of other issues such as race, gende r, and sexuality (Kingston 2001, Riehl 2001). As the sole researcher, I was conscious not to ignore other (not dominant) forms of cultural capital, but to rec ognize and provide a better understa nding of it. Poor people are considered a marginalized population, and to not recognize their forms of cultural capital would only perpetuate the cultu ral reproduction of the dominant (wealthy) class. Overall, I am especially interested in the ways social class, education, and cultural capital intersect to reveal more about the world in which we live.


17 Chapter 3 Methodology The data reported in this study come from fifteen students who attended the Rosetta Day School (RDS) during the 2006-2007 academic year. Although RDS is an independent school for grades 6 through 12, I fo cused specifically on students in grades 11 and 12. All requirements by the University of South Florida Institutional Review Board were met for this study. In the fall 2006 semester, I attended mandatory school assemblies at the Rosetta Day School to announce the research opportunity. I also introduced myself and this project as I sp ent time with the stude nts during their lunch hours for one week. To recruit students, I fi elded questions and di stributed flyers (see Appendix 1: Flyer/Contact Sheet). School ad ministrators also issued a school-wide announcement in the parents ne wsletter with information about the research project and ways to contact me if their child(ren) were in terested in participating. To generate even more student interest and answer any ques tions, I provided free pi zza for juniors and seniors. As an added incentive, I advertis ed a raffle awarding one $75 gift certificate or charity donation in the students name. Only students who comple ted the individual interview were eligible for the raffle prize. For students unable to attend the sign-up/pizza opportunity, I left my contact information with school administrators for easy and convenient student access.


18 At the conclusion of the r ecruitment period, a total of forty-six students expressed interest in participating in the study. After initially contactin g all interested students via email or phone numbers provided by the student fifteen students ultimately responded with available days and times for interviews. Interviews took place only after the student had given me the signed parental consent fo rm, read and signed their own assent form, and any further questions or concerns were addressed. While I gave all students the option of where to meet (school, off-campus, or at home), I interviewed most of them in a room or private area of the school, often ri ght after school ended. Sometimes students preferred to meet at a local coffee shop or restaurant within driving distance of the school. I interviewed only two students in th eir homes, and on both occasions the parents or guardians were present. A ll of the settings were privat e, although during the two home interviews, parents were with in hearing distance. I conducte d semi-structure d interviews to allow for flexibility and increased stude nt direction. Open-ended questions prompted students to reflect on their personal experi ences and thoughts in order to indicate how they make sense of the world around th em. Among the questions asked: Why did you decide to apply to RDS? Tell me about your fr iends at RDS. What are some of the issues you and your friends face at this school, if any? Do you feel that you are a part of the community here? (See Appendi x 2: Interview Questions) The interviews, which were conducted in late November and early December 2006, were audio-taped and ranged in length fr om 40 to 75 minutes. All interviews were transcribed, coded and then analyzed. Each interview was as informal as possible, including pre-interview chatte r and maintaining a conversat ional tone, facilitating the respondents comfort with the researcher and encouraging the students willingness to be


19 candid. The fact that I am young (25 years old at the time of the interviews) and wore casual clothes to the interviews (such as jeans, knit tops, and flip flops) helped reduce social distance between me and the respondents. It also aided in providing some basis of rapport. Additionally, elements of my personal educational history were consistent with those of the respondents, speci fically having attended and gr aduated from an independent high school and private liberal ar ts college (most of the students planned to apply to at least one liberal arts college). Although this experience provided some common points of reference, there were also si gnificant differences. My experi ence of attending such school on scholarship and financial a ssistance, Colombian heritage, other state of origin (New York), and working-class family background, n ecessarily made me an outsider from all of the students. Rossetta Day School The Rossetta Day School (RDS) is a private school in a medium-sized city in the south; it is also a member of the Nationa l Association of Independent Schools (NAIS). RDS is governed by an independent Board of Trustees which includes parents, alumni, business and civic leaders of the city and su rrounding area. Each trustee is nominated by a committee and if elected, serves for three years. Currently, the endowment at Rosetta Day School is nearly three million dollars. Since its inception, the school has encourag ed its students to develop and flourish academically, athletically, and artistica lly. The school has a competitive admissions process, and RDS prides itself on the rigorous academic training it offers the students. The average graduating class is about 100 students and there are almost 700 students enrolled in grades six through twelve. This coeducational institution offers its students


20 state-of-the-art f acilities on its 150,000-s quare-foot complex which, in addition to spacious classrooms, includes science labs, co mputer labs, library, full size basketball courts, swimming and diving center, exercise facility, art rooms, photography lab, dance studio, performance studio, wrestling room, a nd music facilities. Half of the faculty members hold advanced graduate degrees, and class size is kept small. In a typical classroom, there are less than twenty students for every one teacher. In order to graduate, students must complete four years of Englis h, three years of Math, and three years of a foreign language (Latin, French, or Spanis h). Examples of the creative and advanced classes available to students include: Harl em Renaissance, Shakespeares Plays, Advanced Calculus and Linear Algebra, Marine Biology, Microec onomics, Sculpture, Photography, and College Prep Writing. Athletic options for students also dem onstrate the diverse a rray of opportunities. Team sports include soccer, swimming and di ving, golf, basketball, baseball, softball, crew, tennis, track, and several others. RDS prides itself in being athletically successful, and the school has earned almost 20 Team State Championships as well as several Individual State Championships since their in ception. Other extra-curr icular activities are also available for students and they include a variety of student clubs and groups; for example, students can join and/or participat e in the Student Council, Community Service, Literary magazines, School Newspaper, Dance, Debate, and language clubs. The school has a 100% acceptance rate to co lleges and universities, and virtually all RDSs graduates go on to attend 4-year in stitutions that include Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Stanford, and Yale. Other colleges a nd universities that ar e popular with the graduates are: Amherst, Boston University, Davidson, Duke, Emory, George


21 Washington, New York University, Purdue, Rollins, Tulane, Wake Forest, and wellknown state universities. Acad emically, RDS offers a competitive curriculum that includes Honors and Advanced Placement (AP) courses. In 2006, more than a quarter of the APs taken by RDS students resulted in sc ores of 3 or higher; most colleges and universities give college credit for such sc ores. Additionally, SAT scores for the year 2005-2006 demonstrate the caliber of students en rolled: the lowest 25% of RDS students scored a 520 in Critical Reading, a 520 in Mathematics, and 510 in Writing. By comparison, 50% of the nations high-schoolers scored a 500, 520, and 490, respectively. In every category, the lowest performing RDS students scored the same, if not better, than half of the nations students. In fact, almost 20 RD S students earned National Merit recognition during the 2005-2006 academic school year. Tuition for one year at RDS is over $ 14,000 per student, although there is needbased financial aid for families who qualify on a first-come, first-served basis. Priority is given to returning students, and according to school administrators, 12% of the RDS student population receives so me form of financial aid.


