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Proyecto: La Familia (The Family Project)

March 27, 2006
“What are the predictors of success?” asks ASU researcher and social psychologist Delia Saenz. By the end of this month, 750 Mexican American families across the Valley will have opened up their homes, and their lives, to ASU researchers in order to answer this question. In an intensive 2 ½ hour interview in which they discuss all aspects of their family life – from their relationships to their discipline habits – the families reveal how their family dynamics are shaped by traditional Mexican value systems versus the American way of life.

Why, you might ask, would these families knowingly open themselves up to such scrutiny? The answer is simple: if it means improving the chances of school success for their children, they are more than willing to participate. The Latino population is known to have the highest rate of high school drop-out of any other ethnic group in the United States, but ASU researchers are confident that the cause is not a lack of interest in the students’ achievement. According to Dr. Saenz, “The families are very committed to the education of their children and seeing their children succeed. They will do whatever is in their power to promote their students’ success.”

The driving question, then, is what is the impact of the students’ environment and community upon their achievement? Beyond that, how can schools not only be responsive to students who are at-risk for high school drop-out, but how can they as institutions, along with the community as a whole, adapt in order to better contribute to student success? In order to answer these questions, a team of ASU researchers are conducting a multi-year study known as Proyecto: La Familia, or The Family Project, funded through the National Institute for Mental Health, through which the team will be able to study trends in how family relationships and cultural orientation change over time.

La Familia is conducted by a team of investigators from ASU, led by Mark Roosa in the Department of Family and Human Development, that includes Nancy Gonzalez in Clinical Psychology as well as George Knight and Delia Saenz, both in Social Psychology. They come from different academic backgrounds, but because of their common interest in understanding the dynamics of Mexican American families, this team has worked together on many projects over the years, developing programs that have a positive impact on children’s lives. Dr. Roosa’s motivation for the project is founded in his past experiences of growing up in Appalachia and teaching in inner-city schools, from which he developed a passion for working with low-income communities that has led him to be “knee-deep” in community-oriented research during his twenty-six years at ASU.

The 750 families participating in the La Familia project each have a student who is in the fifth grade. The families were recruited through eighteen public school districts, the Catholic Diocese, and one charter school to create an extensive and diverse sample of Mexican American families from across the Phoenix metropolitan area. According to Dr. Roosa, “The large sample size and intensity is a means to an end in the development of prevention programs.” First, the families complete initial interviews, then the team of investigators from ASU will continue to track their development over time. The long-term goal is to be able to study the families as the students who were in fifth grade at the start of the project transition through adolescence into their early twenties.

To those interested in community-based or socially embedded research, Dr. Roosa stresses the necessity of creating “building blocks through pilot studies that will ultimately provide the basis for more complex projects.” Through its development from pilot studies to its current form, La Familia has become the most intense study of its kind and is the first to study variation within a single ethnic group. In fact, a colleague at the University of California – Davis is working with the ASU team to replicate the project and study Mexican American families in Northern California as well. Since Phoenix’s Mexican American population tends to consist of more recent immigrants than in Northern California, comparing the two studies will help to determine the differences between the communities.

With years of research at its foundation, La Familia is anticipated to provide knowledge that will help in the development of programs to benefit the next generation of Mexican American students in their pursuit of academic success. The research alone is not the end-goal of the project. The information will enable the faculty in the Prevention Research Center at ASU to translate the research into intervention programs that directly benefit students and will also be useful to inform policy makers in shaping policy that will improve the potential for academic success among Mexican American students.