Learning at the Margins

Learning at the Margins

Medina, Catherine


Educational limitations for Mexican American students in American public schools remain in the 21st century. Although Hispanics are the fastest growing ethnic population in the United States, education has difficulty meeting the teaching and learning needs of Hispanic students. Beyond ethnicity, Mexican American students suffer from distinct educational, social, and cultural pressures that play out in class. This study represents the voices of six Mexican American students enrolled in special education for learning and/or behavioral disabilities. The students express alienation, disinterest, and anxiety regarding their classrooms, teachers, and classmates. Ever-present concerns and barriers expressed by these students, coupled with current research, point to the ongoing challenges to education and school culture in particular.

Learning at the Margins

If one is the other, one will inevitably be perceived unidimensionally; will be seen stereotypically; will be defined and delimited by mental sets that may not bear much relation to existing realities. There is a darker side to otherness as well. The other disturbs, disquiets, discomforts. It provokes distrust and suspicion. The other makes people feel anxious, nervous, apprehensive, even fearful. The other frightens, scares. . . . For some of us, being the other is only annoying; for others it is debilitating; for still others it is damning. (Madrid, 1988, p. 56)

Hispanics arc the fastest growing ethnic group in the United States, with Mexican Americans comprising the majority of the Hispanic population (see United States Department of Commerce, 2001). Although demographic momentum can sometimes be very powerful, the data continue to show educational gaps and barriers for Mexican American students in public schools. Being the “other,” as noted by Madrid (1988), Mexican Americans still face enormous challenges in American education.

According to the United States Department of Commerce (2001), Mexican Americans have the highest rate of persons with fewer than five years of schooling (15.9%), and they have been traditionally over-represented in special education classes. The United States Department of Education (1999) reported that there are approximately 9.2 million school age students in the U.S. whose primary language is not English, with Spanish being the most prevalent language spoken after English. Estimating that 10.7% to 15% of these students may have disabilities, then 984,400 to 1,380,000 students with disabilities are also linguistically diverse (Baca & Cervantes, 2003).

Research shows that teachers of the majority culture are better able to relate to children of their own ethnic/racial and linguistic background and usually are unaware of their differential and culturebound treatment toward children of the minority culture (e.g., Bennett de Marrais & LeCompte, 1995). Unfortunately, it is estimated that only 5% of our nation’s teachers are teachers of color, yet students of color make up 33% of our school-aged population (Walker, Saravanabhavan, & Asbury, 1996). Furthermore, it is projected that by 2020, 46% of all students will be students of color (Cushncr, McClelland, & Stafford, 1996).

Students’ academic performance often follows in the direction of teacher expectations (Apple, 1996; Cummins, 1989; Sadker & Sadker, 1994), with gender, ethnicity, and social-economic status being traits that influence low teacher-student expectations. Teacher-student interactions and teacher-student cultural incompatibility have contributed to the historical over-representation of ethic minority youth in remedial classes and special education. Ethnic minority students often fail to see themselves positively integrated into the culture of the school (Cazden, 1988). Typically, Hispanic students do not have daily interactions with Hispanic teachers who understand their culture or language. As a consequence, Hispanic students, especially those who are Spanish dominant, may not have the benefit of an appropriate education due to the lack of bilingualqualified educators.

The attention that ethnic minority children receive from teachers and schooling may be substantially different than the attention given to non-minority youth, and females are further alienated from the educational process (American Association of University Women, 1995). Numerous studies have found that classroom teachers’ judgments are influenced by the ethnicity and gender of their students (see, e.g., de Kanter & Frankiewicz, 1981; Demetrulias, 1990; Matute-Bianchi, 1986).

According to critical theorists (e.g., Ogbu, 1987), the educational system is reflective of the social and cultural reproduction of the larger society. In essence, schools reproduce the economic and social relations of society and therefore tend to serve the interests of the dominant class. The school culture itself, as visible or invisible as it seems, may not reflect the values, beliefs, behavior patterns, and traditions that are prevalent in the familial, community, and social structures of Hispanic youth. As a consequence, many ethnic minority youth experience school failure and feelings of alienation within the school culture.

