It is Fall. That means back to school time. You can see it in the stores, on TV commercials, and in the anxious looks of teachers and students heading back through the school house gates. In social media, and increasingly in regular media, it seems every day someone is provoking controversy concerning public education. Controversy remains because there is no one way to "fix" public education. One of the things we all should be able to agree on, however is that there is a strong need to better understand and respond to the needs of Black students and students of color.
I recently conducted research that adds to the burgeoning discourse focused on positive academic outcomes for Black male students. Scholars like Shaun Harper, Tyrone Howard, T. Elon Dancy, Pedro Noguera, Edward Fergus and others, have recently highlighted the need to, what I call colloquially, "flip the script" when it comes to discussing students of color and academic achievement. Rather than looking at students' perceived "weaknesses," there are a large number of academics, and practitioners who have begun to look at students' assets. In my study, I examined Black male students who all graduated from the same primarily Black, charter high school. All of them attended college for at least one year, and the majority of them (at the time the research concluded, nine out of ten), were still enrolled in college as they matriculated into their junior year.
How did these students not only gain college acceptance and attendance, but persevere through to stay on track to graduate within four to six years (the universal norm)? One word: trust.
The students all discussed three types of trust that fundamentally supported their educational goals; family, school and peers/self-motivation. All of these were critically interrelated and helped to promote positive academic and social outcomes for these young men.
In discussing his experiences at his former high school, one of the interviewees described that without his parent's push, he would not have attended the charter high school. He said he decided to buckle down and try to improve academically once he saw that his father "vouched" for (trusted) the Principal of the school. This student trusted his father's judgment, and once his father trusted in the school, it was easier for the son to do the same. Finally, the student humorously described how when he started, that the teachers did not know him "from a can of paint," but that they handed out their cell phone numbers, and made themselves available to all of the students, and most important, demonstrated a care and concern for their students' academic and social well-being even though many of them were not from the same race, neighborhood or background experiences.
While this small sample of Black college students do not represent the millions of others entering college this Fall, there were some key actions the young men described that helped them trust in their families, schools and themselves.
The role of parental agency and expectations was something that was extremely significant for these participants getting into and attending college. Education was critically important to their families. Considering the stereotypes surrounding the Black family, the history of structural, institutional and cultural barriers that continually communicate to Black males the message that they cannot achieve, and societal expectations of Black males, the positive message that education is important defies common perception. Many Black parents and parents of color convey positive messages that their children can succeed in spite of society's counternarrative of failure, poverty and despair. Oftentimes, institutional barriers, which have been erected for decades preventing Black male positive academic achievement, are the cause of poor academic outcomes. Since we know that these barriers exist, we must examine the tools needed to help overcome them. There were many instances where these participants could have given up or succumbed to negative pressures, but they persevered and demonstrated their resilience to achieve their ultimate goal of college attendance.
It is important to note that the role of family, specifically in this study, the role of the single Black mother, was instrumental regardless of how much economic capital one possessed. Their influence over the academic choices of their sons was a vital finding. While being able to afford opportunities for your child financially is important, knowing how to put your child in the best situation for them to achieve positive academic outcomes is equally, if not more important. As this study helped to demonstrate, parental expectations and messages about the importance of education were key - especially in the face of adversity. What is critical, is to highlight that there was no singular event, entity or lesson learned that exclusively led each individual to obtain or foster their resilience. What was essential was the relational trust that was built
Students exhibited high levels of trust at school by listening, enacting and persisting when teachers and others encouraged them to be able to do so. Academically, they reported that they were encouraged by their peers to work hard and do well and sought out those in their class who they knew shared similar goals. The role of the family, school, peers and self-confidence all played a role in how individuals constructed their self-identity and persistence towards their desired goal of college. These protective factors were essential to providing individuals with not just one possibility of learning persistence but being able to construct a more sustainable and malleable persistence.
In addition to the role of family, the role of the school, was an essential component to helping foster persistence. Both educators and peer mentors played a critical role in these individuals demonstrating positive academic achievement. Specifically, educator's built trust by being approachable to their students. Allowing students to feel valued and respected in high school, with closer personal relationships with their teachers, allowed these students to ask for help when struggling in college because they saw teachers as approachable human beings. Additionally, the school requirement to participate in extra-curricular activities during the school year exponentially increased student exposure to new and challenging situations as well as increased students' confidence in leadership roles.
Ultimately, family members, teachers and peers demonstrated a message of trust in these students' ability to achieve academically and socially, which helped students to do so even when they doubted themselves. The messages we convey to students matter. They are deeply embedded long after they leave our classrooms. As we begin this school year, let's make sure we choose the right message.