Acculturation Experiences and Adaptive Behaviors

Their perceptions of the social location differences between Shaker Heights and their former neighborhoods put their social positionality and identity in question. Some adaptive behaviors to fit in socially and culturally put them in contradictory spaces mentally.

I always kept a chip on my shoulder about...I knew that I wasn’t raised in the community. I knew I didn’t have the wealth, didn’t have the social networks. I knew I wasn’t “Shaker-Shaker.” And all my friends, we all knew that. We knew what we were. So, anytime if it’s better for me to say that I am from Shaker, “I’m from Shaker.” But while I am at Shaker, “naw, I’m from Cleveland” (Richard Brooks).

Cultural competence is a learned skill that enables a person to function in a manner that is congruent with the values, beliefs, customs, mannerisms, and language of the majority members of the culture (Padilla & Perez, 2003). Over time, the students learned to adjust and behave within the acceptable cultural band of Shaker’s normative behaviors as they perceived them to various levels of cultural competence. For some, the social and academic adjustments were relatively easy despite the distinct differences in neighborhood characteristics. For others, the school culture, educational rigor in Shaker compared to their previous schools made the adjustments challenging. However, the resources to support the academic challenges and enriched curriculum in Shaker inspired them to work harder, to catch up, and to get the most out of their new school.

Monica and Melissa Washington graduated from Shaker High School with a lengthy list of accomplishments. Before transferring to the Shaker schools, they had attended schools in California, Columbus, Ohio, and Cleveland. For them translocation was familiar, so moving from Cleveland to Shaker went smoothly. They were happy to finally “settle down.” Their values, their mother’s academic expectation for them, and their behavioral norms remained unchanged across the translocations.

Monica and Melissa barely perceived academic difficulties; however, they experienced minor social acculturation stress. Melissa recalled,

I don’t remember the transition (to Shaker) being a shock at all, you just slid right in. Socially, I felt it was tough for me to get used to the kids there. I just kinda felt odd for a while until I got older; then I started really connecting with the kids, having more friendships and stuff.

Similarly, Gina Clark and Carmen Wright were both exceptionally high-achieving Black female students and active members in the Student Group on Race Relations (SGORR). They hardly perceived any adaptation issues. Though transferring from Cleveland, they had been well prepared by their previous schools’ special programs. Before enrolling in Shaker schools, Gina and Carmen had already made specific plans for college. Their goals were in line with culturally acceptable expectations of students in Shaker. Thus, they did not experience dissonance between the two settings.

Kyle James experienced the highest level of acculturation stress. On first transferring to Shaker, he actively resisted adapting. He intentionally rejected behavioral norms expected in Shaker schools. He was rebellious toward his parents, he said, to protect himself against the distress caused by leaving all that he knew behind in his old neighborhood “E.” [Black, high-poverty suburb]. Kyle recalled it was not until his father took him to the basement for a “man-to-man talk,” did he begin to adopt a more of a positive attitude toward adapting to Shaker.

I was born and raised out there. I didn’t want to move to Shaker. The diversity shocked me when I first came. They knew I wasn’t from Shaker immediately because I would wear my graffiti jacket every day. I was rapping, “I’m from the hood, you know.” My teacher would be like “take it off,” “I am not taking it off, man.” Until one day my parents went to a teacher-parents’ conference, they came back home and I got the beating of my life from my father. So, that changed everything; I never wore the graffiti jacket again.

Kyle’s father was proud of his tough love that altered Kyle’s trajectory. He detailed that fateful night and the exchange of words as if it happened yesterday,

We went to the teacher-parents’ conference and his teacher was telling me that he was hanging out, being disrespectful, “He is not doing anything, and he can do it.” So, when I got home, we had a talk. I said, “Get down to the basement, we need to talk. What is this about you going to school? You wanna be a fool? If you are gonna be a clown, don’t waste my time working all these hours, don’t waste your time going to school, just drop out now.” Then he got smart, so I did discipline him [laughed, grinned]. Then he said, “I don’t want to live here, no more.” I said, “Fine,” I said, “Here are 300 dollars,” I put on the bar. “So, when I get up in the morning, the money is gone, you should be gone with it. Take all the clothes you want, but don’t take no furniture, I own that, but you can go.” So, I got up, he had written me a 3-page letter apologizing for mouthing off and he’s going to school and do better. Ever since that day, never had a problem. Went back up to that school and they said, “I don’t know what you said to him, Mr. J, but he’s been a perfect gentleman ever since.”

