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December 15, 2010

Forum focuses on challenges of urban adolescent girls

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Dena Swanson (right), a Warner assistant professor whose research focuses on adolescent identity processes, stressed that girls need a safe space where they can regularly and reliably be themselves and reflect on what it means to be female and feminine. She is joined by panelists Judy Marquez Kiyama (left) and Ashley Anderson.

The Warner School hosted six panelists at its fall Urban Teaching and Leadership (UTL) Forum that focused on strategies for addressing the challenges facing adolescent girls in urban schools. The panelists, representing researchers, teachers, and community-based service providers, shared the challenges urban adolescent girls face and the impact that schools, families, and communities can have on the well-being of girls.

Panelists included Dena Swanson, a Warner assistant professor whose research focuses on adolescent identity processes; Judy Marquez Kiyama and Donna Harris, both Warner assistant professors who served as coresearchers on a 2010 study on the school experiences of Latino students; UTL alumna Ashley Anderson ’10W who currently teaches at Robert Brown High School of Construction and Design; and Iris Peralta and Moises Nuñez, community-based youth service providers from the Center for Youth Services in Rochester.

Moderator Edward Brockenbrough, an assistant professor who also directs the Urban Teaching and Leadership Program at Warner, framed the panel discussion with remarks about the recent shift from girls to boys in educational discourses on gender issues. A bulk of the research conducted in the mid-1990s, he said, brought more attention to girls being short-changed in schools and how girls participated less than boys in subjects like math and science.

“The focus has now turned to boys, particularly as we’re seeing girls outperform boys academically,” said Brockenbrough, who underscored the importance of thinking about girls again.

Both girls and boys have made great strides in education the past few decades, and no evidence indicates that the gains made by girls have come at the expense of boys, according to a 2008 American Association of University Women study on gender equity in education. While many still believe a crisis exists, for boys in particular, the forum addressed the need to turn our attention back to girls again.

Panelists identified several key challenges facing adolescent girls in urban schools. Swanson said that girls need a safe space where they can regularly and reliably be themselves and reflect on what it means to be female and feminine. Schools need to create dedicated spaces for adolescent girls to let down their guard and explore what it means to be young women in an urban setting. Swanson also noted that consistent support from adults is critical for girls, as a lack of consistency means adolescent girls feel unsafe and are unsure of their expectations.

Harris and Kiyama shared findings from their recent study on Latino students in Rochester, conducted in collaboration with other Warner School faculty and doctoral students, which indicated that Latina girls locally experience a disturbing amount of violence in schools and their communities. Panelists discussed the importance of establishing programming that addresses school violence issues and risks.

Anderson also shared the importance of being a female teacher who models an image of professionalism for female students, particularly those who may not be exposed on a regular basis to women in the profession. Drawing upon their work with adjudicated youth and youth in foster care, Peralta and Nuñez highlighted the importance of taking on a “love-centered stance,” where adult service providers play a more nurturing parental role in the lives of adolescent girls, particularly those who have fallen through the cracks in schools.

The program’s forums are designed to provide a space where University, school, and community stakeholders can engage in a thoughtful discussion around urban education. The Warner School organizes two forums a year—in the fall and spring—to address issues facing city schools in Rochester and other urban areas.

Possible topics for upcoming forums include charter schools, homophobia in urban schools, the role of teacher unions, and a follow-up on gender issues. The forums are open to the public and free of charge. Call 275-5053 or e-mail ebrock@warner.rochester.edu for questions or suggestions for future forums.

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