A Summary of Focus Group Discussions Regarding Key Findings of the Asset Survey - Marquette and Alger Counties - September 2003
As a part of its services, the Great Lakes Center for Youth Development (GLCYD) administered the Profiles of Student Life: Attitudes and Behaviors survey developed by the Search Institute. During the 2002-2003 school year, 2,123 youth from the 8th, 10th, and 12th grades across Marquette and Alger Counties took the survey. In August 2003, GLCYD facilitated 11 follow-up focus group discussions in the two counties (3 in Alger County and 8 in Marquette County). A total of 77 youth participated in the focus group discussions. The purpose of the focus group discussions was to learn more in depth the reaction of these youth to the two key findings of the developmental asset survey: Caring School Climate and Cultural Competence.
The key themes in the findings are summarized as the following:
Overall in the discussions around a “Caring School Climate,” youth provided highly positive responses about teachers. Indeed, our youth appreciate receiving encouragement in the school environment. Regarding the importance of adult support for positive youth development, our youth were in accord. They believe that taking an interest in youth, “listening” to them, and showing them respect were the most important things teachers do. In support of national studies, youth identify teachers and school principals as the key people to encourage a caring school climate. In addition, youth who have regular communication with classmates believed that those classmates care for them.
Unfortunately, our youth have limited awareness and understanding of different cultures. The concern is not that the youth have certain beliefs or attitudes about different cultures, but that they were not surprised by survey results. Youth’s lack of exposure and limited knowledge should help our community address “Cultural Competence.”
The Great Lakes Center for Youth Development (GLCYD) administered the Profiles of Student Life: Attitudes and Behaviors survey during the 2002-2003 school year. The sample included 2,123 students from 8th, 10th, and 12th grades across Marquette and Alger Counties. To supplement the survey findings, in August 2003, GLCYD facilitated 11 follow-up focus group discussions in the two counties. The focus groups, with 6-10 middle school and high school age youth, were convened by youth service organizations. Three focus group discussions were held with youth participants in Alger County from Grand Marais, Alger Parks and Recreation, and The Link. Eight focus group discussions in Marquette County included youth from Lake Superior Village, YMCA, South YMCA, UPCM, 8-18 Media, 4-H, Girls Scouts, and Big Bay. A total of 77 youth participated in the 11 focus groups. The profile of the youth participants by gender were 50 females and 27 males; there were 11 sixth graders, 14 seventh graders, 18 eighth graders, 19 ninth graders, 8 tenth graders, 5 eleventh graders, and 2 twelfth graders.
The focus group facilitators included a GLCYD Program Assistant, a University of Michigan student intern, and a high school student intern. Prior to conducting the focus group discussions, all three facilitators participated in Focus Group Training conducted by GLCYD Evaluation Consultant, Karen S. Dubow, Ph.D.
The purpose of the focus group discussion was to learn in more depth the reactions of these youth to two key findings of the developmental asset survey: Caring School Climate and Cultural Competence. Focus group questions were designed to reflect youth perceptions of why over 1/3 of the surveyed students were “unsure” if their schools provide a caring and encouraging environment and why 65% of the surveyed students did not have knowledge and comfort with other cultures/racial/ethnic backgrounds.
This report is organized by the questions asked during the focus group discussions. The text does not differentiate between responses from participants in the focus group locations.
Findings of the Focus Groups
Question 1: Do you think your teachers care for you?
Youth participants generally thought that teachers care for them. Very few participants thought that teachers do not care for them; however, one participant specifically said, “They hate my whole family.” A few of the participants had some reasons to give with their “yes and no” responses:
Question 2: What has to happen for you to know that your teacher cares about you?
Youth participants tended to list similar responses regarding teachers that care:
Question 3: What has to happen for you to think that your teacher does not care for you?
As with the previous question, youth participants tended to list similar responses to describe what happens when they think teachers do not care:
Question 4: Over 1/3 of the surveyed kids are unsure if their school cares for them. Why do you think they said unsure?
In general, youth participants felt that the reason for this survey finding depended solely upon individual teachers and individual students. Several participants strongly agreed with this finding. Participants thought that changes in the school district have been made without input from students. They felt that schools say they are doing things for the students but then things happen that aren’t really what the students want. Participants then questioned if schools really cared and accordingly this is a good reason why surveyed kids are unsure if the school cares for them. Other reasons why students said they were unsure if their school cares about them included:
Question 5: Do you think that your classmates care about you?
Youth participants thought their classmates cared for them. Participants answered “mostly friends” as the explanation for their positive response to this question. Many participants felt that caring classmates were people who regularly interacted with each other and provided support when “one is hurting or has a problem.” Participants thought that the way schools/classes are designed by clusters, honor programs, etc., limited students to only interact with the people that are in the same cluster or program; therefore, participants concluded that “some kids don’t really care about you because they don’t really know you.” A few participants thought that classmates can “blow you off, won’t talk to you, and won’t look at you.” Other responses shared were:
Question 6: What does the word “encouragement” mean for you?
In particular, participants felt that “helping” was the meaning of encouragement. Many of the participants mentioned being “cheered on” or receiving compliments were signs of encouragement. Some participants described encouragement as:
Question 7: Did you receive encouragement from your teacher last year?
