Adolescents residing in neighborhoods characterized by poverty and community violence are more likely to report low academic achievement. Research suggests these effects are often mediated by cognitive, emotional, and relational factors, such as self-esteem, stress, and supportive networks. However, there is a dearth of knowledge about the mediating roles of future orientation and psychological distress. It is also unknown whether these mediation mechanisms vary across race/ethnicity. Examining these underlying mechanisms is useful to clarify important opportunities for improving school success, especially for youth living in disadvantaged environments.
Using multiple group structural equation modeling (MG-SEM), the purposes of this study are to: (a) examine associations between neighborhood quality and academic achievement among middle and high school students; (b) investigate the mediation roles of future orientation and psychological distress; and (c) explore how the pathways through which neighborhood quality influences academic achievement vary across different racial/ethnic groups.
Data and samples: The sample included 4,964 students in grades 6-9 from 17 middle and high schools in two communities in North Carolina. Students were administered the School Success Profile (SSP) between 2009 and 2014.
Measures: Neighborhood quality was a latent variable consisting of neighborhood safety, neighborhood support, and neighborhood youth behaviors. The academic achievement latent variable consisted of three self-reported grades indicators. Future orientation was assessed by a 12-item scale about the extent to which students feel positive about the future, believe they can be successful, and expect to complete high school. Psychological distress was modeled as a latent variable with 6 indicators asking students if they ever thought about running away from home, wondered if anyone cares about them, felt sad, felt lost, felt alone and worried about their future. Demographic variables included gender, age, and race/ethnicity.
Analysis: MG-SEM was performed with Mplus version 7.4 to examine the mediating roles of future orientation and psychological distress across racial/ethnic groups. Analyses used appropriate methods for ordinal and clustered data. Measurement invariance was established before testing the structural model.
The sample included 1,063 (21.41%) Black adolescents, 754 (15.19%) Latino adolescents, and 3,147 (63.40%) White adolescents. Poor neighborhood quality was negatively associated with grades (β = -.158 [.041]) and future orientation (β = -.463 [.012]), while it was positively associated with psychological distress (β =.429 [.027]). Findings indicated that future orientation and psychological distress significantly mediated the relationships between neighborhood quality and academic achievements among the entire sample. Notably, the results of MG-SEM indicated that the pathway from neighborhood quality, to future orientation, psychological distress, and academic achievement was only significant for Latino and White adolescents, but not for Black adolescents.
Conclusion and Implications
Future orientation and psychological distress were identified as mechanisms through which neighborhood quality affect school outcomes. Fostering future orientation among youth serves to promote their school success, especially for White and Latino students. For Blacks, however, future orientation was the only mechanism through which neighborhood quality was associated with school success. Thus, intervention programs focusing on enhancing future orientation have great potentials to protect youth against adverse neighborhood conditions.