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Breaking out of the box: A grounded theory study of urban high school students

Dissertation
Author: Rodney Andre Libert
Abstract:
  I conducted a grounded theory (GT) study at a southern New England high school to investigate why many students are failing. What emerged is a process that explains why many students are succeeding in spite of the many obstacles they face. Most of the students in the substantive unit are immigrants or children of immigrants. Many of these immigrant students are in the process of assimilating into American culture and a new and very different education system. After approximately 3 years of observations and taking field notes, I then conducted interviews, coded and analyzed data, and returned to observations, field notes, school data, and interviews. The emergent, grounded theory of breaking out of the box is a process students employ to attain success in the face of the vicious cycle of poverty. Students are actively engaged in an emotional process that leads them from social and academic ignorance to knowledge and achievement on the journey to success. From the initiating stage, significant adults play important roles in the students' desires to escape their cultures of inequality and poverty. The journey is a treacherous one, with students navigating around what they believe to be purposely positioned obstacles and maneuvering their way to success. Many of the behaviors seen in teenagers are because of not knowing the facts, not knowing where to get advice, and not knowing whom to trust. They all need a trusting adult to "walk" with them throughout the process of breaking out of the box. Once they are able to identify an adult - in many cases a teacher, counselor, coach, relative or pastor - they begin the journey to what would be their individual successes. Keywords: grounded theory, breaking out of the box, process, success, urban, immigrant, significant adult, compensating behaviors, positive adult influence, diversity.

TABLE OF CONTENTS CHAPTER ONE: INTRODUCTION .............................................................................1 Background to the Study .............................................................................................1 Rationale for the Study ................................................................................................4 CHAPTER TWO: THE GROUNDED THEORY METHODOLOGY .........................11 Grounded Theory Methodology ..................................................................................11 Stages of Grounded Theory .........................................................................................12 Preparation ................................................................................................................13 Data Collection .........................................................................................................14 Analysis ....................................................................................................................15 Literature Review .....................................................................................................17 Sorting.......................................................................................................................18 Theoretical Outline ...................................................................................................18 Writing ......................................................................................................................18 Properties of a Grounded Theory ................................................................................19 Fit ..............................................................................................................................19 Relevance ..................................................................................................................19 Workability ...............................................................................................................20 Modifiability .............................................................................................................20 Grab ..........................................................................................................................21 Conclusion ...................................................................................................................21 CHAPTER THREE: RESEARCH IMPLICATION ......................................................22 Introduction ..................................................................................................................22 Research Design ..........................................................................................................22 The Grand Tour Question .........................................................................................24 The Substantive Area ................................................................................................24 The Participants ........................................................................................................24 The Procedure ...........................................................................................................25 CHAPTER FOUR: THE THEORY OF BREAKING OUT OF THE BOX ..................28 Introduction ..................................................................................................................28 Living Inside the Box ..................................................................................................29 Moving Into the Box .................................................................................................29 Forced Into the Box ..................................................................................................30 Trapped Inside the Box .............................................................................................31 Fitting-in Inside the Box ...........................................................................................32 Thriving Inside the Box ............................................................................................32 Moving Out of the Box .............................................................................................33 Properties of the Box ...................................................................................................34 Social Factors ............................................................................................................34 Social Changes .......................................................................................................35 Peer Pressure ..........................................................................................................37

