Under the Best of Circumstances: The Constrained Opportunities of Black Students inside Elite Private Secondary Schools
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This qualitative research investigates how and why Black students, across social class and gender, enroll in historically White, elite private secondary schools, and their opportunities and experiences within these schools. Likewise, of fundamental concern is the extent to which these schools serve as pathways to different tiers of colleges and universities for students coming from a range of academic backgrounds. The study chronicles the ways in which the students negotiate access to college knowledge, rigorous course offerings, and higher education against the backdrop of continued preservation of race and class privilege within elite private schools. Through one-on-one interviews, participant-observations, and document analysis, this study explores the lives of 27 Black students and one Hispanic student attending three elite private schools, and one community organization that prepares and places lower income students of color in private schools. The data point toward layers of opportunity and access for this sample based on students' accumulated social, cultural, economic, and academic capital. Students' middle school opportunity sequences are profoundly linked to their high school opportunity sequences, and thus their higher education opportunities. Further, as these students are accessing high quality, college preparatory curricula and instruction, they are also confronted with color-blind racism in the form of assumptions and stereotypes about Blacks, particularly around academic achievement and inherent intellectual capacity. The interactions between the students' desires for higher education and their biographies reveal deep-seated conflicts and contradictions, as the students are both marginalized and simultaneously advantaged by the elite habitus of these schools. Interestingly, all of the students (regardless of college access) describe themselves as advantaged when compared to their primary reference group--Black youth attending predominantly Black public high schools. Implications for policy, practice, and future research are explored.