Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
April 1, 2011
Vol. 68
No. 7

The Middle/High Years / A Smoother Transition for Black Teens

The path to high school is rocky for many students, but even rockier for many black teens.

premium resources logo

Premium Resource

You have 0 free articles left this month.

 and get additional free articles.

 The Middle/High Years / A Smoother Transition for Black Teens - thumbnail
Consider the following experiences of these two freshmen. Fourteen-year-old Darius has missed school at least three days a week since he entered 9th grade at Poolesville High School. Not only has Darius's attendance declined, but he is also less engaged than he was in middle school. In a conference with his school counselor, Darius reports that he doesn't feel he fits in at the school and he perceives his teachers as rigid, uncaring, and mean. He lacks confidence that he can do well because he suspects his teachers won't give him a chance. In middle school, according to Darius, "The teachers were nice and they helped me!"
Malik was an honor roll student in middle school who had shot up to six feet tall. On the first day of 9th grade, when Malik approached the school counselor for a schedule change, she directed him to the basketball coach's office. When Malik told her that he was not on the basketball team and was there to enroll in Algebra II, the counselor looked shocked. Confused by her reaction, Malik thought he had disappointed her.

Stumbling Blocks

The transition from middle school to high school is not always smooth (Murdock, Anderman, & Hodge, 2000). Entering high school presents freshmen with a transition that involves changes in the environment as well as in their own role. For most students, there's definite potential for this transition to lead to lower academic achievement and adjustment problems. However, black students—like Darius and Malik—seem to be at even greater risk for academic and social decline during this transition. The limited research in this area suggests that these students face particular vulnerabilities beyond the normal challenges as they start high school (Benner & Graham, 2009). Here are some challenges these high school freshmen confront.


As the counselor's response to Malik indicates, black students are often exposed to both blatant and subtle racial stereotyping. Research indicates that teachers, counselors, and administrators often transmit the belief that they don't expect black students to excel academically—but do expect them to excel in other areas, particularly sports. If educators interact with students on the basis of stereotypes, the students' behavior begins to manifest these very expectations (Hurst, 1992).
This stereotyping is heightened if school personnel frequently perceive black teens as hostile, academically inferior, or emotionally disturbed. These students are then disproportionately affected by low teacher expectations and by the increased emphasis on discipline surfacing in many high schools. Of all ethnicities—and both genders—black males show the greatest increase in suspensions after the transition to high school (Holzman, 2004).
For instance, Alan stands six foot five and weighs 230 pounds in 9th grade and is very sociable. Most people think Alan is much older because of his social maturity and size. People also assume that he plays a sport; however, Alan doesn't play any organized sports, and he loves to draw. At school, Alan is often stereotyped as an athlete; teachers constantly talk about his size and how good he would be on the football team. They give very little attention to his artistic abilities. Teachers have repeatedly referred Alan to the office for such minor infractions as talking in class or not having materials. Some of his teachers have commented that he is so big that he scares them.

Lack of Positive Role Models

Ethnicity plays a huge role in shaping behavior and has been identified as a significant factor in black student achievement (Lee, Spencer, & Harpalani, 2003). Media images of black youth are disproportionately negative (Entman & Rojecki, 2000). And in many high schools, there is a shortage of positive educator role models because of the severe shortage of black teachers in K–12 public education (Brownell, Ross, Colon, & McCallum, 2005).
In 1997, Assibey-Mensah conducted a national survey of 4,500 black youth (10–18 years of age) and found that 85 percent of the 10-year-olds and 98 percent of the 18-year-olds chose athletes and sports figures as role models. As black students transition to high school, they need more positive role models from their cultures within communities and schools.