ix Gang Influences .....................................................................................................40 Cultural Factors ........................................................................................................40 Cultural Identity .....................................................................................................41 Cultural Expectations .............................................................................................43 Gender Identity ......................................................................................................44 Gender Socialization ..............................................................................................46 Economic Factors .....................................................................................................47 Enabling Factors .......................................................................................................49 Teacher Attitude ....................................................................................................49 Teacher Expectations .............................................................................................50 Parent Contributions ..............................................................................................51 Compensating Behaviors .............................................................................................52 Demoralizing ............................................................................................................52 Antisocializing ..........................................................................................................53 Quitting .....................................................................................................................53 Breaking Out of the Box ..............................................................................................54 Initiating ....................................................................................................................54 Disorienting Dilemma ...........................................................................................55 Relationships ..........................................................................................................57 Relationships at home .........................................................................................58 Single-parent home ..........................................................................................59 Parent-child relationships ...............................................................................60 Relationships at school .......................................................................................61 Adult-student relationships .................................................................................63 Relationships in the community ..........................................................................64 Investing ...................................................................................................................65 Peer Relationships .................................................................................................66 Sports .....................................................................................................................66 Self-Preservation ....................................................................................................67 Neighborhood Safety .............................................................................................68 School Safety .........................................................................................................68 Breaching ..................................................................................................................69 Maturity .................................................................................................................69 Motivation ..............................................................................................................70 Discussion ....................................................................................................................71 CHAPTER FIVE: SUMMARY, CONCLUSIONS, AND RESEARCH IMPLICATIONS ........................75 Summary ......................................................................................................................75 Inside the Box ...........................................................................................................75 Enabling the Box ...................................................................................................77 Compensating Behaviors .......................................................................................79 Breaking Out of the Box ...........................................................................................79 Initiating .................................................................................................................80

x Investing ................................................................................................................81 Breaching ...............................................................................................................81 Conclusions..................................................................................................................82 Implications .................................................................................................................82 Research Implications ...............................................................................................82 Practical Implications ...............................................................................................83 REFERENCES ...............................................................................................................85 APPENDIXES ................................................................................................................91

xi LIST OF FIGURES & TABLES Figure 1: Living Inside the Box ......................................................................................75 Figure 2: Properties of the Box .......................................................................................76 Figure 3: The Influence of Positive Adult Relationships ...............................................78 Figure 4: Compensating Behaviors ................................................................................79 Figure 5: The Breaking-Out Process ..............................................................................80 Figure 6: Diversity of Student Population ......................................................................91 Table 1: Needs of Students from 2005-2008 ..................................................................93

xii LIST OF APPENDIXES Appendix A: Pertinent statistics about the substantive unit of investigation ...............91 Appendix B: Request to School District Superintendent to conduct research on site ..94 Appendix C: Request to first School Principal to conduct research on site .................95 Appendix D: Request to second School Principal to conduct research on site ............96 Appendix E: Parent Informed Consent Form ...............................................................97 Appendix F: Participant Assent Form ..........................................................................99 Appendix G: Participant Informed Consent Form.......................................................101

CHAPTER ONE: INTRODUCTION Background to the Study The substantive unit of this research is a Southern New England, urban, comprehensive high school to which I shall herein refer as New England High. As a comprehensive school, New England High caters to students requiring a college preparation curriculum, those favoring vocational or technical careers, and those needing an individualized education curriculum because of intellectual, specific, or emotional learning disabilities. I entered the inquiry wanting to gain a deeper understanding of issues related to academic achievement and non achievement among this student population. As a special education teacher and a member of the school Discipline Committee, I have first hand knowledge of students’ academic records, students’ disciplinary offense reports, and the school discipline reports. The Discipline Committee held bi-monthly meetings, including a monthly meeting with school administration. This association allowed me to be fully apprised of students’ actions and to meet with them to discuss alternative responses and behaviors. Most of the students I met with were failing because behavior problems in the classroom and negative interactions among peers led to suspensions, missed learning opportunities, and the inability to catch up. Several years ago, New England High had become quite large and some might say too impersonal. Behavior problems increased when some students realized that teachers could not easily identify them and they were able to escape consequences. This behavior resulted in multiple interruptions during class sessions and in the hallways, and in some

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cases, the police were called in to intervene. Already negative media reports escalated to include some inaccuracies, giving all New England High students a negative label. Using research-based evidence, the district administration divided the school into four smaller learning academies within the larger comprehensive school. An assistant principal oversaw the staff and students of each academy. This led to further staffing problems because, as a single comprehensive school, the teacher-student ratio remained unchanged, requiring academies to share teachers and students. Behavior problems continued unabated, and sometimes staff members became preoccupied with tending to these behaviors because of their severity. Progressing students were ignored because teachers and counselors were not available to cater to their needs. After brief observations and surveys, the administration concluded that students were taking advantage of teacher inconsistencies in implementing a behavior management protocol. Teachers were therefore mandated to strictly comply with the rules. Students were notified of impending staff actions before the strict enforcement of behavior management began. The plan to reduce problem behaviors and increase teaching time was a failure. There was a resultant increase in the numbers of detentions, and both in-school and outside-school suspensions. The increase meant more staff was needed to supervise students in detention and in-school suspension. Those students on outside-school suspensions missed instruction and on their return, needed extra attention to bring them up to the required level. In addition, unwanted behavior was apparently rewarded with a “vacation” from school. Some students told me they wanted to go hang out with friends,

