Positive Deviance Project Finds Keys to School Success

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Recently, a group of Bronx residents met at Children’s Aid’s Next Generation Center to discuss the solutions to school failure they’re seeing among stronger students in the community and how to get other parents and students to model this positive behavior and achieve academic success.

This group of 25 volunteers is part of our “Positive Deviance” initiative, a two-year project that aims to boost school success rates for black and Latino males in Morrisania.

The positive deviance approach was developed in the early 1990s by researchers at Tufts University as a solution to malnutrition. It is based on the premise that every community has members whose behaviors and strategies help them find solutions to problems that their peers haven’t, despite having access to the same resources and facing similar or worse challenges. Through positive deviance, the community identifies those people and their behaviors, and develops a plan of action to get the wider community to adopt shared solutions.

Our 25 volunteers are examining the barriers faced by young men of color and the strategies that successful community members have used to overcome them. The volunteers are students, teachers and other school staff, professionals from the community, Children’s Aid Society staff members, parents and grandparents, as well as an expert from the Positive Deviance Initiative.

Here’s a quick look at what the group has done to date:

  • Created a problem statement: The majority of black and Latino male students living in the Bronx do not succeed in school. The desired outcome is that most black and Latino male students will be successful in school in the coming years. 
  • Developed a conceptual framework and related questionnaire: School success is impacted by: teen dating, respect in and out of school, family life, time management and social networking, after-school activities and violence.
  • Identified stakeholders for group interviews: teachers, parents, siblings, friends, school guards, janitors, coaches, pastors, tutors, counselors, neighbors, principals, mentors, shop owners, police and community-based organization members. These stakeholders each impact the success of students and helped identify positive deviant behaviors in interviews.
  • Determined selection criteria for positive deviants: an 80% average in all subjects and meets one or more criteria such as being subject to gang violence or tough police tactics, or living in a home with a single working parent or where English isn't the primary language.
  • Conducted individual interviews with positive deviants and their families to see how their behaviors differ from the normative ones.

In late May, the group presented results from those interviews and engaged in a community dialogue about the findings from this research. The findings include actions students can take on their own—such as sitting near the front of class and being considerate to all students, even those you might not like—and actions families can take together—eating meals, reviewing homework and even activities like grocery shopping and running errands as a group on weekends.

Next, a replication phase will begin this summer, and in the fall, the group will launch a kick-off event for multiple replication projects. Stay tuned for updates on this exciting project.

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