Most participants received encouragement in various ways from teachers during the last year; although several participants mentioned that most of their encouragement came from their parents, siblings, and friends. One participant mentioned that his encouragement came from “myself.” Participants shared many examples of encouragement received by teachers. One participant recalled that he received a bad grade and the teacher said that he could do better. Another participant said that even when his swim team lost, he was told, “you can do better next time.” Most of the participants attend schools that have Honor Rolls, Student of the Month and Award Days which the youth considered a demonstration of encouragement. A few examples of encouragement shared by other participants included:
On the other hand, a few participants felt that they did not receive encouragement from teachers. “Yelling” by both teachers and coaches appeared to be considered a lack of encouragement. Participants indicated that they had trouble with some classes and the teachers did not want to help them. It was mentioned that the teachers helped students that they like more than others. As one participant said, “This kind of got me annoyed and I did not do well in that class.”
Question 8: What could schools do to encourage students?
Participants expressed a variety of comments around what schools could do to encourage students. Several participants mentioned that principals could do more encouraging than they presently do. One participant recalled an incident in which a school team made it to the state level history competition, but the principal would not fund it because he didn’t think that they would win. Several participants thought the principal should get to know lots of kids and their personal interests. Another participant suggested that the principal could interact with the students in a positive manner versus the disciplinary manner. Student presently perceived the principal as the enemy; only as a disciplinary figure.
Participants thought that teachers could encourage students more if they stayed in the room and communicated more with students instead of leaving the room. Astutely, one participant’s hypothesis was that “as you get older, you are offered less encouragement although everyone needs it.”
It rang particularly true across most school districts that there could be more encouragement with non-athletic activities/clubs. Additional suggestions to encourage students were:
Question 9: Who or what do you think has the most to do with caring school climate?
“Teachers” and “Principals” were clearly identified as who has most to do with caring school climates. Many youth participants felt that teachers had the most effect because they are most directly linked to the students. Many participants indicated that students have the most interactions with teachers and spend the most time with teachers. Also, participants thought it was the teacher’s job to make a caring school climate. “How teachers teach” was listed as a big impact on school climate. A few additional responses by participants in regard to who or what has the most to do with a caring school climate were:
Question 10: Do you have anything else to add to this topic of caring school climate that you did not tell us under the questions already asked?
Nearly all of the participants did not have any additional information to add to the topic of caring school climate. Participants agreed that nice or nicer teachers and a friendly environment were important in schools.
Question 11: Are you familiar with different cultures? If yes, where did you learn about it?
Overall, participants appeared to be limited or not attuned to diversity or different cultures. Most of the participants’ familiarity with different cultures was learned at school through:
One participant learned about a different culture from her friend who is Native American. Another participant learned about different cultures through travel in Europe and South America. A few participants mentioned that grandparents shared information about different cultures.
Question 12: What cultures are you aware of in your community?
Participants appeared to have limited awareness about other cultures. As one participant said, “I never really paid attention to it.” Another participant said, “So…they are just people like us.” A few participants’ responses included “we are not big cities,” “not much racial diversity or cultural exposure for us,” and students have “limited knowledge at best.” One student boldly indicated, “I could care less about other cultures.” Some participants directly asked, “What do you mean by cultures?” and some participants listed various religions as responses. One participant thought that there were a lot of racist people in the area and added that many people make prejudicial comments about black people. This student talked about how little students know about African American people and culture.
One participant related that she has a pen pal from Japan. With encouragement, one participant finally shared that several exchange students lived in his home. The participants appeared to be aware of Native Americans in the community but also felt that they have limited knowledge about the Native American culture. Through personal contacts, the participants listed awareness of the following cultures: Hispanic, Russian, German, Brazilian, Japanese, Chile, Jordan, Philippine, and Finnish.
Question 13: 65% of the students who took the survey did not have knowledge and comfort with other cultures. Why do you think they said that? What can we do to change that?
Many of the participants appeared to be unfazed by this finding. Overall, participants agreed that students had a lack of exposure to different cultures. Participants felt that schools do not introduce different cultures to students and suggested that they should study different cultures more in classes. In addition to more classroom studies, participants thought that having “hands on” experience with different cultures, workshops, and participating in student exchanges with urban schools would be various ways to learn about other cultures.
Youth participants were very thoughtful with their remarks and had a range of opinions and beliefs around two key findings of the developmental asset survey: Caring School Climate and Cultural Competence. Interestingly, the majority of the youth were positive about teachers caring about them, and at the same time, the students understood the survey finding that over 1/3 of the surveyed students were “unsure” if their schools provide a caring and encouraging environment. Youth participants pointed out that through their observations of teacher-student interactions, they believed that teachers’ behaviors demonstrate a level of caring. Youth participants clearly identified teachers and principals as the key people influencing a caring school climate. Quite modestly, young people did acknowledge various types of encouragement they received at school and appreciated the school’s encouragement. Youth had a strong sense that their friends and classmates, who they spent time with, cared about them. Their perception that classmates might not care about them was acceptable to the youth participants based on the opinion that youth are not familiar with all of the classmates; therefore, “they don’t care about you.” It is important to note that our young people offered suggestions as to what schools could to provide “a caring climate.”
In general, youth participants were not surprised by the survey finding of 65% of the surveyed students did not have knowledge and comfort with other cultures/racial/ethnic backgrounds. It was clear that the youth were limited in the awareness and knowledge of other cultures to the extent of providing limited responses and remarks to the focus group discussion questions.
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