Neighborhoods Matter: Study finds neighborhoods are significantly related to academic achievement in African American youth over time

banerjee_m_120x150_2New research by a California State University, Northridge psychology professor underscores the important role relationships within neighborhoods play in the development and success of adolescents.

That’s the conclusion CSUN’s Meeta Banerjee made — along with collaborators Dawn Witherspoon, professor of psychology at Pennsylvania State University, and Deborah Rivas-Drake, professor of psychology at University of Michigan — in the recently published study “It’s More the Exception Rather Than the Rule: African-American Families’ Neighborhoods and Youth’s Academic Performance During Middle School.” The team studied African-American students in Baltimore and found that students with positive social relationships in their communities were more successful in school, despite disparities faced, including lack of capital and resources.

“There need to be networks, especially for kids who don’t [see] a lot of [classmates with] their ethnic backgrounds in their school,” Banerjee said. “Role models in the neighborhood may not be the same as who is in the house. Having general conversations and role models around can provide cohesion that is social and structural. When we don’t have those things, it becomes a place where you think, ‘What is the neighborhood?’ Kids pick up on those things.”

For this study, Banerjee analyzed academic data directly from middle schools that consisted of more than 700 “economically diverse” African-American families in Baltimore. The data was collected from the “Maryland Adolescent Development in Context Study,” which began in 1992 and completed its last data collection in 2012. Results from this study showed that African American adolescents are generally exposed to more social risk factors relative to their peers. In this study, students that had more risks, like living far from grocery stores and schools and generally lived in low-income regions, had lower grade point averages and test scores. On the other hand, data about students who had both “protective factors” and social risks helped Banerjee’s team conclude that neighborhood structural disadvantage was unrelated to academic achievement. Banerjee said that the impact of neighborhoods is “tremendous,” and knowing things like who your neighbors are and living close to stores and parks shape the mindset of adolescents.

This study states that having both neighborhood frameworks and social relationships in neighborhoods prolifically shapes the success of adolescents. Banerjee said that neighborhood cohesiveness often depends on how much money and resources are provided, but when neighborhoods are cohesive, kids tend to do better.

“Communities are dynamic — it isn’t something that exists in a building. It is more social and personable,” Banerjee said. “Those messages about ethnicity and race are really important for African-American college students, especially in the face of community violence — because it leads to better mental health and better academic outcomes.”

Originally from Flint, Mich., Banerjee’s interest in positive social relationships between neighborhoods and community violence stemmed from her own knowledge about the high rates of violence in her community.

“It was more than just violence I wanted to understand. I really wanted to understand those race-related practices,” she said.

Banerjee has published and presented more than 20 of her research topics on subjects primarily focused on positive social relationships between communities.

She is currently studying wealthier neighborhoods — where its community members have higher incomes and an ease of access to necessities — in order to find what is helping kids and what isn’t. Anything from community centers, how close grocery stores and parks are relative to families’ homes and safety within neighborhoods.

For more information about the study, visit: 

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