22 Chapter 4 Findings The interviews I conducted with the students at the Rosetta Day School (RDS) exposed me to the real life experiences and re flections of current st udents living in their particular academic and social world. In many ways, these students are among the most privileged in the nation (and arguably, the world) as they all belong to an institution that is a prime location for establishing elite culture and cultural capital. Self-reports of race for the students incl uded 10 White, 3 bi-racial (1 Cuban and Black, 1 White and Spanish, 1 Asian and White), 1 Black, and 1 Asia n. All but one were born in the United States. The final sample of students included ten seniors and five juniors. Eleven students were females and f our were males. All students were between the ages of 16 and 18 at the time of their in terviews. Of the student s, three reported being on some form of financial aid. The following are additional demographical characteristics: Students began their careers at RDS at various grades: 4 began in the 6th grade, 2 in 7th, 1 in 8th, 5 in 9th, and 3 in 10th Educational histories ranged from no prior public schooling (4 students), some prior public school (9), to all prior public schooling (2) Seven of the students had one or more sibling(s) also enrolled at RDS


23 Of the students parents, 11 were marri ed, 3 were separate d or divorced, and 1 was unable to provide marital status information (the student did not know) To get a preliminary sense of students fina ncial resources, I assessed their house values using, an online real estate service that is pub licly accessible. The values of students homes ranged from $217,000 to $2,275,000. Students whose homes were valued under $500,000, listed as lowest to highest, are: Brenda Melinda, Felicia, Tamar, Stacey, Amy, and Eric. The remaining students whose homes valued over $500,000 are, in ascending order: Christine, David, Nora, Laura, Owen, Julia, Katie, and Ryan. Melinda, a student whose parents are divorced, lives with one parent whose home is valued significantly under $500,000. Her othe r parents home, howe ver, is valued well over $1,000,000. Most notably, she is the only student interviewed who was currently employed part-time while attending school. This information is valuable in the following analysis of personal experiences within the independent scho ol setting, especially when considering the close connection between financial and cultural capital. As is evident, the demographic characteri stics of students I interviewed varied in multiple ways. Of most intere st are their outlook, understanding, and evaluations of their academic institution and the students place in it. The first part of this section considers some of the experiences identified by stude nts that point to indi cators of the dominant culture. By describing the status quo, the interv iewed students also rev eal aspects of their own self-consciousness and self-awareness, espe cially as they relate to perceptions of financial matters and school diversity. The subsequent sections critically examin e students perceptions of their place in such a culture, revealing two primary and contradicting themes. Students responses


24 about their experiences in and perceptions of the independent elite school culture indicate: (1) their recognition and acceptance of elite culture and its advantages, and (2) their rejection of and distancing from indicators of elite culture. The interviews suggest that the students understandings of their independent school environment were, in fact, conceptually and experientially contradictory. Setting the Scene: The Dominant Culture As is expected in an independent school setting, the pres ence of money is prevalent throughout the interview data since many student s and their families have high financial capital resources. As the following show, the independent school experience of the students interviewed is rooted in a language of us and them. Students often positioned themselves against or counter to other groups of students, and what is most significant about the separation of us and t hem is that most of the differences are established in relation to money. The students I interviewed shared thei r reflections and experiences between themselves and their classmates. In doing s o, they also pointed to indicators of the dominant culture prevalent in their independent school enviro nment. Oftentimes students self-awareness is closely linked to their financial situations The two extremes prompted different reactions: some students on financ ial aid face possible social and academic exclusion, while very wealthy st udents experience social criticism. In both situations, the students perceptions provided indica tors of the dominant culture. Students reflections of st udent body diversity further demonstrate how the dominant culture impacts students self-awareness, particularly when comparing themselves to underrepresented groups and populations.


25 For one student receiving financial aid, the issue of money and financial capital appears to be easily managed. Brenda reports that [being on financ ial aid is] no big deal or whateverthat doesnt separate me from them really. They dont bring it up at all so its not a big deal [Emphasis added]. While she is one of three students I interviewed who received financial aid, she believes that this status does not impact the way other students, specifically they who pay full tui tion, view her. This is an important comment because it demonstrates the extent to which Brenda feels as though she is accepted within the greater majority of students that presum ably possess more money than her family. To her, being on financial aid is a non-issue. However, the use of me and them suggests there is a fundamental difference after all. Unlike Brenda, Felicia believes money is an omnipresent issue at RDS. She remarks that the school often doesnt even r ealize the fact that not everyone has money. She, too, receives financial aid and describe s a graduation requirem ent all students have: a week-long class trip. Parents are expected to pay for the expenses of this requirement, although the student can opt for the 20-page pa per meant to replace th e trip. In addition, course selections can result in added financial burdens. For example, Brenda shares that if you take physics, you have to go to [the amusement park] and you have to pay for it. Yet, one ticket to an amusement park can often exceed $40. These examples, added to the fact that additional tuition money is required for summer school (discussed later), indicate that some students and their fa milies may face financial constraints in participating fully, or even comf ortably, at the independent school. Even other students, specifically non-fin ancial aid students, are conscious of financial aid students conditions and limitations. One student, Melinda, is able to