As previously noted, the United States within the last decade has seen enormous growth in the Hispanic population. Nothing is more telltale than the 2000 census that points to a Hispanic population close to the same size as the African-American population-and quicldy becoming the majority minority (see United States Department of Commerce, 2001). However, academic failure rates among Mexican American students remain persistent, prevalent, and disproportionate when compared to majority populations (see, e.g., Artze, 2000; Valencia, 1991). As noted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) (2003, para 2), “[t]he percentage of Hispanic young adults who were out of school without a high school credential has remained higher than that of Blacks and Whites in every year [from 1972 to 200O]. During these years, when immigration patterns contributed to substantial changes in the size and composition of the Hispanic population, the status dropout rates for Hispanic young adults did not decline. Over most of the 29-year period, about 3 of every 10 of the 16- through 24-year-old Hispanics in the United States were reported as out of school and lacking a high school credential.”

Further research in education reveals the following:

* Approximately 50% of Hispanics leave school prior to graduation by 10th grade.

* 38% ofHispanics are held back at least one grade.

* 50% ofHispanics are overage at grade 12.

* 90% ofHispanic students are in urban districts.

* 82% of Hispanic students attend segregated schools.

* Hispanics are significantly below national norms on academic achievement tests of reading, math, social science, and writing at grades 3, 7, and 11, generally averaging one to two levels below the norm. At grade 11, Hispanics average a grade 8 achievement-level on these tests.

* Hispanics are placed in special education services six times more often than the general student population.

* Hispanics have a median educational level of years of schooling at 10.8. (Reddy, 1993; United States Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1994)

A different report on public schooling states the following:

* Hispanic students are less likely than white or black students to be enrolled in college preparatory programs.

* Hispanic students are less likely than students from other racial or ethnic groups to be enrolled in college preparatory math, even if they score in the top quartile of a standardized math test.

* Hispanic students are less likely than white or black students to be enrolled in gifted and talented programs.

* Hispanic students are more likely to be placed in remedial-general education tracks.

* Hispanic students are more often incorrectly assessed as mentally retarded or learning disabled. (President’s Advisory Commission, 1996, pp. 48-49)

With Hispanics representing 38.6% of all dropouts in 2000 (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2003) and the historic overrepresentation of minority youths in special classes, it becomes important to hear the voices of Mexican American adolescents as they speak about their educational disengagement and disenchantment with schooling. According to the United States General Accounting Office Report to Congress (1994), 70% of Hispanic dropouts are of Mexican origin. Whether general education or special education, the connection that many Mexican American children feel about school has been lost.


It was the intent of the researchers to examine the “experiences” of six rural public school students (three boys and three girls) between the ages of 14-18 as they speak about factors associated with severe emotional disturbance and placement into special education programs. For the purposes of this study, qualitative inquiry was utilized by implementing indepth interviewing procedures (Seidman, 1991).

All interview data gathered utilized Seidman’s phenomenological in-depth interviewing procedures. The purpose of in-depth interviewing is not to get answers to questions, but to understand the experience of another (Seidman, 1991). In understanding the experiences of another, one validates and honors that person. Basic to in-depth interviewing is the belief that the meaning a person makes out of their experiences helps formulate the way in which they live and interpret their world.

The in-depth interview procedures followed a three-question, three-interview framework. Each interview was initiated with a general question (e.g., How did you come to be a student enrolled in special education? Tell me what a typical day is like for you as a student enrolled in special education classes? What does it mean to be a student enrolled in Special Education?), which served as stimulus for the interviewees to feel free to explore and relate their own experiences within the context of the topic. All participants were between the ages of 14-18 and enrolled in public schools located in rural areas in the southwest region of the United States and along the U.S./Mexico border. Student participants were told the purpose of the study, the means by which confidentiality would be maintained, and signed a consent form. Parents of participating students were also required to sign a consent form. Students were also told that regardless of a parental consent to participate that their participation was voluntary and that no one but the researcher(s) would have access to their data. Students were also told that they would not be required to identify themselves in any way during the interview process. All interviews were audio-taped and transcribed in their entirety. After the transcription of the interviews, data were categorized and profiles generated. Categorization and profile generation followed steps outlined by Seidman (1991).

