"Adolescence is a period of time when young people are attempting to gain an integrated sense of self," said Jerome Morris, an associate professor of social foundations of education in the College of Education and a research fellow at UGA's Institute for Behavorial Research (IBR). "For African-American youth, this process can be further complicated by race, gender and class status."
Morris has received a $505,000 grant from the Spencer Foundation to investigate issues of identity formation and negotiation in a project beginning in January 2006 called, "African-American Adolescents in a Black Suburb in the U.S. South: A Social Study of Schooling, Identity, and Achievement."
Morris will explore the role of class status and context as mitigating factors to improve the educational experiences of African-American students. Unlike previous studies that have looked at African Americans in either urban, low-income areas or predominately white and affluent areas, this one focuses on African-American adolescents in a predominately black middle class suburb.
"This study attempts to find out what might be different in the more middle class black suburbs and schools and how that might influence African-American adolescents' understanding of school achievement and identity," explained Morris.
Based in DeKalb County - considered "the heart of Black Mecca" because of its burgeoning predominantly black population - Morris' study will employ sociological and anthropological research methods to follow adolescents over a four-year span as well as evaluate the school district and county.
"By studying the school district, it will help us to understand how district policies and practices shape African-American schooling and will allow us to see the factors that surround academic engagement and promote students' success, shape identity formation and inform teachers' perceptions of African-American students," said Morris.
DeKalb County is 80 percent black and has a predominately African-American school board as well as an African-American superintendent. The county is at the center of the largest growth spurt of any black community in the United States and has outpaced other Georgia counties in "black buying power."
"Unlike many inner-city areas, poverty does not pervade this school system," he said.
Morris and his family live in DeKalb County's Stone Mountain, and he has collected anecdotal information from neighbors about the county's schools for the past three years. In addition, an American Educational Research Association grant for $15,000 has enabled him to collect preliminary data for the study.
"The preeminent scholar on race in the 20th century, W.E.B. Du Bois, believed it was critical for researchers who study African-American culture, institutions and communities to spend an extended period of time living in African-American communities," noted Morris.
Morris will use multiple data collection methods in the study - conducting extensive interviews and observations with 100 adolescents and their families, seeking diversity in grade-levels, gender, achievement-levels, socioeconomic status and the extent of involvement in school-related activities.
He will also review U.S. Census and geographical data on the area and gather sociological data on the adolescents' parents, school personnel, schools and district.
"There are lots of ideas out there regarding black achievement gaps. Some argue it is about structural discrepancies and others say there are discriminatory practices in place," said Morris. "The most recent view has asserted that African-American culture is a major cause for the academic achievement gap. I believe there has to be a multi-disciplinary approach to looking at black achievement."
To incorporate multiple scholarly traditions and disciplines, Morris will focus on understanding adolescents' social identities as students and African Americans as well as members of other social groups.
The UGA researcher believes the information he gathers will help policymakers develop strategies that will reduce the achievement gap between African-American and white students in the nation's public schools.
"I want to inform policymakers on matters regarding the school system's commitment to black children and provide a more informed perspective to the scholarly community in terms of the myriad issues that contribute to this persistent achievement gap," he said.
Morris is no stranger to the subject of black achievement. His past research has examined a number of issues related to educational policy such as school desegregation, and school choice. He is completing a book on African-American families, schools and communities in urban and low-income areas that is based on more than 10 years of research in St. Louis, Atlanta and Cincinnati.
In addition to his research, teaching and service, Morris has also served as president of UGA's Black Faculty and Staff Organization (BFSO) and led efforts to create a senior-level administrative position that focused on diversity and equity, resulting in the creation of the Office of Institutional Diversity.
Morris currently serves as a co-leader of the Community, Ethnicity and Identity in Context Research Group at the IBR.