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or they did not feel like coming to school anyway. They said that they knew exactly what to do to get what they wanted. Increased staff vigilance brought about increased student infractions as evidenced by an increase in discipline infraction referrals. This called for a further increase in staff vigilance. Staff therefore needed to volunteer to supervise detention and in-school suspension. Some students refused to attend, so staff members had to seek them out by making extra calls home and dispatching school security to round them up. When this solution was envisioned, students were being disrespectful and insubordinate with staff. After some months, the staff discovered that some students were cutting classes in order to avoid meeting teachers whose detentions they skipped. The initial idea was to reduce misbehavior and increase learning time. Our actions resulted in students missing more learning time than before. The administration envisioned a solution by applying what is known from evidence-based research to control student behavior. Staff inconsistencies were thought to be the reason for the escalation of the unwanted behaviors, so the staff simply relied on consistency. Our teacher education colleges advised that this had been a proven solution in similar situations and therefore it was assumed that it would work at this institution. This staff attempted to implement imported research findings because they supposedly worked somewhere else. The solution attempted in this case was research-based but it did not address the problem at this school.

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Rationale for the Study The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB, 2001) mandates that students take standardized tests to prove competency and satisfy federal requirements for the school to be classified as achieving. According to federal auditors, the number of schools failing 4 years in a row increased from 2,790 in 2006 to 4,509 in 2007 (Ramírez, 2007; U.S.Census- Bureau, 2000). Many students do not perform well on tests. However, these very students have demonstrated research skills so necessary for success in college and life thereafter. As teachers, we puzzle over teaching to the test and ignoring creativity. We know how important it is to help develop children’s creativity, but time does not offer such luxuries since we have to prepare the students for state testing and federal mandates. It appears that the NCLB Act is pushing us, and our students, to focus on the four core areas of English, Mathematics, Science, and Social Studies, and neglect the rest of the curriculum (McMurrer, 2007, 2008), including Art, Drama, and Music. In addition, the school district is attempting to comply with the Sheff mandates (Aurigemma, 1999, March 3) of 1996 and move toward full inclusion. 1 According to the United States Supreme Court, socio- economically disadvantaged students were isolated in inner-city schools, therefore racially and ethnically segregated, and were receiving a “poorer” education than suburban children (Aurigemma, 1999, March 3). In the attempts at achieving equity and equality, students

1 In defining inclusion, the British Department for Education and Employment (DfEE, 1998) stressed participation of all students in learning, to attain “the highest possible level of achievement” (p. 23). This document also stressed the importance of social life and experiences during school and after graduation, an idea expressed by a national group of education professionals (Renaissance-Group, 1999) who wrote that “inclusion is about membership and belonging to a community.” Inclusion is therefore a process that ensures all students an equal place, equal opportunities, and positive development in their social, physical, intellectual, creative, emotional, and spiritual selves. Inclusion, therefore, places all students together in the same classroom during instruction.