26 identify students receiving financial aid becau se theyre not afraid to say it. I know the kids and they dont really have rides anywhere and they gotta catch the bus and they kind of like live down in the ghetto. She also observes that a lot of kids that I know that are on financial aid [are] not the big social people. They dont have all the friends, they dont have all the parties, they don t have all the cl othes. I mean they have a small group of close friends (Emphasis added). Again, the idea that money matters is evident in the ways students look and how they present themselves on a daily basis. Melindas comment also suggests that perhaps student s who can not afford the right clothes experience very real social consequences fr om their classmates, specifically exclusion. In fact, Julia, another full tuition-payi ng student remarks that: [Y]ou have to pay tuition andif you want to fit in with the mainstream crowd you have to have money for nice clothes. One possible conclusion suggest ed by Julia is that greater financial resources may enable students to blend in a nd look like the majority of students. In practice, the task of looki ng like others in the studen t body requires some financial capital: students have to purchase the clothing and accessories. Amy summarizes that girls and guys mostly wear Lacostea lot of Lacoste and Ralph Lauren Polo and that kind of stuff. The girls, they wear a lot of Juicy Couture and Lacoste and hand bags, mostly Louis Vuitton and Coach, probably the mo st prevalent. Of course, all the brand names mentioned are typically expensive. Students on the other end of the spectrumstudents with a lot of moneyalso elicit negative reactions. Many of the students interviewed initiated the us and them separation technique to disti nguish themselves from classm ates who basked in their


27 familys financial wealth. One of the majo r complaints cited was the over-emphasis on material things. As expected, such material objects were used as high status symbols: AMY: I dont like many people here. Theyre extremely materialistic Most of them are very immature I just tend not to like many people Theres a lot of people that show their status and that kind of stuff really comes out [M]ost conversations, if you walk down the hall with girls have to do with what they bought on their shopping trip the night before or what kind of car theyre driving. [Emphasis added] RYAN: [Money may be a necessary thing] and that might be, most likely a subconscious thing but its a showing off of the money whether you want to show off your money or not. I thin k thats how it comes out. It may be kind of vicious of me but[Emphasis added] Both Amy and Ryan suggest that some students may end up showing their ability to purchase expensive items. While Amy points to those students who do so deliberately, Ryan suggests that perhaps some students may end up giving that in formation even if it was not their intention. This is interesting because he notes the possibility of students simply having expensive items and clothing, an d not because they want to show off but rather because they simply or naturally own th e materials. That is, having such items may be a normal part of their existence. For Laura, a non-financial aid student, it took some time to realize that the emphasis on the material objects was tempor ary and superficial. She recalls that: Like freshman year, I thought and all the other freshman girls thought this too, that you had to carry a Coach purse ; theres definitely a lot especially among the younger girls. They think that going into the school, thats what you have to be like. By the time sophomore year is over and you go into junior year, the girls are like Wait a minute, no one really cares. And no one really does care. Its just really not an issue. I think it just takes some time for everyone to mature and realize that its not important. [Emphasis added]


28 The idea that students may feel as though they have to conform and buy specific brands and material objects is typical of many adolescent settings; however, they may also be more pronounced in an environment like an i ndependent school since most students hail from the upper classes. All of the student s comments above suggest that owning the right material possessions could and often do result in higher social standings. Yet to accept that owning expensive material goods confirms ones social value (as in friendships, acceptance into peer groups, etc.) legitimates the idea that individuals need money in order to be accepted. Lauras comment may indicate otherwise: perhaps owning such things may be temporary and supe rficial after all. S till, access to money, whether it is to buy purses, cl othing brands, or other material goods has the possibility of positively influencing and affecting students experiences in the independent school. In fact, some students interviewed reported addi tional services obtained with parents financial capital, including: private language tutors, privat e music lessons, traveling to visit prospective colleges with family members, and even hiring a private college counselor. Students general awareness and re flections suggest that moneywhether it is present or absentdoes ultimately matter. The students interviewed provided their per ceptions of diversity at the school, and in doing so they exposed much about thei r own self-awareness and the populations lacking adequate representati on at their school. During the interviews, each student was asked to define diversity according to his/he r own ideas and requirements. As a result, I received a variety of different responses that indicated the myriad of ways diversity can be defined and considered. The traditional or expected response citing racial diversity did occur, and most students comm ented on the racial diversity at the school:


29 DAVID: Race-wiseI could probably count the black people on both hands. OWEN: Racialwe dont really have dive rsity there. Its so small its almost negligible. According to these students, racial diversity seemed to be particularly lacking. Julia, a non-financial aid student, provides her explana tions for the lack of racial and ethnic diversity: Ethnic diversity, I feel like its mostly a White school, which I wish there was more diversity but yea, thats just the way it is Maybe [due to] like economics, like financial problems is an issue. Yea, I guess that probably plays a big part. I dont think it has anything to do with intellectual abilities or anything. Definitely not. [Emphasis added] Julia explicitly distinguishe s between financial and inte llectual ability, a noteworthy distinction that no other student made in th e interviews. The charac teristics of race and class are oftentimes collap sed within independent schools; more specifically, underrepresented groups such as African Americans and Latinos are often-times absent from the independent school world by the simp le limitation of family financial resources. In general, the students interviewed ar e aware that high fi nancial capital is generally the norm for the majority of independent school students. A few of the students interviewed identified the lack of social class diversity. Eric even makes the quip that theres a couple kids who are not there with moneybut theres a lot of them [with money] almost all of them have enough money to buy the school pretty much. Like if they pooled all their money, they could buy the school [Emphasis added]. The students interviewed, no matter whether they received financial aid or not, where conscious of the presence of money at their school.


30 Felicia, an African-American student on fina ncial aid, points to a potential effect of class and race at the school. In particular, she suggests it negatively affects the support network between herself a nd other black students: I still dont talk to the [blacks] in my grade. Like Ill say hi to them but its not the same. I have reasons. I just dont. I get along with people, I justtheyre more preppy than I am and stuff, and theyre richer than I am so they get along with th ose group of people better. [Emphasis added] Asked how she knew they had more money, she responded, [Because] I look at their parents and stuff, I mean, we used to talkyea. Like you can tell, just like materialistic things. Like where they live. Even though bl ack students at the sc hool share their race, Felicia did not connect with those other stude nts because of the apparent social class differences. In this environment, social class cohesion trumps racial cohesion. Elite Cultural Advantages Towards the beginning of each individual interview, I asked the student why s/he chose to attend Rosetta Day School. All of the students responses indicated a general preference for the independent school insofa r that it was simply a better academic alternative to public sc hools. For example: AMY: I know that [my parents] just want ed the best education possible and I know that my mom being around the e ducation system just does not have much faith in [states] public schools. MELINDA: [My perception of public school is] bad. My moms a teacher at a public school, so its like amazi ng how little knowledge these people can have about English, and writing sentences, and they still manage to pass 12th grade when theyre basically illiterate. LAURA: [M]y parents just wanted me to take the right path.