These students, like many students from majority and non-majority cultures come from problematic backgrounds (e.g., troubled homes), and the schooling some received only augmented their feelings of abandonment. Many students enrolled in special education classes for severe emotional and behavioral problems have a history of troubled backgrounds and sometimes schools struggle with how to provide effective intervention. This is especially pronounced when the student and teacher differ in cultural, economic, and language backgrounds.

Fortunately some of the students interviewed for this study have reconnected with their schools due to caring and engaged teachers (see, Medina & Luna, 1999), but other students interviewed are just “existing” within the schools-warehoused and isolated. Given the high dropout rate among students in special education, especially ethnic minority students, it becomes critical to hear how students perceive their everyday existence within the classroom and school community.


Jaime is a 14-year-old adolescent in middle school. He has a history of juvenile delinquency and school problems. He has been enrolled in a self-contained program for adolescents with emotional/ behavioral problems for less than one year.

[In class] everybody gets along. There’s no problems. It [special education] mostly helped. For me, it helped me out a, lot-the few weeks I’ve been here. Shit, there’s n lot more respect in this classroom from teachers. They treat you like you want to be treated ana all. f Before] the [general education] teachers, they was . . . judging me on everything. Yeah, they judged me on clothes and the way I talk. Over here in special education, it’s like you work at your own pace and as long as you respect others you can talk and do what you want . . .

. . . Some of the [teachers] at school, they wouldn’t listen to me. They would just throw me to the side, thinking I was low-class. They wouldn’t help me or nothing. No one would seem to care, not even to tell me what was wrong. Nothing. . .

[I dress like this] because it’s just the way I feel more comfortable. It’s part of fitting in. That’s what most of us come here to do. Tou know the kids who dress like me? You know what they really have? They have respect for themselves. Respect. That’s what it is. All these kids, all these clothes is fancy to you guys [adults], huh? This ain’t casual. Why do you think it’s different, the way you dress and I dress. It’s respect for your own self. That’s what I’m trying to get through to you people. It’s respect. It’s just being different . . . It’s just self-respect, but they [adults] think we’re just there to kill each other.

Teachers need to just give [students] respect. Treat [students] the way they should be treated and the way they feel. Get [to know] the way of the kid and just go along with it. Sooner or later, he’ll do good. Tou just need to go along with them [students]. Oh, just, stay by my side and help me out whenever I need help. Be there when I ask you. When I want to talk, talk to me and just be there, just caring about me and listening to what I say.


Thomas is a 14-year-old male enrolled in middle school. He has been enrolled in a self-contained class for behavioral emotional problems for three years.

In sixth grade I got D’s, and F’s and C’s. I wasn’t paying attention to school. [I] was paying attention to the girls. I can’t read. [Teachers], they don’t care. Only the one in sixth grade. He’s the only one. That teacher-he’s a guy-he used to keep me after school just to help me or we’d do math. Tea, but not to punish me . . . Then I changed a lot. I’m good at math, but not in reading. Math, that’s my favorite subject.

In sixth grade, only the general education teacher helped me. [Other teachers] didn’t help, because they’d just give me the homework, and didn’t help me. [They’d say], “Well I already explained so I can’t explain again. ” They used to do that. [They’d say], “So too bad if you didn’t listen.” My sixth grade teacher used to repeat it and repeat it until I got it. Well, I’m barely learning. I’m learning to read and to write.

[Teachers need] to listen to what other students are saying. They don’t have to talk about why Iget angry. It’s fine if they don’t want to talk to me. I don’t want to talk to them. I think teachers need to talk to you and tell y ou good things, and help you out, like to think better, to tell you to try, that’s wrong, or don’t do that, do this, this is right, and that’s wrong.


Javier is a sixteen-year-old high school male enrolled in a self-contained class for students with behavioral and emotional problems. He has been enrolled in special education programs since he was in elementary school.

… Special education, it was helping me but I don’t think it helps me any more. [I’ve been in so long] because they [social security] are like sending me a check. The checks that they send are for $400 a month … So now every month Iget a, check for $400. Yeah, that’s why I stay in school. I don’t know how it [special education] helped me because I don’t know how I got in there. I don’t know. It just seems like prison. Like when you’ve been convicted of murder or something.