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with special education needs were placed in mainstream classes and many special classes and placements were dissolved. This served to promote inclusion of students with special education needs, while freeing funds for students to be bussed to the suburban schools. However, it has been devastating to many of our students with disabilities. They report being set up for failure. Sagor (2008) and Conley (1999) write that students are reluctant to learn when they experience repeated failure and foresee a grim future. According to mandates set forth by the NCLB Act, New England High is a failing school. I have received many complaints from members of this school community. As a staff member, I hear complaints from my colleagues who are struggling, doing their best to impart the education our charges need. As a special education teacher, I hear complaints from my students who are either struggling, doing all possible to participate in the learning process, or just about to give in to the many temptations around them and drop out. The school district administration, in their attempts at remediation, introduced many changes that have simply failed or exacerbated the situation. However, many students have identified culture differences, language, pronunciation, and the transition from the metric to the imperial system as barriers to learning. The administration did not see it necessary to consider these factors as possible reasons for student failures, especially in math and reading. At the time of writing this chapter, New England High was in the process of being phased out with new schools being established to absorb the district students. According to Christensen (1998), Finkelstein et. al. (2000), and Welsh (2003),

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reconstitution 2 does nothing to address the real problems of the school and may only increase problems. Older, experienced staff members are not likely to be interested in working for the district administrators and new, inexperienced staff will need to become acquainted with the new culture. In addition, new teachers will avoid working in a school labeled as failing, making a shortage of staff a high possibility when attempting to fill vacancies (Christensen, 1998; Finkelstein et al., 2000; Welsh, 2003). I work daily with students who are struggling in so-called inclusion classes. Jen 3

was a 15-year-old high school student assessed early in her infancy as intellectually disabled. 4 In September 2005, without any transition planning, she was placed in an inclusive setting for the first time in her life. Regularly Jen came to her third period, self- contained math class very upset, sometimes in tears. She complained that students bullied her, preventing her from working. She was having difficulty adjusting to classes with general education students. Meanwhile, the general education students were unable to adjust to having an intellectually disabled student in their class. Dave was a ninth grader in a special program at school. He was in my Basic Reading third period class in the program. After class one day, I found Dave inside the doorway apparently 'hanging out' instead of going to his math class on the 4th floor. As

2 Reconstitution is “the removal of incumbent administrators and teachers (or a large percentage of them) and their replacement with educators who presumably are more capable of improving school performance” (Welsh 2003, p.1).

3 Names have been changed to preserve anonymity.

4 Intellectual disability is diagnosed by using standardized tests of psychological and academic abilities during the developmental years. The average score of the average person is 100 on the Intelligence Quotient scale. Persons scoring below 70 are considered to be intellectually disabled.

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one of his teachers, I told Dave that he needed to hurry up if he wanted to get to class on time. He responded that he was waiting for the hallways to clear before leaving. He reasoned that a clear hallway meant less chance of anyone seeing him emerge from the program area. Dave explained that other students looked at him and others from the program, and made fun of them. He said that it was an ongoing horror, and he was tired of it. When students walked by, they always made some comment about the “retarded” kids in the program. Dave further described how he and his colleague, Francisco, avoided everyone by ”hanging out” and waiting for the hallways to clear before they left or entered the program area. He knew of students taunting Francisco and calling him “retarded,” and Francisco hated it but did not say anything because he knew that the taunting would turn physical if he reported anyone. Dave said he knew that they did it to others too. Dave even suggested that the name of the program should be changed so that it would not have that negative connotation. He said he did not feel a part of the school and he felt as though being in the program set him up to be bullied. He knew that some fights were because of the program’s stigma. He said that the fights occurred "because some students feel ashamed and feel helpless and the only thing they can do is to get out their frustration on each other and fight." During science class, three students were taunting a fellow female student, Debra, who was always on task and progressing well. This was taking place in the presence of my co-teacher and me. We called in security to remove the offending students, but the victim, whom we later discovered hid the continuous bullying by these three, lost her cool and

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retaliated violently, thereby earning a 10-day outside-school suspension. One of the bullies got a 5-day inside-school suspension, while the other received a 3-day outside- school suspension. The third received no consequences. This potentially successful student went downhill following her 10-day suspension, and now her mother transports her to and from school every day to help minimize unwanted antisocial encounters. Bullying in schools results in a change of the school climate, concerns about student safety, academic decline, and isolation of students (Banks, 2007). Bullying and its effects can impact on a school’s ability to cater to the needs of its students, especially when no steps are taken in a timely manner to stop it. Recently, one of my students informed me that he began high school in 2005, but after he earned only a half credit in his freshman year, it became more difficult to stay in school. He left in October 2006, returned in September 2007, dropped out again in January 2008, and returned in September of 2008. When I questioned why he kept returning, he explained that he wanted to earn his high school diploma, but the school was not teaching what he wanted to learn. He described the classes and teachers as boring. “When a teacher is talking, all I hear is ‘oooh aaah gaah taah oooh laah.’” He said. “To me it don’t make no sense and waste my time. Why they just don’t teach what we interested in [sic]? Things we want to learn?” This student returned because he knew education is important and he wanted to earn his high school diploma. He was just one of thousands across the United States. Yazzie-Mintz (2007) surveyed 81,499 high school students in 26 states from five regions of the United States. In his research, he found that 50% of respondents were bored in