31 Like Amy and Melinda, most students cited their parents disdain toward the public school system. Additionally, all students suggested that ultimately, RDS was simply better than any public school. Presumably, th e right path Laura alludes to includes access to the secondary schools that would cont ribute to the guarant ee of later success in life. For the students in this study, their enrollment in the independent school demonstrates how they believe public school s are badespecially when compared to RDS. Furthermore, Brenda, a student of color who attended a predominantly Black public school through 5th grade, reflects on that experience: I didnt really fit in. I didnt talk like a public school girl. I spoke educat edly. They used Ebonics and slang, and I was disconnected from that because I didnt know about that. Her disdain and disapproval of Ebonics points to her belief in the connection between edu cation and language; Brenda suggests that public school reflects the absence of education, even though she uses educatedly, a non-existent word. Nonetheless, her point is clear: she was better than Ebonics and better than public school. In doing so, Brenda legitimates her place at RDS. Similarly, Felicia, another student of color recruited from public school in the 8th grade, contrasts herself from her public school friends: [Ive changed in] the way I talk. We just laugh about it. Its so much different. Like you can notice it. Theyre like, you talk so different now. Cuz I correct them now. Theyre lik e Im not doing too good and Im like well. Theyre like youre such a little White girl now [Emphasis added] Like Brenda, Felicia is able to compare the types of students from her past public school and current private school. Her ability to corr ect others English is likely a demonstration of education and knowledge, and for these frie nds, that translates to being White.


32 Brenda and Felicia had to negotiate the value of language at some poi nt in their lives, as both girls were a part of public and private schools with different norms. Ultimately, their enrollment at RDS confirmed the assume d superiority of the independent school environment and its education, thus further empowering them in relation to their public school counterparts. In addition (and not surprisingly), the stude nts I interviewed believed that colleges and universities actually pref erred students who attended independent schools. For example: BRENDA: [The best part about this school is] how colleges look at you because they know youre going to private school and that its harder than regular public school Thats the reason Im doing [this]. [Emphasis added] CHRISTINE: [The best part about being a st udent here is] probably getting a really, really good educa tionI think overall Im r eally, really prepared for college and Ive learned a lot a nd the classes are smalleven though sometimes there's a lot of work and it kind of sucks, I know that in the end, Im getting the best education [Emphasis added] KATIE: The fact that prep schools, especially [this school], all your classes are automatically honors which [is] really appealing. Im used to having all honors classes so it never occurred to me that they were technically harder classes than what most high-schoolers would take. It just never occurred because I was used to it by the time I finished middle school. You know, it was important for co llege. My parents were always thinking about the future and I started thinking about college when I was in eighth grade. [Emphasis added] NORA: I think that my parents thought that since I had higher college ambitions, certainly [RDS] on your college application looks good because they know that youve gotten a good education [Emphasis added] The link between independent schools and a good education is apparent in the students responses. The students believed that coll ege admission is a testament to the good


33 education received at their independent school. This belief implies that a good education is found in independent school s, where students not only can do better, but also should be better. That is, independent schools contribution to college entrance demonstrates how parents, and subsequently their childre n, sincerely believe independent schools are superior to other types of schooling. Some of the students I inte rviewed also shared another perspective of fellow students altogether, pointing to examples of those who do not meet the typically high academic expectations of the independent sc hool. Laura shares her frustrations about some of her classmates: [Administrators were asking] Well why doesnt it work when we call home to the parents? My response is Parents, they dont give a shit. They send their kids to a day care, they pay money and their kids go here and they think that they re getting a good education but meanwhile when theyre not looking, bad things are happening. [Emphasis added] Laura suggests that for some parents, si mply having their child(ren) attend an independent school fulfills their obligation to provide a good education. Not only are independent schools believed to offer only excelle nt classes, but they are also believed to have superior, motivated students. This id ea may be a taken-for-granted fact of independent schools and other elite educational institutions. These instances of disruption from the expected norm illustrate how the advantages of independent schoo l are recognized and accepted. Being a student at an elite school like RDS has its advantages, re gardless of academic motivation and/or performance. Christine describes this trend well: I think that there are two tracks at RDS. [O]nce you get to sophomore year, youre allowed to pick what cla sses you want to take, and there's like


34 usually the type of student wholl pick the harder classes and there's the type of student who doesnt But I kinda think like a lot of time people pick the same classes are th e people who end up the same. Like there's the people who pick the AP classes and the advanced, and those would be the ones that more academi cally oriented. And I mean, theres usually the people who you wonder w hy their parents would spend so much money to send them to [this school] when they dont do anything. Like I just dont understand, you would think that if you were failing out every year, like having to take summer school to keep up that your parents would realize that it wasnt the right place for you. [Emphasis added] Although students in independent schools are expected to do we ll, it is not always the case. According to Christine, students self-elect their classes and in doing so, elect a path for academic success or failure. Additionally, some students opt for the harder classes while others do not. The end result, though, reve als that some students may actually fail, and as Christine suggests, some students may even fail multiple times. Her response that the school is not the right place for some st udents subscribes to the general belief that independent school students are expected to do well academically. In fact, Stacey identifies the unmotivated students as those who stand out from the majority at RDS: I think that if kids aren t trying, they stand out. If someone is, like, literally a lob or a slug and theyre not putting any effort into academics whatsoever, its weird here. And I think its just assumed that youre [going to] go for help if you're having trouble in a class a nd youre [going to] stay and talk to some teachers an d youre [going to] take advantage of the opportunities and the relationships that RDS has and I think that if you arent engaged in getting help, and you arent engaged in working to do well in school or youre just not pl ain ol getting engaged to be in the community here, thats odd. Like Christine, Stacey makes a similar dis tinction between motivated and unmotivated students, attesting to the reality that not all independent school students are driven and motivated academically. This is even more apparent in an educational setting where


