Date of Award


Document Type

Campus Access Dissertation


Educational Leadership and Policies


Educational Administration

First Advisor

Zach Kelehear


The purpose of this study was to inform educational leaders on the ways struggling high school students perceive their interpersonal experiences in school settings. Through this qualitative investigation, the researcher sought to provide insights into how these experiences affect marginalized students' academic achievement and social integration. Research findings were presented as narrative portraits. Tools for data analysis included Critical Discourse Analysis (Van Dijk, 1993), the Feldman Method (Feldman, 1995), and artistic elements and principles of design as interpreted by Kelehear (2006, 2008). Challenges encountered in this study are consistent with those reported in the literature on narrative inquiry and insider based research settings.

The researcher examined the subjects' descriptions of their understandings and experiences in contextual, perceptive, and critical arts-based explorations. Three overarching themes came to light during data analysis. These were: isolation, social capital/school culture, and relationships.

Participants described difficulties in the following areas: dealing with the emotional and social consequences of imposed isolation from peers and/or teachers, negotiating the hierarchy and norms of the informal school culture; and responding to relationships that are superficial, hegemonic or nonexistent. Participants reflected on the emotional challenges of isolation, exclusion, and the maintenance of existing social ties. Subjects expressed frustration with perceptions of academic accountability practices and with perceived lack of personal attention from teachers. Every subject defined his or her school culture as stratified, exclusive, impersonal, and dominated by strict norms.

Finally, the artistic elements of form and texture and the design principles of movement and harmony/unity appeared most frequently in the analysis of student perceptions and experiences. A salient finding in this study is that participants did not sense a strong presence of these elements and principles; rather they perceived that these concepts are not easily discerned in the school culture.

The key findings of this dissertation present significant implications for school leaders who wish to gain insights into the experiences of marginalized students and the ways their experiences affect their social and academic achievement. The findings also lend themselves to beginning a dialogue on the complexity and conventions of school culture in an age of quantitative accountability.

The information gleaned from this study helps to personalize the abundance of standardized data in the current body of literature. It provides insight to better equip leaders to understand the constructed realities and the needs of students who struggle with feelings of exclusion and isolation.


© 2011, Sheryl Cowart Moss