While some students needed tough love to overcome the hurdles in acculturation, others were self-determined to adapt and thrive upon translocation despite the high stress. Meghan Davis grew up with only her mother and her two siblings in “K” [Black, high-poverty, high-crime Cleveland neighborhood adjacent to Shaker Heights]. To escape the violence of the neighborhood, once Meghan’s mother had saved enough for a down payment on a house in Shaker Heights, they immediately moved. Meghan defined the two locations as starkly different; however, she understood that she had to adjust and reorient herself. Even with this positive attitude toward adaptation, at the beginning, her translocation experience was rough because Shaker students’ and administrators’ prejudicial response to her and her siblings, stereotyping them as “tough kids from Cleveland” and troublemakers. Though knowing that some Shaker students and teachers had this negative stereotype of her, Meghan managed this unjust acculturation stress by ignoring those “ignorant kids” and by making good grades to prove the school administrators wrong. For her, coming to Shaker meant better life chances, and “you don’t just quit when other people start saying crazy things to you,” explained Meghan.

The transition was difficult because we had to overcome the perception that they automatically placed on us. Just because we moved from the ghetto, people thought we were going to be a certain way. That was my biggest challenge to overcome not just with students but with school administrators too. It was laughable what some of these kids were saying to us. It’s almost like they’re looking for a fight or something. They think they were tough; they were nothing compared to what I was used to in “K.” [Black, high-poverty, high-crime Cleveland neighborhood adjacent to Shaker Heights].

Richard Brooks eventually managed to adapt to “Shaker’s ways.” This does not mean, however, that adapting was always easy, or that

Moving on up to the Suburbs 129 adjustments were made without personal and psychic costs. In the interview, he revealed that he never felt that he was or would ever be truly a part of Shaker. Having a mother who was a teacher in the Shaker schools did not help lower his anxiety; said he was “scared” before transferring. He was very conscious of the difference in socioeconomic status between “kids from Cleveland” and “Shaker-Shaker” kids.7 His strategy to buffer his acculturation stress was to find attachment to those students who also translocated to Shaker.

Shaker-Shaker kids definitely have more exposure. The hardest thing for me was seeing wealth and all the stuff around me but not knowing how to get it. I missed out on the arts and music; so, for me, not to be involved in that was a bit weird for me. So, I connected with other kids new to Shaker.

Alisha Plessy was intimidated and impressed by Shaker’s curriculum wealth, five foreign languages, drama, orchestra, and theatre, compared to what she had been exposed to in her previous religious school. Besides studying hard to catch up, she managed her acculturation stress through active participation in sports. She said, “I played organized tennis and chess throughout my years of attending Shaker schools ... and made friends with those kids on the team and some of us were in the same classes and that made me feel more comfortable.”

Melvin Mitchell, with a clear awareness of stereotypes associated with Black Americans, did not hesitate to advocate to “play the game” to achieve goals in life. At the time he moved to Shaker, the student body was mostly White, so coming into the school, he figured that if talking White and dressing White would give him an advantage, so be it,

If you want to achieve something, you have to figure out how to do it. If that means I have to come in and talk a certain way so that you’re not threatened by my existence, well that’s what life is all about. I think that growing up in Shaker prepared me for the world because I was exposed to all different kinds of people and I understood that I had to play the game to achieve the kinds of things I want to achieve. You have to play the game within the game - and in it, means getting your education, and getting good grades.

In the same way, Kyle James and Richard Brooks changed the way they dressed and the way they interacted in Shaker. It did not take long for them to find a social group to fit in. Richard “found a group of guys who were in a similar situation like mine. Most of the people I hang out with had been people who came into the system.” But both of them emphasized that they “don’t hang out with people who are ‘doing nothing.’”

When asked for further explanation, Richard said that “doing something” means,

Having a goal of where you wanna be at, whether it’s going to college, or having a decent job, or doing your little hustle; it doesn’t matter, you know what I mean, you have to be doing something, otherwise no point hanging out with you.

Kyle grinned when he mentioned finding friends in school clubs, but he had an alterior motive as well. His active involvement was a strategic move to compensate for his less-than-satisfactory grades particularly on tests when he first entered Shaker schools,

If one of the teachers I had, I might have not been doing great in that class, they are in charge of that club, so they would see that I was making extra efforts. So, if they were gonna give me a C, maybe they would give me a B. I definitely try to impress the teachers. I was failing in Spanish, but I did a rap in Spanish in a talent show, I actually got a B in the class. I was always good, interactive, and inside the classroom.

