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September 1, 2013
Vol. 71
No. 1

Relationships That Make a Difference

Black male college students share what teachers and administrators did to help them succeed.

In 1903, W. E. B. DuBois wrote, "the problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line" (DuBois, 1989, p. 29). When we examine the statistics on race-based disparities in achievement in today's public schools, we see that the color line remains a problem in the 21st century as well. In 2009, only 13 percent of black 8th grade U.S. students reached the proficient level in reading comprehension on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), compared with 39 percent of white 8th graders (National Center for Education Statistics, 2010). Black students are also much more likely to live in poverty, as illustrated in a recent Pew Research Center report that revealed that "the typical black household had just $5,677 in wealth (assets minus debts) in 2009 … and the typical white household had $113,149" (Taylor, Fry, & Kochhar, 2011).
However, some black students from high-poverty backgrounds are academically successful. These resilient black students have been described as having supportive relationships with school personnel and having a sense of self-efficacy, a crucial factor in developing resilience (Borman & Overman, 2004; Cunningham & Swanson, 2010; Morales, 2010; Peck, Roeser, Zarrett, & Eccles, 2008).
Survey-based resilience studies show us success is possible for these students, but they do not capture the students' stories. The studies fail to address how students developed self-efficacy or what supportive relationships look like. When I interviewed six first-generation black male college students who graduated from high-poverty high schools, their stories communicated that teacher and administrator relationships were crucial to their development of the resilience that led them to college. These six students volunteered for the study after receiving a recruitment e-mail, targeted to on-campus black student organizations, asking for black male first-generation college students who graduated from public high schools. I specifically asked for students who were willing to participate in face-to-face interviews and to share their stories of achievement despite adversity. For these students, their relationships with the K–12 teachers and administrators made the difference.

A Plan to Meet a Challenge

Black students make up 17 percent of the U.S. school population but only 9 percent of gifted classes (U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, 2006). Yet all the black college students I interviewed were recommended for some type of advanced classes in their K–12 schooling. These classes provided students with teachers who recognized their abilities and challenged them.
George described an English teacher who created reports for each student, detailing the student's strengths and weaknesses based on the standardized test data from the year before. Each student had to create a plan for countering his or her weaknesses. Here is how George described the final step of taking the plan to school administrators to be signed:
We had to introduce ourselves: "Hi, my name is George. I'm part of Ms. N's 10th grade English class, and do you have time so I can explain to you my report?" We had to do it like that for every person we talked to, and they would ask you, "What are you going to do to make sure that you achieve that? What steps are you taking?" If they thought your answer wasn't good enough, then you would have to come back and redo it.
Helping students create a way to improve is one way their teachers helped them develop resilience.

A Personal Investment

These resilient students had teachers who were personally invested in them. They could see these teachers' commitment to students when the teachers hosted advanced placement study breakfasts on Saturdays or gave out their cell phone numbers and invited students to call them for extra help. These efforts by teachers inspired students to dedicate themselves to their education.
For students like Felipe, who faced personal crises like the death of his mom and the potential loss of his home, having a teacher who noticed that he was wearing the same clothes to school every day and took the time to talk to him was crucial:
I remember he gave me a $50 [grocery] card for Christmas so I could finally buy some dinner, like good dinner instead of ramen noodles. You know, knowing that he cared made me want to try harder in school … This guy believes in me, I don't want to let him down. He must see something in me that I might not even see.
Although these students were in advanced classes, they still saw the devastating impact of disengaged teachers on their peers in other, less advanced classes. Trey said, "It's as if they abandoned their job … as teachers to educate, and they just began to give [students] miniscule assignments that didn't really challenge them mentally."