35 students are encouraged, if not expected, to obt ain extra help, interact with teachers, and engage with the community. The general st udent culture of independent schools is perceived to be responsible for transmitting personal motivation, responsibility, and discipline. Simply put, all students are expect ed to do well. Both Stacey and Christine do not question if students have the ability to do well, but rather identify motivation as lacking; both students are assuming that every student can do well at the school. Lastly, another advantage of attendi ng an independent school includes the potential for future social networking. Felic ia, a student on financia l aid, reports how her mother repeatedly emphasizes the future career networking with other independent school students. Felicias mom constantly tells her that: Those are the future business leaders and youre [going to] need to know them when you graduate and theyre [going to] help you and [RDS is] a so much better schoolwhen you get a job, these people are [going to] be your friends and th eyre [going to] help you [Emphasis added] The potential networking and social capita l available from attending an independent school highlights a prominent belief that elite culture exists in this environment, where the children will likely reproduce the social stat uses of their parents. That is to say, since most of the parents of RDS students can afford the tuition, high financial capital is the status quo. More importantly, Felicias situa tion exemplifies the not ion that independent schools socialize students into an upper-c lass culture, promoting friendships and connections with elite families. Rejection of and Distancing from Social and Cultural Indicators of Elite Culture While all of the students I interviewed identified with and embraced different aspects of elite culture at RDS, they al so disassociated themselves from other


36 characteristics of their el ite culture. The following accounts demonstrate the ways in which the students interviewed identified and re jected and/or distanced themselves from particular independent school norms and exp ectations. The responses offered by some of the students interviewed reflected a binary relationship with respect to money; in particular, students used the us and t hem language and forms of expression to describe the differences established by the ever-present indicators of money at their independent school and the a dvantages of having money. Amy exemplifies this as she recounts her fr ustrations with students who refuse to take academics seriously: A lot of people areintellectually immature. A lot of people cant even seem to engage the same type of conversation as a certain group of people here. And I dont know, theres a lot of people that go home, dont do any work, go to bed and go out and ge t trashed every single day after school. Like weekdays, everythingLik e, do you ever th ink about turning in your homework assignment in, like seriously. [Some students] parents dont care [that they dont do well in classes]. They have like, Ds You know, the school is not that hard. It is not hard to do worksheets and turn them in. And I think thats when it comes down to a respect issue for the teachers. Like a lot of people arent respectful because they really dont care, and I think that a lot of th at has to do with the fact that we have so much money that they dont care [Emphasis added] Amy emphatically makes a connection between respect and students performance in the classrooms. Her major complaint is that a lot of students fail to respect even the arguably minimal requirements of some cla sses. While these students consequently receive mediocre or bad grades (Ds), th eir nonchalant response indicates to Amy that they really dont care. But to not care requires that the students have something else: so much money. While she includes hersel f in the group that has so much money, she solidifies the di stinction between he r and the non-caring st udents because unlike


37 them, she respects the academics and does th e required work. Amys comment suggests that she believes having money affects the wa y some students may justify and/or explain their lack of respect and/or concern toward the academic requirements. Amy also adds that a major characteristic of RDS is that Its not so much like public school where people dont graduatepeop le graduate here. According to Amy, students who do not comply with the mi nimum standards (such as completing a worksheet) still manage to graduate from the independent school. Stat istically, this point makes sense, as it would reflect negatively on any school if students do not pass courses and/or graduate. Therefore, passing and gra duating students serves to ensure a positive image for the school. Since some students a ttend independent schools simply because their parents can afford the tuition, it does not appear to be an e xpectation, nor is it mandatory, that every single independent sc hool student put in the time, effort, and dedication necessary to achieve academic su ccess. This idea point s to a contradictory reality of the independent sc hool culture: the types of st udents that supposedly attend such institutions are not all smart and/or hardworking. Similarly, Brenda observes that some students may not care about classes they take during the traditional school-year because they can afford summer school. At RDS, students can attend summer school and repeat a course they have failed, or they may reenroll in certain courses to replace an ex isting low grade. While summer school seems like an opportunity to boost students grades, it also requires additional fees to be paid, as summer school tuition can range between $1,000 and $2,000 (depending on the number of semesters enrolled). Brenda, a student receiving financial aid, believes that:


38 Usually when youre wealthy, youre ob livious to the hardships that you have to go through, so they take things for granted Students [at RDS] are usually rich [and] they dont really care about school much, [they] party a lot. They are wealthy so they can afford summer school, so they just dont really try I guess. [Emphasis added] As Brenda suggests, some students with m oney (they) are privileged with more academic opportunities to literally keep trying in their quest to get passing or even better grades. Furthermore, Brenda is sugge sting that those students who can afford summer school are also the ones who dont r eally try. For Brenda, her observations lead her to believe that not only is summer school a privilege (since it requires tuition), but also an advantage that w ealthier students take for gran ted. While her reflections may be colored by potential resentment towards her classmates, Brendas observations point to a very real social privilege and cultural advantage experienced by wealthier students. Not only can students obtain better grades but their transcripts to colleges and universities are enhanced in comparison to students who may not be able to afford summer tuition(s); such a difference has the potential for very real consequences. For some students, money is also a prom inent issue in the ways RDS responds to students breaking rules. For example, Amy e xpresses frustration about the students who return to the school despite supposed expulsion: [P]eople get kicked out of the school for like horrible, horrible things and they come back the next year because their parents have three kids here. People fail out of this school and no one cares because their parents contribute so much money Thats just something to think about. I dont think its a surprise [Emphasis added] The importance of parental financial capital is evident, where moneta ry contributions and donations are, at least in Amys perception, buying the student out of any trouble s/he may have caused. In a school where many fam ilies come from the upper class with high


