Missed opportunities: Managing achievement and difference in an urban public college preparatory magnet high school

Joseph Daniel Cytrynbaum, University of Pennsylvania


This dissertation centers on the responsibility that public schools have for “dealing with the complicated” when they bring students together across lines of difference. Yet it also takes seriously the challenges public schools face with respect to addressing, if not transforming broader American social problems around difference, such as racism, homophobia, the racial achievement gap, and other forms of exclusion, tension, and persecution. Here, then, is the central question that drives this dissertation: Given the divisive dynamics and exclusionary practices that continue to shape relations across forms difference in American society, how can public schools actively take responsibility for engaging with, if not transforming these broader social problems? To address this question, this dissertation looks closely at how one such school, an institution I call Franklin High, manages the challenges and opportunities of bringing students together across lines of difference. As a large, urban, college prepatory magnet high school with a racially, ethnically, and socio-economically diverse student body that sends ninety-eight percent of its graduates on to higher education, Franklin High provides an ideal case study of a public school and its students managing the social-relational and academic challenges and opportunities of difference. Four years of ethnographic research revealed that, even in an institutional context where students more or less got along and realized academic success, seemingly neutral institutional policies and practices reproduced structural forms of academic exclusion and divisive notions of difference. While Franklin High's public presentation highlighted the value of diversity as a factor that enhances the educational experience for all students, in practice, the school's hands off approach failed to interrupt the reproduction of tensions and prejudices that exist in the broader American society. Furthermore, the limited academic support provided to students from historically underrepresented groups, combined with the meritocratic ideology that permeated the institution, made it difficult for such students to access the top academic track. Moreover, this combination of factors reproduced the racialized achievement discourse that pervades discussions of race, ethnicity, and schooling. Finally, I found that youth spaces played a complex role for students as they managed the challenges and opportunities of difference.

Subject Area

Secondary education|School administration

Recommended Citation

Cytrynbaum, Joseph Daniel, "Missed opportunities: Managing achievement and difference in an urban public college preparatory magnet high school" (2004). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3137999.