Real-World Issues

The students acknowledged that growing up in a home without college-educated parents created academic challenges for them. However, having teachers who could connect what they were learning to what they considered real-world issues helped them to overcome those challenges.
George recalled a discussion on white privilege in his English class that was sparked by an analysis of the white snow surrounding Bigger Thomas as he is arrested in Richard Wright's Native Son. He said he was "shocked" to find an issue that affected his life directly "hidden in a book" written before he was born. Felipe described a math teacher who connected algebraic equations to sales graphs for major businesses and calculus concepts to the daily tasks of engineers. Jose remembered a history teacher whose real-world focus enabled him to approach academic reading in a new way: "I was able to read the chapter, see how the world works, and then see how the world has changed over time."

Valuable Guidance

First-generation college students might not have anyone at home to help them prepare for and apply to college. For these students, school personnel, such as guidance counselors, community liaisons, and leaders of college assistance preparation programs, filled that void. Here's how Marcus described it:
You know how [some] parents prepay [for college] and start [saving] when you're born? My mother didn't have any of that, so I had to pretty much game-plan from the beginning. I definitely had a lot of help from my administration as far as, you know, stuff like you have to mail out these scholarships or get stuff postmarked.
Having school personnel who acknowledged the challenges that students faced, while expressing confidence in their abilities, helped these students achieve seemingly insurmountable tasks.

Lessons Learned

For students struggling with the challenges of poverty, school can provide both a haven and a ladder to opportunity. The successful black males I interviewed indicated that their teachers and administrators recognized their abilities, supported them, and pushed them to succeed. These students are not gifted exceptions to our stereotypical image of struggling poor black students. They are students who were encouraged and enabled by their schools. With the right support, their numbers could increase.
Race or socioeconomic status are not, and need not be, determinants of one's academic achievement. As Boykin and Noguera (2011) state, "If racial categories are indeed social and not primarily biological in nature, then it should be possible to fundamentally alter the predictability of racial patterns related to academic ability and performance if we can eliminate the ways in which those patterns are entrenched within the structure and culture of a school" (p. 26, italics in original). The common themes in these students' stories provide a helpful perspective on how teachers and administrators can break the destructive pattern of low achievement and support all students in developing resilience. George perhaps said it best:
I had teachers and administrators who wanted to make sure that students succeeded and who had an investment in those students. [They] would catch those who they saw were falling by the wayside and say, "Hey, let's get your conduct on track, and now that we've got your conduct on track, let's get you back on track academically."
As a teacher or administrator, you face this decision daily: Will you let students from disadvantaged backgrounds just fall by the wayside, or will you help them get on track to meet high expectations and find success?

Borman, G. D., & Overman, L. T. (2004). Academic resilience in mathematics among poor and minority students. The Elementary School Journal, 104(3), 177–195.

Boykin, A. W., & Noguera, P. (2011). Creating the opportunity to learn: Moving from research to practice to close the achievement gap. Alexandria, VA: ASCD.

Cunningham, M., & Swanson, D. P. (2010). Educational resilience in African American adolescents. The Journal of Negro Education, 79(4), 473–487.

DuBois, W. E. B. (1903/1989). The souls of black folk. New York: Bantam. (Original work published in 1903)

Morales, E. E. (2010). Linking strengths: Identifying and exploring protective factor clusters in academically resilient low-socioeconomic urban students of color. Roeper Review, 32(3), 164–175.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2010). Reading 2009: National Assessment of Educational Progress at grades 4 and 8. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/pdf/main2009/2010458.pdf

Peck, S. C., Roeser, R. W., Zarrett, N., & Eccles, J. S. (2008). Exploring the roles of extracurricular activity quantity and quality in the educational resilience of vulnerable adolescents: Variable- and pattern-centered approaches. Journal of Social Issues, 64(1), 135–156.

Taylor, P., Fry, R., & Kochhar, R. (2011). Wealth gaps rise to record highs between whites, blacks, hispanics. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center. Retrieved from www.pewsocialtrends.org/2011/07/26/wealth-gaps-rise-to-record-highs-between-whites-blacks-hispanics

U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights. (2006). Civil rights data collection. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from http://ocrdata.ed.gov/State?NationalEstimations/projections_2006

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