39 financial capital, Amys critiqueseven if unfoundedsuggest that she not only recognizes many students at RDS are wealthy, but also that some of these students families may use that money to ensure their childs well-being despite any behavioral problems. This perspective is unlike student s who receive financial aid. For example, Felicia appears to be particularly aware of the precarious nature of her enrollment. Coming from a family without high financial capital, she recount s a conversation with her mother: [M]y moms like if you were ever doing drugs [in school], then you wouldve been in jail [unlike other student who went to rehabilitation.] Or like some kids had sex in the parki ng lot but they didn t get in trouble. Like security told the school and theyre like We cant do anything because their parents are the main donators or something. [Emphasis added] For Felicia and her mother, money (as demonstr ated here in the cap acity to donate) stood at the forefront to explain why students caught doing illegal acts were allowed to stay at the school. The comments made by Amy and Felic ia indicate that families with high financial capital may have potentially significan t advantages with respect to disciplinary issues. Recent incidents at RDS have also in troduced other opportunities for students family financial situations to be further sc rutinized. Earlier in th e year, some students vandalized school property, elici ting a strict response from the administration. When the school ultimately identified the students respon sible, their student accounts were charged to pay for the damages. This final punishment was made public and prompted one student, Christine, to ponder about th e implications of such a solution: [A] lot of peoplethink that they can mess up and do whatever they want and then their parents will take care of it But the whole thing


40 about your account being charged? I mean I understand they have to pay for it someway and we dont have jobs, but I thought we could do something, like have a car wash or something to raise money but it was more like people just want to forget about it and thats it. [Emphasis added] Contrary to the school response, Christine believ es that the students themselves should be held accountable. Her solution of student ac tivism (raising money with a car wash) is a different type of response than charging students accountswhich ultimately parents pay. According to Christine, the other students (they) who find privilege in their parents money are removed or freed from i ssues of responsibility and culpability. In Christines response, it is evident that for this particular scenario, access to money (as demonstrated by charging the parents via students accounts) s eemed to be more important than, for example, issues of respect and community. Of course, the above students accounts and reflections may not represent everyones views, but by consid ering their reflections, it is possible to identify a general theme that not only emphasizes the educational advantages of elite culture, but also how some students are aware of the potential pr ivileges that accompany having money. Most importantly, some of the students interviewed de monstrated their ability to identify such privileges and actively rejected and/or di stanced themselves from those advantages.


41 Chapter 5 Discussion Independent schools are an ideal location to evaluate important aspects of elite culture. The young men and women participating in this study not only gave their personal insights and everyday experiences, but also reflections and thoughts concerning other students at their school. In his evaluation of the power elite, Mills ([1956] 2006: 645) notes that education is important to th e formation of the upper-class man or woman. Furthermore, private schools select and train new members of the upper stratumtransmitting the traditions of the uppe r social classes (M ills ([1956] 2006: 65). In addition, Mills states that it is by m eans of these schools more than by any other single agency that[families] become memb ers of a self-conscious upper class. In effect, upper class students educational at tainment affirms and (re)produces an upper class culture. For the students in this study, their self-consciousness is key to understanding the ways cultural capital is learned, displa yed, and reproduced in their independent school. Independent schools dominant culture is that of the elite a nd upper class culture. As expected, members of the elite class de velop a perception of their place both in schools and greater society; this is especially the case within independent schools. There, students not only obtain partic ular kinds of information and knowledge through their academic coursework, but are also surrounded by a majority of others who already


42 belong to elite social circles. Cultural capital is present in this environment, particularly in the ways that students accept and affirm their place in the independent school. As indicated by some of the students interviewed, acceptance of their own dominance and superiority over other kinds of students and educations (specifically public school) seems inevitable with their enrollment in the independent school. For many, being elite means being better than others, and the stories provided by Felicia and Brenda about speaking be tter English (versus Ebonics) suggest that even students who are not considered elite by their financial resources (b oth girls received financial aid), they considered themselves elite becau se of their exposure to and immersion in an elite academic and cultural institution. Cons istent with prior research, possessing elite forms of cultural capital allows indi viduals to gain status (Dumais 2002). Research also shows that members of th e dominant class, or elites, possess the most economically and symbolically valued ki nds of cultural capital which in turn result in significant life outcomes (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977). Individuals who lack the required cultural capital may lower their educa tional aspirations or c hoose to not enroll in higher education at all because they do not know the particular cultural norms (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977, Lamont and Lareau 1988). In effect, the amount of cultural capital an individual possesses affects the amount of educational attainment. However, the dominant culture in independent schools already expects students to do well academically. Furthermore, they provide an en vironment that foster s the attainment of higher education with the provision of excellent resource facilities such as small classes and college counselors. A possibl e implication of such an expectation is that members of


43 the elite class may view their educational inclinations as natural, rather than acknowledging their privileged position that foster s inclinations to lead successful lives. Since the elite already possess certain characteristics that are revered and rewarded by society, they experience significant advantages over those who lack such information. For example, indicators of predis position of high school students intentions and plans to go to college are more likely to be available and/or reinforced within independent schools. According to Hossler and Stage (1992), factors that positively correlate to college attendance include: so cioeconomic status, student achievement, parental educational expecta tions and encouragement, high school quality, high school curriculum track, and student involvement in high school activities. As a whole, independent schools are much more likely to have higher concentrations of students possessing the aforementioned characteristics and to provide the types of education listed. Not only are independent school parents are more likely to have higher incomes, but they are also making the financial sacrifice to send their children to priv ate school. This may be an indication that the family places a hi gher value on their childs education (Greene 2005). That is, by virtue of be ing at an independent school students are expected to succeed. Even at RDS, it is assumed that they not only will continue their education and go to college, but also that they want to do so. Recent exposs of college admission practi ces reveals that members of the upper class receive more privileges and preferences than members of other classes. Golden (2006: 5) notes that top colleges and unive rsitiesare not wealth-blind. They take a disproportionate number of students from pr ep schools, and they have been knownto instruct recruiters specifically to pursue rich students. In other words, members of the


