Stefanie is a five year old child in Kindergarten in an elementary school in her area. Her family is Mexican and she currently lives with her mother and grandmother. Her father is estranged from the family but she visits him monthly at his home. Both her mother and grandmother speak Spanish in the home. Grandmother speaks no English. Mother speaks English but has difficulty receptively, frequently misinterpreting what is being conveyed even though her own speech would seem to indicate that she is fluent. Stefanie was behind in her language development. When she began to speak in sentences, her meanings were often unclear. Her language has been a mixture of Spanish and English that is sometimes not well understood by her Spanish-speaking family or the predominantly English speaking faculty and students in her classroom.
Stefanie’s mother has been upset about her father’s access to their daughter. There have been allegations that the five year old may have been sexually abused by her paternal grandfather in the past. She believes that this behavior is continuing. Mother has been trying to communicate with school officials to access their help in ensuring that her daughter is not picked up from school by the father who has, on paper, the right to do so. The language and cultural barriers have been evident as she has tried to acquire legal representation and, as she has attempted to communicate to school personnel to support and help her daughter stay focused, remain safe, and progress in school.

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Oseguera, et al (2011) discusses the pre-conditions that surround the issue of social capital in the schools. Her study identified three groups of “pre-conditions” to social capital that are involved in Stefanie’s situation. This case involves a set of pre-conditions that are remarkable in that they pre-dispose this child and her family to access to less social capital in this setting. Stefanie is one of a very few Latino students in her school. The school population ethnic makeup is 52% African American, 39% Caucasian, 7% Asian, and 2% Latino.

Families whose children attend this school would be considered in the low-income range and have a mean income of less than $28,000 per year. A majority of students receive free lunch and are connected in some way with other outside social services. The school itself has a reputation as a “poor” school in that its students do not perform as well as students from other schools on standardized tests. There has been a high number of children in this school every year who move frequently. The population is in flux and there is a high level of absences, a condition that is somewhat unusual for a school that serves children K-3.

Delpit’s Five Rules for Participation in Power (1998) apply to the experience of Stefanie and her mother in their attempts to achieve a safe and adequate education in her current school.

1.Issues of power are enacted in the classroom.
Stefanie’s behaviors in the classroom are at times out of control. The teachers have
difficulty getting her to communicate, to stay focused, and to behave appropriately around other children. The teachers see her as having learning problems because of her communication issues and as likely having ADHD because of her unfocused and unorganized behaviors. They have not heard or believed her mother’s report of the issues that are occurring on the family front, all of which could account for Stefanie’s current performance.

2.There are codes or rules for participating in power.
Stefanie’s mother has been attempting to communicate her deep concerns and fears about
her daughter’s safety with the faculty at the school. She has been unsuccessful in leveraging their concern in part because of her language barrier. Her English is difficult to understand and the level of emotion with which she communicates about this issue is being misinterpreted as evidence of mental instability. This perception is being transferred to Stefanie who is seen as a child who likely has learning problems even though she is currently performing academically at a level that is comparable to most children in her grade. Stefanie’s mother seems unaware that these unspoken rules of power exist and therefore has not found a way to work within this system.

2.The rules of the culture of power are a reflection of the rules of the culture of those who
have power.
In this case, the power is held by school authorities and by the legal system that defines
what can be done legally to protect this child. Stefanie’s mother does not understand the protocol that would allow her to be heard. In spite of the severity of the problem she is needing to present, she is not being heard because she is not approaching the problem according to the rules set up by school authorities.

3.Individuals who are not participants in the culture of power can benefit from having the rules explained explicitly.
Stefanie’s mother sought help from the School Counselor who explained the protocols she needed to follow. The mother was surprised to know that the strategies she was using were not being received in the way she intended. This mother was given some catch words that would be better received by the power holders in the school.

5.Those with power do not recognize the culture’s existence. Those who lack power are most clearly aware that the culture is present.
Stefanie’s mother was able to access the help she needed once she knew the rules that had been unclear to her before. She has since found legal representation from a Latino attorney who is providing with her support and coaching as she works her way through the process of ensuring that her daughter gets the education she needs in an environment where she is protected.

Mehan (1992) discusses the way in which the rules of power have infused themselves into themselves into the larger theories and concepts that impact the success of students in the schools setting. In Stefanie’s case, the misinterpretation of her behaviors within the school setting have resulted in her being placed in classroom for children with behavioral and learning disabilities. While some of the techniques and approaches employed there have helped, Stefanie is also not being encouraged to utilize her many academic and personal strengths to adjust to the rules of the social environment. This early “labelling” process is likely to determine the direction she will take in school and to limit other opportunities that may enhance her development. What has begun as a misunderstanding is very likely to become a self fulfilling prophecy in which Stefanie is the unfortunate lead.

  • Delpit, L. (1988). The silenced dialogue” power and pedagogy in educating other people’s
    children. Harvard Educational Review 58(3), p. 280.
  • Mehan. H. (1992). Understanding inequality in schools: the contribution of interpretive studies. Sociology of Education, 65(1). p 1-20.
  • Oseguero, L., Conchas, G.O., & Mosqueda, E. (2011). Beyond family and ethnic culture:
    Understanding the preconditions for the potential realization of social capital. Youth
    Society 43(4).