Cultural Schisms

A school culture's congruence with the culture of its black students and families can influence the transition process. It's not uncommon for black students and families to distrust schools and school personnel, finding their schools uninviting or unfriendly to their culture and its strengths. Research has indicated that black parents feel that school personnel question or criticize their parenting skills, abilities, and values (Kalyanpur & Rao, 1991). Differences in verbal and nonverbal language among people of different cultures and economic worlds may contribute to these negative perceptions.
A language and cultural schism between schools and students and their families often occurs (Fordham, 1996). As a result of this cultural disconnect, many black students experience school differently than students from cultures more connected with the school milieu. Students may feel that their abilities and values are being criticized or that school personnel have scant hopes for them. Fine (1991) argued that low-performing black students hear two opposing messages; their families send messages of hope and mobility, but their schools suggest deficiency and helplessness.
To avoid such double messages, it's essential for parents to be involved and informed in the transition process. If parents are distrustful of the school or slow to participate in orientations and information sessions, problems arise. For example, Ms. Singleton was shocked to find out in June that her daughter, a rising 9th grader, was ineligible for a summer transition program because she hadn't taken a required English course. Ms. Singleton was angry with the middle school for not telling her about the criteria. The school staff told her that they had sent a notice home in February, but Ms. Singleton never received it. The school could have built greater levels of trust and familiarity by sending out more than one announcement or by following up to make sure parents got the word.

Ethnic Identity Exploration

In middle school, adolescents begin to explore their identity, considering who they are and what makes them unique. In high school, ethnic identity exploration comes to the fore. As well as looking to peers for approval, teens look for clues from adults about their strengths and weaknesses, and to the larger society for messages about who they are and what they could become.
Ethnic identity development is important to students' overall growth, and it links to their psychological adjustment, decision-making ability, problem solving, and sense of belonging (McMahon & Watts, 2002). For adolescents transitioning to high school, there is often an increased need to fit in and belong. Fitting in with other adolescents from a students' ethnic group may become a focal point.

Toward Smoother Transitions

Many black teenagers are resilient enough to navigate around these stumbling blocks and proceed confidently into high school. But too many are stymied by such obstacles or give up completely. Here are several actions educators can take to create a school environment that gives black students the best chance for a strong start to high school.

Promote Communication and Transition Planning

Ongoing communication and joint transition planning among administrators, school counselors, and teaching staff at all middle and high schools in a feeder group are essential to helping black freshmen. Emphasize building communication channels with black parents to ensure they are being informed of important issues or policies related to the transition from middle to high school. Such efforts will build mutual trust and comfort.
To demystify the high school experience, middle schools should begin relaying information about high school requirements to students and parents in students' 6th grade year. Begin orientations and transition meetings early in 8th grade so students are acclimated to the high school culture in terms of elements like course scheduling, class size, and expectations for writing.

Set Up Mentoring

Given the lack of positive black role models in the media and some school settings, it's valuable to set up mentoring programs specifically designed for black students, using mentors who understand racial identity development, black community challenges, and other factors that might hinder the development of black children and adolescents. Mentoring should focus on academic and personal or social issues that are relevant to black students, families, and communities, such as reducing the dropout rate, increasing college access, building positive peer relationships, and enhancing one's academic self-efficacy. The most successful mentoring programs provide training sessions that prepare mentors for the experience. Training should help participants understand the scope and limits of their role as mentors and develop the skills and attitudes they need to guide youth well.
To locate mentors, contact local universities and black churches, fraternities and sororities, college sports teams, or corporations. Also try such organizations as 100 Black Men of America (www.100blackmen.org); America's Promise Alliance (www.americaspromise.org); or the National CARES Mentoring Movement (www.caresmentoring.org). Or consider peer mentoring using successful older students.

Target Counseling to Specific Needs

School counselors should hold smaller orientation meetings for 8th and 9th graders who may be at risk for difficulties in high school. High school counselors should coordinate ongoing 9th grade support groups and tutoring programs that emphasize academic support and ethnic identity exploration.
Career and college counseling are essential for black students, who may need extra support in their college or career search. Beginning college and career exploration in 8th and 9th grade motivates students to set goals and promotes positive school learning behavior. By connecting what students want to do in life with their academic preparation, school counseling staff can fill an important information gap for first-generation college students about why school is important.
School counselors should offer small-group counseling that promotes effective coping strategies, such as relaxation techniques and using positive self-statements when facing challenges. Stress management training, motivational talks with 11th and 12th graders, and counseling that emphasizes students' strengths are transition-smoothing techniques that school counselors might use.