44 elite class experience advantages that are directly linked to their financial wealth, including the likelihood that children will be admitted into prestigious colleges and universities. In this study, su ch a privilege is not much di fferent than maintaining ones place within an independent school. According to the students, having or not having money made a difference in how students pe rceived their place w ithin the independent school. At RDS, some students cited and complained about parents buying their children out of disciplinary pr oblems. In fact, one student r eceiving financial aid (Felicia) expressed being even more aware of how different her situation would be if she engaged in rule-breaking behaviors; for her, the result would have been jail instead of rehabilitation. Bourdieus ([1973] 2006) re production model is suppor ted in this study, as students who come from lower social classes with less fi nancial capital may be at a disadvantage in the independent school, wher eas students with more financial capital from wealthier populations may experience certain advantages. Consistent with the findings previously presented, students perception of place is primarily defined by the presence or absence of money. All of the students in the current study expressed an awareness of other students fina ncial situations, even if they did not discuss their own. In their perceptions and reflections of others, the fifteen students interviewed oftentimes employed the us and them technique to distance themselves from certain undesirable characteristics. Yet while evaluating those other students, everyone also revealed information about who they were not Most often, disapproval s eemed most prevalent for students who showcased their financial w ealth by means of excessive material possessions. Nevertheless, the dominant culture of the school was based primarily on the


45 existence of such possessions: most students wore specific brands of clothing or carried expensive purses (i.e. Lacoste, Gucci). The members of the mainstream set the norm, and that included specific possessi ons and brands. Herein lies a contradiction: material possessions are normal at the independent sch ool, yet to possess them in order to obtain social clout was considered unacceptable. In other words, students can and do show they have money, but they should not show off too much money. As predicted, the experiences of studen ts with less or limited indicators of dominant cultural capital (or w ith non-dominant types of cult ural capital) reveals that they may experience greater challenges at the independent school (Bourdieus [1973] 2006). The most effective way of identifying students with non-dominant types of cultural capital was the need for financial aid in order to attend. Three students in this study received financial aid: Brenda, Felicia, and Stacey. For the RDS students interviewed receiving financial aid, challe nges were both expect ed and unexpected. Expected challenges included the lack of cl othing, accessories, and other expensive items that typified the mainstream. Unexpected cha llenges identified were tuition payments for summer school enrollment (particularly if st udents were aiming to replace an existing class grade), taking courses that required additional funding (i.e. amusement park admission tickets), and mandatory participati on in school trips for which parents had to pay. Additional challenges were also identified in the ways these students thought of themselves and also how they were perceived by others. On many accounts, these students became what Granfield (1991) described as cultural outsiders. Brenda cons iders her status as a financia l aid student to be no big deal, but in continuing her t hought it is apparent that money is the sole divider between


46 herself and other students. Another student, Felicia realized that although there were other Black students in her gr ade, social class differences prevented her from having much in common with those students; they we re all wealthier than her and she could not relate to them. The students receiving financ ial aid experienced a cultural disadvantage because of their inability to be like or share similar cultu ral capital as the majority of students at the school. This is not suggest they are less capabl e students, but rather that they are forced to overcome additional cha llenges within their school environments. Limitations A main limitation of this study is its inabil ity to be applied to all types of high schools; it is, however, genera lizable to similar independe nt schools. Additionally, the sample of students who volunteered in this study may reflect a pa rticular kind of student. That is, these students had a common in terest in taking the time to share their everyday experiences with a stranger; not surprisingly, mo st were supportive of the institution. Although most stude nts did at some point shar e critical and sometimes negative stories about the school, virtually al l were generally happy about being a student at the Rosetta Day School and felt as t hough they were part of the community. Future research could better expose the potential financial burdens of sending children to private schools. A broader study comparing the experiences of students who receive financial aid versus those who do not could point to more generalizable results that could better equip schools to serve th eir student populations. In doing so, both private and public schools could better understa nd students life situations by taking into account the financial resources available to all students. In this study, I consciously decided to not ask the students about the specific details of their financial situations. A


47 general sense of each students financial capit al was gathered from asking for parents occupations and whether they received financ ial aid. No official records were obtained from the school to confirm and/or deny students self-reports. Lastly, although a small percentage of independent school students receive financial aid (20.6%), it does not mean that all students who pay full tuition are wealthy and/or among the upper class. It is presumab le that many families are making significant sacrifices to send their ch ild(ren) to independent school s around the country, perhaps even driving some of them below comfortabl e living situations. This is a limitation of using financial aid as a primar y indicator of social class. Future research may also want to explor e how these students teachers talk about cultural capital. In this study, I show that st udents understandings of cultural capital are related to the things that they perceive are most valued by their pe ers (e.g. the kinds of clothes they buy and wear). This is unders tandable because students are often highly concerned with how their peers perceive them These displays of cultural capital however, may or may not be the same fo rms of cultural capital that are rewarded by teachers in the independent day school environment. Interviews with teachers would be able to reveal whether the types of cultural capital which students think are important are different than the types of cultural capital which teachers think are important.


48 Chapter 6 Conclusion It is often the case that social scientists focus on and study populations that are in some way disadvantaged, such as people of co lor, the poor, or the disabled. It is not as common to obtain access to the individuals w ho are considered the most powerful and/or privileged. This study helps to fill this gap, a llowing us to learn from a population that is considered to be among the most privileged. The goal of this section is to apply the lessons learned from this study to consider how social class, education, and cultural capital intersect to reveal more about the wo rld in which we live. There were three main questions I had to guide me in this endea vor: How do individual students understand and reflect on their everyday experiences at such privileged instituti ons? In what ways do independent school students disp lay and legitimate stud ents social class? How is cultural capital demonstrated and reproduced? Indicators of cultural capital are most evident in the students self-awareness of their privileged positions as independent sc hool students. That is they recognize and accept their access to a privileged education a nd expect a successful future. Having a lot of money results in the acquisition of certain tastes and affinities which results in high cultural capital. In the independent school setting, access to such a privileged education comes coupled with the fact that some stude nts, if not most, have a lot of money. An unexpected finding of this studyand one that is most prominentis the prevalence of


49 students disapproval or hatred of money and other indicator s of wealth. The students I interviewed frequently distanced themselves from other students, and often employed a binary language of us and them. This is particularly prevalent in their thoughts regarding other students who ove rly displayed their money and wealth. Yet this seems to be contradictory as materialism seems to be a notable and taken-for-g ranted characteristic of U.S. society, especially in an independent school. In general, the United States is a mate rialistic country, wher e having stuff is important to the ways in which individuals present themselves on a daily basis. If we consider the kinds of clothing people wear, the cars they drive, and the houses they own, as a whole we live in a culture that valu es possessionsespecially expensive ones. The students I interviewed at the Rosetta Day School have cont radicting reflections about this. For the students at RDS, money is constantly present in their everyday experiences. Even if their families do not have money, they see money and other indicators of wealth at their school. Still, most students intervie wed expressed a kind of disdain, if not hatred, against those who had access to material things Tied to this was not only the recognition, but also the disapproval of, some of the advantages and priv ileges that may come with financial wealthsuch as the interviewed students perceptions that some do not take school seriously or parents buying children out of discipli nary problems. Yet some of these same students with these complaints went on with their everyday lives enjoying some of the comforts and privileges of having money, such as hiring private language tutors or private college counselors. Even w ith students disapproval of some privileges related to wealth, they still received and accepted other advantages.


