The Society for Social Work and Research

2013 Annual Conference

January 16-20, 2013 I Sheraton San Diego Hotel and Marina I San Diego, CA

A Multilevel Analysis of Associations Between School Racial Composition, School Climate, and Academic Performance

Sunday, January 20, 2013: 11:45 AM
Executive Center 2B (Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina)
* noted as presenting author
Laura Hopson, Assistant Professor, State University of New York at Albany, Albany, NY
Eunju Lee, PhD, Assistant Professor, State University of New York at Albany, Albany, NY

Grounded in ecological theory and models of risk and resilience, research points to social supports in youths’ homes, neighborhoods, and schools as conditions for resilience (Rutter, 2006). Consistent with this framework, school climates that are safe, caring, and responsive are associated with academic success (Cohen & Geier, 2010).

A positive school climate is particularly influential in schools serving predominantly African American students from impoverished families (Stewart, 2008).  However, research presents mixed evidence regarding whether African American students perform better in predominantly African American schools (Hanushek, Kain, & Rivkin 2002; Owens, 2010). This study expands existing research by examining relationships between school racial composition, school climate, and academic performance.


The present study is a secondary analysis of data from students who completed the School Success Profile (Bowen, Rose, & Bowen, 2005), a reliable and valid measure of risk and protective factors in students’ neighborhoods, schools, peer groups, and families (Bowen & Richman, 2001). The sample includes 13,039 middle school students within 43 school sites across four states.

The study employs multilevel modeling to examine whether academic performance is related to school racial composition and school climate after accounting for other social supports and student characteristics, including race and family income. First, HLM software is used to examine the association between grades, students’ perceptions of school climate, social supports in the home and neighborhood, and demographic characteristics without level 2 predictors. A second analysis involves multilevel modeling of school racial composition, collective perceptions of school climate, and the proportion of low income families to examine their relationship with grades.


The analysis of level 1 variables indicates that students who perceive a positive school climate receive higher grades, controlling for social supports in students’ homes and neighborhoods, and student characteristics.

T-tests indicate that schools with more African American students also serve more impoverished families (t=-85.72, p<.001) and have a less positive school climate (t=43.34, p<.001) than other schools. However, findings from the multilevel analysis indicate that attending a predominantly African American school is associated with lower grades, while aggregate measures of school climate (level 2) and the proportion of students from low income families (level 2) are not related to grades. Controlling for school climate and family income at level 2, students in schools serving predominantly African American students earn grades that are about .29 points lower on a 5 point scale than students in other schools.  Cross-level interactions were not significant, suggesting that the relationship between student perceptions of school climate (level 1) and grades does not depend on the racial composition of the school.


Overall, students who perceive a positive school climate are likely to perform well academically. However, students in predominantly African American schools perform worse academically even when accounting for aggregate measures of climate and family poverty. Thus, interventions that improve school climate are likely to be helpful but insufficient for achieving meaningful improvement in academic outcomes in predominantly African American schools.  Policies that reduce and prevent school segregation may ultimately have a greater impact.