Hispanic females often face double oppression-being female and being Hispanic. The Digest of Education Statistics (NCEStatistics, 1992) reported that 31.1% of all Hispanic females between the ages of 16 and 24 years of age dropped out of school. This rate was higher than any of the female cohorts in U.S. high schools with the overall Hispanic dropout rate highest at 28%, followed by Blacks (14%) and whites (8%) (President’s Advisory Commission, 1996). In 1990 the American Association of University Women conducted a national survey to determine how boys and girls viewed themselves. Results indicated that the self-esteem of Hispanic females from elementary to middle school decreased to a greater extent than any other ethnic/racial female group. Only 30% of high school Hispanic females reported that they were happy with themselves (as cited in Sadker & Sadker, 1994).

According to Sadker and Sadker (1994), females learn early to disengage from the educational system. Their research indicates that girls are silenced in the classroom and encouraged to value quietness more than assertiveness and to emphasize appearance as opposed to intelligence. As girls progress through grade levels their self-esteem decreases and affective problems increase. Hispanic females face a myriad of special social and cultural pressures that often contribute to leaving school before graduation (American Association of University Women, 1990).


Angela is a 14-year-old middle school student enrolled in a self-contained program for behavioral/ emotional problems. She has been in special education for less than a year. She is the only female in her class.

I wouldn’t go to school for like three days out of the week or more. I missed school. I wouldn ‘t want to go to school. . . I was always be worrying about my dad, my mom, and my sisters . . . I couldn’t concentrated on my work and I would look up and try not to cry. Tears would just roll down my eyes. That’s when my mom started noticing that I didn’t want to go to school. . . . [I was so worried] that [my dad] was going to die and that my mom, too, that she would have a heart attack or something. She has a lot or problems. She has to take care of my nieces and nephews. They’re always at my house. Always. They’re from eight years to two years. They get on my nerves.

[When students are sad], the kids are going to say, “No, man, they [teachers] don’t even care about me. I looked sad today and nobody even noticed. All this stuff. They’re going to get more sad because they’re not wanted. They stop doing their work . . . [the teachers] don’t even want me in this classroom. [When students] start getting into a lot of trouble, [teachers] should notice that they’re there.


Gabriella is a 14-year-old high school freshman. She has been enrolled in a self-contained class for students with emotional and behavioral problems for less than a year. She is only one of two girls enrolled in her class. The other female is often truant.

I didn’t want to be in school at all. I didn’t want to even try it. . .

[When !walk into my class], I go to my chair and sit down. [I] wait for Mr. Prieto to say what we’re going to do. Eut sometimes he’s in a good mood or bad mood and I never know. And there [are] just times I’m sad, and I just don’t feel like putting up with anything. He’ll sit there ana yell at me. [He’s] just mouthing off that if he hears my mouth again he’s going to send me to the office. There’s times I don’t even think before I say [things]. By the time [I think], I’ll just go ahead and do it. I don’t know there’s just times I’m real depressed.

Everybody’s sitting there [in the class] waiting for quiet, and then we have to ask to line up and go to breakfast. Just our class [goes to breakfast], because, I don’t know, I have no idea. We go to breakfast, then eat, and then we go back to class and then we get our books. We do our assignments. Sometimes there [are students] just picking on me and saying that I’m this and I’m that. That I just nag too much, or that I’m a baby [because I cry]. Yeah, I mean if they had the problems I have, believe me, I think it would, h ave gotten {to them] already. I mean, yesterday I was so sensitive. I cried all day. My eyes hurt. I just had like headaches. I don’t know, maybe because my ex-boyfriend, maybe he should be tripping with me. Who knows?


Cecelia is a 17-year-old tenth grade student who enrolled in a special education program for emotional/behavioral problems for approximately two years. She is the only female in her class.

