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These Kids

Identity, Agency, and Social Justice at a Last Chance High School

These Kids

Identity, Agency, and Social Justice at a Last Chance High School

Few would deny that getting ahead is a legitimate goal of learning, but the phrase implies a cruel hierarchy: a student does not simply get ahead, but gets ahead of others. In These Kids, Kysa Nygreen turns a critical eye on this paradox. Offering the voices and viewpoints of students at a “last chance” high school in California, she tells the story of students who have, in fact, been left behind.
Detailing a youth-led participatory action research project that she coordinated, Nygreen uncovers deep barriers to educational success that are embedded within educational discourse itself. Struggling students internalize descriptions of themselves as “at risk,” “low achieving,” or “troubled”—and by adopting the very language of educators, they also adopt its constraints and presumption of failure. Showing how current educational discourse does not, ultimately, provide an adequate vision of change for students at the bottom of the educational hierarchy, she levies a powerful argument that social justice in education is impossible today precisely because of how we talk about it.


These Kids, with its combination of rich ethnographic detail, narrative storytelling, and cogent sociocultural and political-economic analysis, is compelling. Kysa Nygreen’s critique of the ‘college for all’ discourse, particularly as a cornerstone for social justice pedagogy, is a crucial intervention in today’s prevailing obsession with narrow standards and accountability.” 

Deirdre Kelly, University of British Columbia

“‘What does it mean to pursue social justice for ‘all’ students inside a system like this?’ is one of the pointed questions that Kysa Nygreen addresses in this honest and sobering study of the limits of education in our post-industrial, high-stakes education system. ‘These kids’—a dismissive term generally used to refer to young people who are the abandoned and marginalized of our society—is used instead by Kysa Nygreen to challenge educators, and indeed all of us, to argue that they are our kids. Nothing short of a complete overhaul of our educational system is needed if these young people are to be given the chance to live out our nation’s stated ideals of equity and fair play.”

Sonia Nieto, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

These Kids turns the notion of student ‘failure’ on its head. Kysa Nygreen interrogates social and educational structures and attitudes that blame the victims of educational malpractice for lack of achievement. She argues that the important focus of social analysis ought not to be description of the characteristics of students who fail or succeed but examination of the processes through which the concept of ‘failure’ itself is socially constructed. These Kids offers readers a theory-rich ethnography that explores how, in a ‘last chance’ high school, the category of failure is produced and legitimized, but also how it can be challenged and transformed.”

Jean Anyon, Graduate Center, City University of New York

These Kids pulls in the reader by employing the voices of Nygreen’s collaborating students; the author lets them speak for themselves to a great (and illustrative) degree, using her role as participant primarily to tease out the circumstances in which statements were made. . . . Both interesting and uncomfortable, Nygreen’s ultimate argument is that in order to both enact social justice and allow students their dignity as people, we must question received wisdom by ‘decoupling academic evaluations from judgments of character, deservedness, and worth.’ That is, educators must set aside the focus on closing the achievement gap in favor of closing ‘the consequence gap’. It is this maintenance of human dignity within all educational contexts—even the ‘last chance’ high school—that rests at the center of Nygreen’s book and should have a place of pride in all educators’ pedagogy and practice.”

Cat McManus | Anthropology and Education

“Nygreen has written a theoretically and methodologically sound model of action research that tackles issues facing the education of students attending an alternative (read “last chance”) high school in California in this highly engaging book. She smartly debunks the notion that the students themselves are ‘the problem’ that educators and politicians are so determined to ‘fix.’ Highly recommended.”


Table of Contents

Introduction: The Paradox of Getting Ahead

Part I  Social and Historical Contexts
1 Situating Jackson High: Last Chance High Schools and the Discourse of These Kids
2 Being Professional: Figured Worlds and the Construction of Self

Part II  Theorizing Identity and Agency
3 People Have the Power: Critical Consciousness and Political Identity in PARTY
4 From Theory to Practice: Teacher Identity, Agency, and Reproduction at Jackson High

Part III Dilemmas of Social Justice at the Last Chance High School
5 Paradigms of Educational Justice: Contested Curricular Goals in the Social Justice Class
6 Social Justice for “These Kids”

Appendix: Last Chance Literature Review Coding Methods

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