Respect, Struggle and Change: Examining the Agency of African American Female Adolescents in City Schools

Melissa Anne Sterba, University of Pennsylvania


This critical ethnography examines the complexity and salience of gender in the everyday lives and experiences of adolescent African American females in an impoverished inner city high school in West Philadelphia, “City High.” As part of a research team that was the focus of this study, two female students, Ivory and May, were employed at the University of Pennsylvania from June 1, 2002 from 9:00 AM until 1:00 PM and continuing until August 21, 2002 at $7.50 per hour under research grants from the Spencer Foundation and National Science Foundation. As student-researchers, Ivory and May produced the following artifacts: gender projects, journal entries, Powerpoint presentations, transcribed interviews, group discussions including two male student-researchers, and video-taped classroom and work interactions. Through these artifacts, Ivory and May analyzed the obstacles they face as young African American women in a deeply unjust society. More importantly, they discovered the sources of strength and resiliency that help them to reach academic and personal goals. Drawing on Elijah Anderson's Code of the Street (1999), this research shows that respect remains central to the development and maturation of urban youth and in particular, women. Further, this research shows that the “code of the street” is not always negative, even if it is at odds with the dictates of White, middle-class school culture. Rather, the “code of the street” is filled with contradictions, especially in relation to female sexuality, and often forces young women to learn skills that challenge traditional gender relations in their everyday lives. Ultimately, this dissertation illustrates how many adolescent African American females in urban schools take action to make their lives better. Yet, despite their efforts, many remain at-risk for academic failure. Currently, many educational policies penalize female students and refuse to recognize the strengths and skills they bring to teaching and learning. In the end, a greater understanding of the lives of adolescent African American females living in cities like West Philadelphia must be incorporated into educational policymaking and the teaching and learning of science and mathematics.

Subject Area

School counseling|Black studies|Educational psychology|Educational sociology|African American Studies

Recommended Citation

Sterba, Melissa Anne, "Respect, Struggle and Change: Examining the Agency of African American Female Adolescents in City Schools" (2003). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3095947.