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school daily and 17% were bored in every class. Bridgeland, DiJulio, Jr., and Morison (2006) conducted four focus groups and 467 face-to-face interviews of 16- to 25-year- old high school dropouts from urban, suburban, and rural areas in 25 different locations. They discovered 47% of dropouts who found classes were not interesting and 81% saying that they believed they would stay in school if classes were more interesting and relevant to their aspirations. Classes were not interesting for 75% of the Yazzie-Mintz sample, and 39% said the material was not relevant to them. Only 2% said they were never bored. The above examples show that students are still interested in learning, though not necessarily interested in being in school. Schools are not designed to cater to the students’ interests, but to supply corporate citizens with the workers these corporations’ tax dollars pay for (Beane, 1997; Eisner, 1994; Kozol, 2005). Students are exposed to a number of stimuli and are unable to deal with them. They are not prepared for these situations into which they are forced because they are not taught to analyze situations and conceptually solve problems. They therefore turn to bullying, get frustrated being bullied, get in trouble, lose interest, and/or be drawn to the streets where they feel important. I did a preliminary search for research relevant to these various challenges plaguing New England High School. This search yielded nothing relevant to this substantive unit. The district administration assumed that research done in other communities was relevant to ours, but the many failures proved this assumption wrong. Hood (2003, 2007) and Ruiz-de-Velasco, Fix, and Clewell (2000) went into much detail about Latin American, Asian, European, and North American immigrants, and no attention was paid to immigrants from the Caribbean. Fordham and Ogbu (1986) and their critics, including

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Spencer and Harpalani (2006), focused exclusively on what Fordham and Ogbu (1986) referred to as subordinate, 5 and not immigrant minorities. In light of the continued problems students and colleagues face, I decided to undertake a grounded theory (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) study into the experiences of students at New England High. I wanted the voices of the students themselves to be the predominant data from which to develop a theory. Thus, I began with the grand tour question, “Tell me all about your experiences as a student.”

5 Fordham and Ogbu (1986) placed students in three categories: (i) autonomous minorities – so called because of number, regardless of ethnic origin, like members of the gay community, Jewish community, community of small persons; (ii) immigrant minorities – persons who came to the United States voluntarily to seek political, economic and religious freedom and improvement; and (iii) subordinate minorities – descendants of the conquered and enslaved peoples.

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CHAPTER TWO: THE GROUNDED THEORY METHODOLOGY This research is a study of my school, which I refer to as New England High School. I chose the grounded theory methodology (hereafter referred to as GT) as a means of generating a theory that emerges from the data I gather. The initial data came from my observations of daily events and interviews with students relating their experiences. Grounded Theory Methodology Glaser and Strauss (1967) began developing the process of generating grounded theory in the 1960s when they realized that sociological theories were being applied inappropriately to social situations. They noted that most sociologists placed emphasis on verifying existing theories, which in most cases did not fit the practical situations in which they would most likely be applied. For example, researchers’ hypotheses or theories may be influenced by their views of the areas being studied (Glaser, 1992; Glaser & Strauss, 1967). According to Glaser and Strauss (1967) and Glaser (1992), any data that appear not to support the researchers’ theories are discarded and data that support the theories are utilized. This satisfies the researchers’ views of the substantive areas, because the data are being forced to support their theories or hypotheses. Forcing data results in inappropriate conclusions and failed attempts at solutions. In addition, Glaser and Strauss (1967) reported that research was accessible to sociologists and other researchers only. The public had no way of understanding the theories and their applications. Glaser and Strauss (1967) stated in the opening paragraph of chapter 1: Most writing on sociological method has been concerned with how accurate facts can be obtained and how theory can thereby be more rigorously tested….We

