Diversity and Inequality in Context: Schools, Neighborhoods, and Adolescent Development

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Rising demographic diversity and persistent social inequality are two defining features of youths’ social worlds, and schools and neighborhoods are key developmental contexts where this component of contemporary life plays out. This dissertation aimed to better understand the developmental implications of these twin phenomena, focusing specifically on adolescence, a critical period of development characterized by profound neurobiological and social cognitive changes. Across three studies, I asked, (1) how does exposure to different types of diversity and inequality in schools and neighborhoods relate to adolescent mental health and academic engagement? and (2) how do these relations differ across contexts and according to individual socioeconomic and racial-ethnic identity?The first chapter examined the relation between how schools say they value diversity and adolescent belonging, mental health, and academic engagement across racial groups. Results indicate that when schools’ mission statements conveyed explicit support for diversity (versus exhibiting color-evasive ideologies), racial disparities in mental health, educational aspirations, and reading achievement were smaller. However, when there was a mismatch between how schools said they value diversity and how such values were put into practice, schools’ proclaimed support for diversity was negatively associated with mental health, especially among White youth. The second chapter examined how exposure to rising inequality within neighborhoods—vis-à-vis gentrification—may impact educational outcomes. I found small positive associations between living in a gentrifying (versus chronically disinvested) neighborhood and 12th grade cumulative grade point average, intentions to pursue higher education, and one dimension of school quality: exposure to experienced teachers. However, these potential benefits of gentrification were concentrated among youth who were not economically disadvantaged and White youth. Further, for Black youth, the relation between gentrification and postsecondary plans varied according to the degree of racial turnover occurring in gentrifying neighborhoods—Black gentrification was positively associated with intentions to pursue college, but White gentrification was not. The third chapter examined two psychological mechanisms through which living in a gentrifying neighborhood may impact reading and math achievement: educational aspirations and psychological distress. Overall, there was a positive direct association between gentrification and achievement, and limited evidence of mediation. However, the pathways linking gentrification to educational aspirations, psychological distress, and achievement differed across socioeconomic and racial groups in nuanced ways that illuminate the potential costs and benefits of living in a changing neighborhood during adolescence. These three studies contribute to advancing the education, adolescent, and neighborhood literatures by examining understudied aspects of schools and neighborhoods. Findings suggest that the relation between context, identity, and development is more nuanced than is often assumed, with policy implications for how schools and neighborhoods can better address rising demographic diversity and persistent inequality.






Leer, Jane (2022). Diversity and Inequality in Context: Schools, Neighborhoods, and Adolescent Development. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/26803.


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