In sum, regardless of cultural competence level and life experiences prior to moving to Shaker, the students who were newcomers expressed some degree of acculturation stress. The acculturation experience was smooth for some, but for most, the translocation was not free of conflicts and frictions. Yet they all formed adaptive behaviors and employed various strategies to minimize the stress and maximize their newfound advantages.

Individual Agency and Accountability

Success is this world. When I started in Shaker, things came easy to me. I wanted to achieve, to do well. I was not going to use trigonometry for anything and I hated math, but I knew that I had to get that grade to have a good GPA to get into a good school and it teaches you that things are not always made up of the things that you want to do. I always knew that it was about a means to an end.

(Melvin Mitchell)

I was super, superconscientious; it would kill me if I had to miss a day of school. I knew I had to do well, I had to excel. I definitely knew I needed to go to college and that was important for me to be successful not only for myself but also for my family. I had to make something out of myself, it was just never an option that I would do anything else.

(Carmen Wright)

Individual agency and accountability are a common thread throughout the interviews of all the Black students in the Shaker Project. For translocated students, individual agency and accountability added a new dimension to the factors that inspired them to do well at school. Cultural competence alone could not fully explain their successful adjustment in Shaker.

Academic achievement was perceived as a form of resistance to restrictive and unfair school policies (e.g., Akom, 2003; Coley, 2003; Horvat & Lewis, 2003). This applied to Meghan Davis. To defy the stereotypical, biased comments from Shaker kids and school administrators, she was determined to do well in Shaker. For other students, they followed a critical race achievement ideology emphasizing the importance of being Black and successful in “White America,” where racism is part of daily reality.

Both the Black students and their parents viewed achievement as a common human desire. Carmen Wright and Melvin Mitchell both were exceptionally high achievers academically and in cocurricular activities. Both became dynamic professionals. They expressed their love for learning and their strong will to get good grades based on their vision for the future. The transition from Cleveland to Shaker brought their hopes and dreams within reach.

Melvin and his mother, who was “first lady” as the wife of the pastor of a popular Black church in “L.” [Black working-class neighborhood], explained that he was raised in the church and sang in the choir. By the time Melvin entered Shaker, its artistically enriched environment with abundant music and theatre programs and performance outlets further nurtured him and eventually afforded him the opportunity to attend one of the top-performing arts colleges in the nation. Later, he pursued a career as a professional musical theater actor on Broadway, which he described as “blessed to have a successful career.”8 For Melvin and Carmen, schooling was not only a means to an end, but they found themselves developing a passion for learning itself and the many and varied curricular paths available to them in Shaker made their journey that much smoother.

For some students, going to college became their minimum expectation after transferring to Shaker. Yolanda Scott and Melissa and Monica Washington could not understand why any students would not take advantage of what Shaker had to offer. Melissa described it thus,

Shaker is college-bound, we don’t talk about it, but everybody knows going to college is just the next step. But some students, “Hey, where are you going?” “Oh ... I don’t know.” “What do you mean you don’t know? What are you talking about?” It’s ridiculous that some students even think they can make it without a good education.

Yolanda Scott shared a similar sentiment,

I love learning, Shaker just had so much to offer. I like to live life like you can do anything in the world if you care, that’s why education is important. I don’t care what other people expected, I was going to college like - I was going! I am self-motivated.

Meghan Davis considered coming to Shaker a step up, and she embraced her aspirations,

By the time I got to high school (in Shaker), I had been so unsuccessful in elementary and junior high school. I wanted to do well. I wanted to get grades, go to college, and kind of make my mom happy.

Not surprisingly, none of the newcomer students expressed a dilemma about being Black and doing well in school. Belief in their abilities and an ethic of hard work combined with a commitment to hold oneself accountable for academic outcomes only got strengthened in Shaker’s studious atmosphere. It was salient in their stories that they valued all the resources offered in Shaker schools which also inspired them to be successful as a form of resistance against negative stereotypes so often associated with Black students. When reflecting on their schooling experiences and academic performance, several students who as adults did achieve academic and postschool success expressed that they could have applied themselves more by focusing on studying more than socializing, by studying with friends more, hanging out less, and so forth. This further illustrates that instead of blaming the contextual and external challenges of being new to Shaker, the students held themselves accountable for their academic performance.

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