… I started here in March. [It’s like] hell. I mean, really being locked, in was not that bad, because at [my other school] you couldn’t leave campus either. But it was different. First of M I didn’t have so many classes in one room. I had like three classes out and three classes in. I had more of a variety of students in a class. They gave us harder work, but it wasn’t as much. It was probably half of what they give us [now in this class], but it was harder. There were more activities [at my other school] for you to do in the classroom besides sit there and play with a, computer. I mean you could really talk to teachers. Like even your own classmates, they were nice to get along with. I mean, I don’t really think this [the ciirrent program] is like that coordinated . . . I don’t know . . . It’s like this classroom is a classroom for people who are put in here because they’re punished. The behavior intervention classroom in [my other school] was kind of like for people who are having problems. They [special education teachers at the other school] just like make it easier for them [students in special education] to do the stuff.

Over here it’s kind of like a jail. You can’t do anything. It’s different. [At my old school] I mean you still have to do your work, but they have instructions. It’s like, [at my other school] the reason most of kids are in there is probably because they’re depressed or something like that, or they’re on medication, or they’re really hyper. They’re in there for some kind of a problem that they have so they [the special education teacher] just try to distract them from thinking or doing something that will make them really frustrated-like working all the time. That’s why with behavior intervention classes they put most of those people in there because they can’t be like in a normal class where you have to like just sit there and you have to be just working all the time . . .

I’ve never miss so much school, but every since I’ve been here [in this special education program] I’ve missed more school than I’d missed like in two semesters put together anywhere else. Why? Oh, god, it’s horrible in here. It’s really frustrating. It’s tiring. Iget real tired really fast and Iget really frustrated. I just fell like grabbing a chair and throwing it across the room.

Although this study presents the partial voices of a small sample of Mexican American adolescents enrolled in special education for learning and/or behavioral disabilities, an alarming context of disenchantment and detachment is evident. The Mexican American students interviewed find their psychosocial adjustment to the school culture to be laced with strong emotions. The students interviewed expressed alienation, disinterest, and anxiety regarding their classrooms, teachers, and classmates. As the literature noted, the interplay of a multitude of factors inside and outside of school leads to less desirable outcomes-poor academic performance and a low high-school graduation rate of Hispanic students.

There is evidence noting that acculturation into an aspect of dominant culture creates stress (see, e.g., Delgado-Gaitan, 1988; Gil, Vega, & Dimas, 1994; Saldana, 1994) and therefore not uncommon. Yet the footnote to these research studies requires educators to re-evaluate the environmental elements of school culture and how they negatively impact these students at risk. Disparities in educational experiences will undoubtedly render economic inequities for Mexican American students. Keeping students in school can translate into higher graduation rates, motivation for further postsecondary education or training, future job and career goals, economic stability, and civic participation. Mexican American students need to succeed in school in order to succeed in the job market, and school culture as the context in which the whole educational process occurs is critical to the success of these at-risk students. Numerous studies note culture can be created and changed (see, e.g., Jones, 1996), and new or reshaped attitudes, beliefs, values and customs can thread together the community of education. The authors recommend a careful examination of school culture as the first step in developing models within educational institutions that focus on meeting the needs of Mexican American students in rural special education classes. “Learning at the margins” will continue if practice ignores the isolation and alienation as experienced by the six students in this study.

Even though the focus of this paper is to only provide a forum for educators to listen to adolescent, Mexican American students in special education, the larger issues remain open for discussion. How will the public support an increase in the commitment to prepare and retain teachers of color and bilingual educators? How will public education make sure that the achievement gap between Hispanics and nonHispanics closes? How will public education prepare teachers to provide culturally and socially relevant curriculum that includes the realities of the communities that they serve? Moreoever, how do we create schools where all students have a voice in the planning of their own school experiences? Although the answers are not always readily available or easily obtainable, the collective efforts of local, state, and federal stakeholders will be required. Related to the tasks ahead, Former President Clinton (2000, p. 1) noted the poignantly inevitable: “Hispanic America is growing more diverse every day with different challenges and, unfortunately, still different opportunities. There are still a lot of gaps that we all want to close. Most of them are narrowing, but we’ve still got a lot of work to do.”


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Catherine Medina

College of Education

Northern Arizona University

P.O. Box 5774

Flagstaff, Arizona 86011-5774

(928) 523-2143

Catherine. Medina@na.u.edu

Gaye Luna

Northern Arizona University

Copyright American Council on Rural Special Education Fall 2004

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