Shape a Culturally Sensitive School

Black adolescents' perceptions of the quality of their school environment and their relationships with peers and teachers decline markedly as they move into secondary schools (Roderick, 2003). This is avoidable. High school personnel should create school cultures that are nurturing, welcoming, and positively challenging for black students. To shape a culturally sensitive, responsive school culture, administrators should encourage and provide time for open dialogues about racial and cultural inequities in schools. Frank discussions among teachers about stereotyping and how people unwittingly perpetuate biases are a necessity.
To increase staff members' knowledge of diversity and multicultural education, disseminate literature on the education of black students and the effects of teachers' perceptions. Helpful articles or books might include The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter G. Woodson (Tribeca Books, 2010/1933),The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children by Gloria Ladson-Billings (Jossey-Bass, 2009), and an article by Claude Steele in the June 1997 issue of American Psychologist, "A Threat in the Air: How Stereotypes Shape Intellectual Identity and Performance." The goal of these discussions and readings should be to emphasize the role teachers and educators play in smoothing black students' high school transition and aiding their achievement.

Create Parent Partnerships

Black parents play a huge role in the transition process. Invite middle school parents to transition meetings at which administrators, teachers, and school counselors share important information about the culture of the high school that students feed into, including scheduling procedures, teacher expectations, class sizes, security issues, parent organizations, and attendance policies. Separate meetings focused on the needs of black parents may be appropriate.
Some educators may prefer to have meetings about the transition process that are open to all, but that include information deliberately inclusive of black parenting needs. For instance, at one meeting for all 8th grade parents at Banneker Middle School in Silver Spring, Maryland, the principal invited a black parenting expert to speak on a panel to ensure that the gathering addressed the concerns of black students and families.
A major reason for such sessions is to develop trusting, equitable partnerships with parents, so it's crucial that school personnel invite parents to share their own stories and expertise at these gatherings. The payoff will be high; research indicates that high school students whose parents maintain high involvement and support do better and are more likely to adopt positive coping strategies in response to academic stress (Gutman & McLloyd, 2000; Hill & Craft, 2003).
Transitions are challenging events in the lives of young people. The transition from middle to high school has exceptionally high stakes. It's also particularly fraught with obstacles for black students, who are more likely than others to experience the kind of losses in achievement and support that can lead to students quitting high school altogether. School personnel must intervene to help black 9th graders surmount these stumbling blocks—so high schools won't be places where only the resilient can succeed.

Assibey-Mensah, G. O. (1997). Role models and youth development: Evidence and lessons from the perceptions of black male youth. Western Journal of Black Studies, 21, 242–252.

Benner, A. D., & Graham, S. (2009). The transition to high school as a developmental process among multiethnic urban youth. Child Development, 80, 356–376.

Brownell, M. T., Ross, D. D., Colon, E. P., & McCallum, C. L. (2005). Critical features of special education teacher preparation: A comparison with general teacher education.Journal of Special Education, 38, 242–252.

Entman, R. M., & Rojecki, A. (2000). The black image in the white mind: Media and race in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Fine, M. (1991). Framing dropouts: Notes on the politics of an urban public high school. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.

Fordham, S. (1996). Blacked out: Dilemmas of race, identity, and success at Capital High. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Gutman, L. M., & McLloyd, V. C. (2000). Parents' management of their children's education within the home, at school, and in the community: An examination of African American families living in poverty. Urban Review, 32, 1–25.

Hill, N. E., & Craft, S. A. (2003). Parent-school involvement and school performance: Mediated pathways among socioeconomically comparable African American and Euro-American families.Journal of Educational Psychology, 95, 74–83.

Holzman, M. (2004). Public education and black male students: A state report card. Cambridge, MA: Schott Foundation for Public Education.

Hurst, C. E. (1992). Social inequality: Forms, causes, and consequences. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Kalyanpur, M., & Rao, S. S. (1991). Empowering low-income families of handicapped children. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 61, 523–532.

Lee, C. D., Spencer, M. B., & Harpalani, V. (2003). Every shut eye ain't sleep: Studying how people live culturally. Educational Researcher, 32, 6–13.

McMahon, S. D., & Watts, R. J. (2002). Ethnic identity in urban black youth: Exploring links with self-worth, aggression, and other psychological variables.Journal of Community Psychology, 30, 411–431.

Murdock, T. B., Anderman, L. H., & Hodge, S. A. (2000). Middle grade predictors of students' motivation and behavior in high school. Journal of Adolescent Research, 15, 327–351.

Roderick, M. (2003). What's happening to the boys?: Early high school experiences and school outcomes among African American male adolescents in Chicago.Urban Education, 38, 538–607.

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
Discover ASCD's Professional Learning Services
From our issue
Product cover image 111035.jpg
The Transition Years
Go To Publication