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believe that the discovery of theory from data – which we call grounded theory – is a major task confronting sociology today, for, as we shall try to show, such a theory fits empirical situations, and is understandable to sociologists and layman alike. Most important, it works – provides us with relevant predictions, explanations, interpretations and applications. (p. 1)

The overall purpose of GT is for generating or discovering theory within specific social situations or contexts (Glaser, 1978, 1992; Glaser & Strauss, 1967). This enables the researcher to identify the problem from the participants in the setting, and use grounded action to plan an intervention that would have a much better chance of resolving the problem. The outcome of a GT study is a theory that explains what is happening in the substantive area or unit. In the subsequent section, I discuss the stages involved in grounded theory research. Stages of Grounded Theory The stages are sequential in a GT study, however, during the process, it may be necessary to work on two or more stages simultaneously (Glaser, 1978, 1992; Glaser & Strauss, 1967). Doubling back to previous stages while working on any stage is common and a necessary part of a GT study. For example, during the analysis of data, the researcher may need to return to data gathering to clarify a property of the data. GT analysts cannot ignore this if they are to produce well-grounded theories (Glaser, 1978). The main stages of GT research are preparation, data collection, analysis, memoing, integrating literature, sorting, theoretical outlining, and writing.

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Preparation In action-oriented research, one begins with a hypothesis or research question(s), then does a comprehensive literature review of the topic, before any data collection begins. The literature review informs us of what is known of the specific topic area and situates the proposed research within the appropriate literature. GT researchers should enter their studies with open minds (Glaser & Strauss, 1967). This means that they should minimize any preconceptions held in the substantive areas. This would decrease the possibility of researchers influencing the data in any possible direction. Research topics should be very general for the same reason. Specific research questions would prompt researchers to be biased in their data collection and analysis. They would not be objective in their observations (Glaser, 1978). A literature review is not appropriate before data gathering begins in a GT study because the research question, and therefore the relevant literature, is not known until the core variable (or main concern of the participants) is discovered via data analysis. In addition, the literature can cause preconceptions in the mind of the researcher, leading to false perceptions of what is actually in the data, or a tendency to force the data into a particular pre-existing framework (Glaser, 1978, 1992; Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Simmons & Gregory, 2003). Wheatley (1994) noted that our observations influence our perceptions of events and people, because of our preconceptions. In science, as researchers we alter outcomes when we observe or try to measure a variable (Wheatley, 1994). In 1900, Alfred Binet critiqued his own work on craniometry and called attention to the fact that

Full document contains 115 pages
Abstract:   I conducted a grounded theory (GT) study at a southern New England high school to investigate why many students are failing. What emerged is a process that explains why many students are succeeding in spite of the many obstacles they face. Most of the students in the substantive unit are immigrants or children of immigrants. Many of these immigrant students are in the process of assimilating into American culture and a new and very different education system. After approximately 3 years of observations and taking field notes, I then conducted interviews, coded and analyzed data, and returned to observations, field notes, school data, and interviews. The emergent, grounded theory of breaking out of the box is a process students employ to attain success in the face of the vicious cycle of poverty. Students are actively engaged in an emotional process that leads them from social and academic ignorance to knowledge and achievement on the journey to success. From the initiating stage, significant adults play important roles in the students' desires to escape their cultures of inequality and poverty. The journey is a treacherous one, with students navigating around what they believe to be purposely positioned obstacles and maneuvering their way to success. Many of the behaviors seen in teenagers are because of not knowing the facts, not knowing where to get advice, and not knowing whom to trust. They all need a trusting adult to "walk" with them throughout the process of breaking out of the box. Once they are able to identify an adult - in many cases a teacher, counselor, coach, relative or pastor - they begin the journey to what would be their individual successes. Keywords: grounded theory, breaking out of the box, process, success, urban, immigrant, significant adult, compensating behaviors, positive adult influence, diversity.