50 This contradictory feeling towards having moneyof hating its advantages on the one hand, but also accepting them on the otherhas the potential for serious social implications. For some of the students inte rviewed, consciously distancing themselves from money may ultimately reflect a genera l distancing from the responsibilities of having money. A possible implication is that all independent school students, even those with low financial capital, are learning how to think about money in their participation within an upper class education. After all, it is a political st atement to claim that having money is evil, or that it is wrong for parents to buy their child out of trouble. But the real concern is that simply distancing oneself from those advantages and privileges does not mean they do not take place. In fact, it is already an embedded and accepted part of elite culture. The students may criticize fina ncial wealth all they want, but it does not change the fact that it is omnipresent. Th e bottom line is that st udents at independent schools, no matter what their financial situati ons, must not only r ecognize their position in an elite culture, but also accept their respons ibility to those who are not a part of that elite culture. Being exposed to social and educational hierarchies, students may simply accept that inequality is normal and inevitable. In this study, fifteen students shared self-conscious reflections, thoughts, and perceptions of themselves and others in an independent school. As previously mentioned, independent schools are ideal loca tions to evaluate the importance and prevalence of elite culture in our society, especially considering th e historical and social importance of such schools and their graduates. This study demons trates that indicators of cultural capital matter for all students in independent school, especially taking into account the important role money plays in such an environmen tmoney is always present. Ultimately,


51 indicators of cultural capital are greatly impacted by the presence or absence of money, creating significant advantages and pr ivileges for wealthy individuals. Since all students are immersed in a cultu re that is constantly characterized by patterns and expectations of upper class elite culture, all st udents must negotiate their sense of place at such a school. The st udents interviewed at RDS seem to have developed a contradictory re lationship to moneywhile they recognize and accept the elite culture and its advantages, they also re ject and distance themselves from some of those elite indicators.


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57 Appendices


Appendix 1: Contact/Flyer Sheet CALLING ALL JUNIORS AND SENIORS!!! You are volunteering to participate in an informal interview that will allow you to share what it is like being an i ndependent day school student! Th is project is being conducted independently of (School Name), and your particip ation will be kept confidential. You will meet with Diana Torres for an individua l interview that will last about an hour. I will meet with you at the school, a local coff ee shop, or even in your home (provided an adult guardian is present). Most important, I will make the meeting time convenient for your schedule! Please note that I will not be able to c onduct interviews during the class day, however. All interviews must be completed by December 10th. ***Participating will automatically enter you in to a raffle, where the prize is one $75 gift certificate to a store or c harity of your choice!*** To participate in this exc iting research opportunity, pleas e follow these three easy steps: 1. Complete the form below and return it to Diana today This form will provide your contact information as well as en ter you for the $75 raffle (provided you are interviewed). 2. Get a copy of a parental consent form. This form MUST be signed by your parent(s) if you are under the age of 18; you can not be interviewed without parental consent. 3. Schedule an interview day/time/place Diana will contact you within the next few days to schedule the interview. Remember to bring the signed consent form to the interview! Remember, this is a University of South Florida graduate school pr oject. If you have any questions, please contact Diana directly at [phone number] or at [e-mail address]. Please forward this information to any of your junior and senior friends} who may be interested! All they have to do is e-mail me directly to get started ----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------(tear here) Name: ________________________________________ Grade: _________ E-mail address: ______________________________________________________ Phone number: _________________________________ 58


59 Appendix 2: Interview Questions Background Tell me a little about yourselfhow would you describe who you are? What about your home life. Parents? Siblings? What did you do this past summer? Tell me about your educational historywhat schools have you attended and for how long? When did you start at (school)? Why did you decide to apply to (school)? Did your parents attend (school), or a school like it? What does your family think about you attending this school? Everyday Life How do you get to/from school? What classes are you taking? Which one is your favorite and why? Which one is your least favorite and why? Are you involved in any extr a curricular activities? Do you work for pay outside of (school)? How do you balance your commitments? Describe a typical day at (school) for you. What kinds of student s attend (school)? Are there cliques? If so, what are they? Tell me about your friends at (school). What is your life like outsid e of (school)do you hang out w ith other (school) students? What do you share in common with your friends? What do you do for fun with your friends? What do other (school) students do for fun? What are some of the issues you and your friends face at this school, if any? Have you ever argued with any other st udents, or just did not get along? What happened? Is there anything that makes you upset or angry at (school)? Do you have any stories that best dem onstrate your experience at (school). If you could change anything about the stude nts, what would change about your fellow students? Faculty and staff? Friends? Facilities? Thoughts Describe the typical student s at this school. How do stude nts usually lookclothing, appearance, behavior, etc.? Wh ats the whole package like? What you do think makes some students sta nd out from the majority at (school)? In your opinion, whats the typical experience as a student here?


60 Appendix 2: (Continued) Is there anything that can prevent students fr om being accepted by ot her students at this school? What is the best part ab out being a student here? What is the worst part? Do you think there any students who have an advantage when it comes to doing well in school? Who are they and what do they have as an advantage? When you look around (school), do you think there is there diversity at this school? You can define diversity however you want to Do you feel that you are a pa rt of the community here? Future Where do you see yourself in 5 years? How does (school) play a role in that? Basic Demographic Information Age Race/Ethnicity Do you receive any form of financial aid? YES NO Where we you born? Do you have any siblings? YES NO If yes, how old are they a nd what school do they attend? Parents Occupations: Parents Marital Status: Who do you live with?


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