Review of Nygreen, K. (2013)

Nygreen, Kysa. (2013). These Kids: Identity, Agency, and Social Justice in a Last Chance High School. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Reviewed by Abby Beneke

Kysa Nygreen’s (2013) These kids: Identity, agency, and social justice in a last chance high school seeks to challenge what she calls the “paradox of getting ahead” that characterizes much of the discourse around educational reform in the United States and often ignores the implicit hierarchy that it reproduces. Drawing on ethnographic data collected over the course of two years, Nygreen examines how youth in what is called a “last chance high school” form identities while being framed as “low achieving,” “at-risk,” and “troubled.” In her study, Nygreen aims to use Participatory Action Research (PAR), in contrast to most PAR work that she suggests merely describes and argues for the importance of the methodology. Nygreen’s book provides a sober analysis of the strengths and limitations of PAR, as she shows how educators and youth engaged in PAR can problematically reproduce inequality at the same time as they try to resist it.

This book is composed of an introduction and six chapters that are divided into three parts. The introduction describes Nygreen’s theoretical framework, methods, positionality, and general structure of the book. Nygreen primarily draws on two bodies of literature, namely critical educational ethnographies that frame schools as sites of identity formation and work on the role of schools in society, particularly in relation to labor market institutions and social inequality. The first chapter introduces the Participatory Action Research Team for Youth (PARTY), the group of Jackson High students on which the book focuses, along with five graduates of the school, where Nygreen had been a substitute teacher, teacher, and volunteer for four years prior to the study. Nygreen also details the social justice class that grew out of the PARTY project, which was co-facilitated by Nygreen and the young adults in this group. The reader leaves the introduction impressed by the extent and depth with which Nygreen engaged with the young adults at Jackson High.

Part I of the book situates Jackson High within the historical context of California’s continuation high school program and examines the way that PARTY members interacted with the “discourse of these kids” (p. 50). In Chapter 1, Nygreen draws heavily on the work of Deirdre Kelly (1993) to illustrate the hierarchy embedded in last chance high schools, which she argues reproduce deeply inequitable structures, despite claiming to offer an alternative to mainstream schooling. Chapter 2 shows how students at Jackson High negotiated the deficit identities that dominant society attached to them. Nygreen’s transparency is a strength of this chapter, as she details the ways in which she reinscribed the very deficit tropes that she attempted to challenge in her role as facilitator. For example, she describes an interaction in which she presented her grant proposal to her students that portrayed PARTY members as “low-achieving and disengaged from school” (p. 49). Nygreen then highlights the way that her participants contested her deficit framings, including one former graduate who argued that Nygreen “made the youth participants ‘look like fuckups’” (p. 50). This chapter illustrates that, regardless of how the youth participants negotiated the discourse of these kids, they were always contending with discursive tropes that were embedded in racialized and classed dominant discourses.

Part II presents ethnographic description of the PARTY project as group members conducted collaborative research and designed and taught a social justice class. Chapter 3 examines PARTY weekly meetings through the lenses of critical consciousness and civic identity formation to explore how the youth participants made sense of their civic experiences and how they imagined futures for themselves in a sociopolitical context that marginalized them through inequitable educational experiences and encounters with the criminal justice system. Nygreen suggests that the PARTY meetings at least partially facilitated the formation of a collective oppositional identity and encouraged students to exercise some political agency in their roles as educators in the social justice class. Chapter 4 shifts its focus from the weekly meetings to the “figured world” (Holland, et al., 2001) of schooling, examining how youth developed teacher identities in their roles as educators in the social justice class they co-designed and co-taught. Nygreen argues that despite the group’s attempts to counter traditional classroom practice, they ultimately reproduced dominant classroom practices and discourses.

Part III broadens in scope from the PARTY project to an examination of the last chance high school as a site that amplifies the paradox of getting ahead. Chapter 5 explores the various and competing ways that PARTY group members conceptualized educational justice. Two competing framings, in particular, emerged—namely, the paradigm of college for all versus vocational education. Nygreen posits that, largely due to her disproportionate influence on the group, they embraced the college for all paradigm in their social justice class, ultimately reproducing the dominant curriculum offered at Jackson High rather than offering a viable alternative. In Chapter 6, Nygreen interrogates contemporary visions of educational justice, arguing for a new discourse that transcends the paradox of getting ahead.

A strength of this study is Nygreen’s ability to contest dominant deficit framings of “these kids.” While students in last chance high schools are often cast as “failures,” Nygreen counters such commonsense understandings through careful attention to socially constructed discourses in which race and class are deeply implicated. Further, Nygreen’s nuanced treatment of the possibilities for educational justice that moves beyond “the paradox of getting ahead” makes this a powerful read for those interested in forging a new path toward educational justice. One minor critique of Nygreen’s work is that while she sought to use PAR, her findings did not rely on the PARTY group’s research, nor were the other PARTY members listed as co-authors. This raises important questions about the meaning of “participatory” research, who benefits from it, and in what ways.

These Kids will be of interest to scholars of urban education, particularly those who are interested in race and class inequities and youth identity formation. This book will also be of interest to those who employ or wish to employ PAR in their own work. Graduate students may particularly benefit from Nygreen’s forthright reflections on the strengths and limitations of PAR.

Holland, D., Lachicotte, W., Skinner, D., and Cain, C. (2001). Identity and agency in cultural worlds. Cambridge, MA: President and Fellows of Harvard College.

Kelly, D. (1993). Last chance high: How girls and boys drop in and out of alternative schools. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.