CBO Higher Ed K-12 School Counselor

Learning Communities: A Safety Net to Improve Academic, College, and Career Outcomes for Black Males

Erik M. Hines, Ph.D. and Edward C. Fletcher Jr., Ph.D.

Far too often, the narrative around Black males in the P-16 educational pipeline has been from a deficit oriented perspective. Specifically, when it comes to academic, college, and career preparation, it is a bleak outlook due to barriers and obstacles associated with the career and life outcomes of Black males. Although information is available through research literature and practice, the conversation is rarely highlighted about what is working to improve the academic and career trajectories of Black males. Moreover, we must combat the anti-Black racism that contributes to Black males being adultified and treated as less than human. Therefore, we will highlight how a P-16 learning community approach can be a safety net in supporting Black males. In the following paragraphs, we discuss our experiences and findings of research and work with Black males through a career academy model and a residential learning community focused on college retention and graduation. We see the aforementioned programs serving as learning communities for Black males. Lastly, we will conclude with recommendations for supporting Black males from high school to postsecondary completion through a learning community approach. 

Career Academies as Learning Communities

At the high school level, career academies have emerged as a vehicle in helping create STEM career pathways for Black male students. These high school career academies provide students with opportunities to explore STEM related (e.g., Engineering, Information Technology) interests through a career-themed curricula that bridges STEM content with college preparatory and accelerated coursework. Thus, career academies have been identified as meeting the college and career readiness needs of Black male students. To that end, the career academy model can help open doors for Black male high school students in their pursuit of pursuing STEM majors at colleges and universities. 

 One of the signature features of career academies is its focus on small learning communities that provide Black males with an increased level of interpersonal supports. In many ways, the career academy model operates as a college/university. Students are placed in cohorts where they participate in the same classes with a set of their peers with similar career interests (like a major in college), and are taught by a set of core academic and career-themed teachers. This small learning community enables students to be emotionally engaged in their schools and creates a positive culture of supports from a variety of school stakeholders (e.g., peers, school counselors, teachers, business/industry and postsecondary partners). Studies have demonstrated that Black males benefit from participation in career academies as it promotes hands-on learning, a sense of community and belonging, and meaningful engagement in school (which oftentimes students see as void of relevancy). Academy students also report feelings of safety, less experiences with bullying, and beliefs that they can be themselves.

We also know that career academies with increased wraparound supports for Black male students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds promote higher levels of student engagement. These supports come in the form of academic, health, social-emotional, and community/family engagement. Schools have fostered relationships with their local community in the form of advisory boards to offer students food, clothing, health and mental health support, and GED and job opportunities for families. It is essential to understand that wraparound services help to meet the basic needs of students so that they can focus and engage in their academics. It is also important that these supports are viewed from a healing centered mindset rather than a deficit perspective.

Postsecondary Learning Communities 

At institutions of higher education (i.e., universities, vocational schools, etc.), a learning community for Black males can serve as a space for acclimating to the institution, assistance with connecting them to important stakeholders across campus, teaching soft skills to be successful in course work and in to their future career(s), and to receive guidance and mentorship from another Black male or an individual who is culturally responsive leading the initiative. Learning communities help Black men transition to and thrive within the institution in a way that provides a safety net while helping them manage the responsibilities of being autonomous and independent. In other words, the learning community can help Black men understand their purpose of being at the institution while providing them with the resources to be successful. Research has shown that learning communities improve the retention and graduation rates for Black males, especially when students are given the right support.

Some of these resources include academic supplements such as tutoring with heavy emphasis on introductory math and science courses, navigating the politics of postsecondary institutions, and knowing where and how to utilize campus resources (e.g., the office of financial aid, university counseling center, and career center). Moreover, young men can receive career development in their first and second year to help them identify a major they are committed to as to decrease the amount of time to the baccalaureate degree which in turn translates into financial benefits such as saving money. Also, access to campus faculty for creating relationships will help Black males be comfortable with interacting with them as well as giving them the comfort level to advocate for themselves. In my (Hines) experience, some young men may not speak up for themselves when needed due to power dynamics or not knowing how to communicate with their professor.  Emphatically, this is where the faculty director can teach skills in communication and advocacy.  Further, Black men can build bonds to produce a brotherhood that can transcend their time in college. These young men can discuss shared experiences in being Black, male, and students and provide social and cultural capital for each other to successfully navigate their college careers. 

Although the cliche of attending a postsecondary institution is, “where you go to find yourself”, we would argue these young men never lost themselves, but are in a space to discover how to build and expand upon the gifts and talents they already possess and merge it with purpose and a major/career. Therefore, we offer several recommendations to fostering a safety net for Black boys and men centering excellence, greatness, and purpose through a learning community approach:

  1. Build confidence in Black males by promoting academic achievement; therefore the focus should be obtaining resources for Black males to be successful in their courses at both the P-12 and postsecondary levels.  Specifically, provide intensive academic support in the subjects of Math and Science since they are gateway courses for STEM majors.
  2. Engage students in STEM related coursework in high school coupled with accelerated programs (e.g., AP, dual enrollment) will help to prepare them for majoring in STEM in colleges and universities as well as benefit them financially by lessening the costs of studying at the postsecondary education level. 
  3. Exposure to male mentors who are professionals and have access to career and internship opportunities to provide social and economic capital to Black males.
  4. School counselors and faculty with counseling backgrounds are in great positions to lead learning communities as they can provide intrusive counseling and utilize skills to elicit information from Black male students to create a plan of action for their success. 
  5. Develop partnerships with the school counselor, social worker or university counseling center to ensure Black males get the mental health services needed as stress and trauma can impact the mental and physical well being as well as their academics.
  6. Provide wraparound services for Black male students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. Ensure that schools have academic, health, social-emotional, and community/family engagement. District and school administrators can form relationships with their local community to offer students food, clothing, health and mental health support, and GED and job opportunities for families. 
  7. Create advisory boards within high schools to seek engagement and supports from business and industry, postsecondary education, and various community members. These critical stakeholders can provide a wealth of resources for students, including funding, guest speaking, work-based learning activities, and other social and cultural capital supports. Utilize advisory boards to provide targeted and tailored supports (e.g., academic supports with ACT/SAT, clubs/student/professional organizations, mentoring programs) for Black males in particular.
  8. Create small learning communities in high school by putting students in cohorts with other learners who share career interests. Ensure that scheduling allows students to participate in the same classes throughout their high school experience, and that they have the same set of teachers (both core academic and career-themed) during their schooling. 
  9. Use data to advocate for the rationale of developing a learning community as well as the resources needed for it to thrive.
  10. Create opportunities for Black males to engage in culturally relevant study abroad programs for global educational experiences.
  11. Create opportunities for exposure to graduate school, professional school (e.g., law, medical, etc.) as well as advanced training that broaden pathways to senior leadership positions and increase the number of Black males that are traditionally underrepresented in the aforementioned spaces.
  12. The narrative of the learning community must be strengths-based and asset focus rather than a deficit approach. 

Learning communities for Black males can be a space where they can develop their brilliance and greatness through academic preparation, professional development, leadership skills, engaging in undergraduate research opportunities, internships, apprenticeships, and career opportunities. Learning communities can be as formal as a career academy or as informal as a group of Black males being led by faculty members or school personnel. The faculty director’s role is to cultivate these young men by maximizing their potential and creating the safety net where they can be their authentic selves and know that the ethic of care is present at their respective institutions. Finally, we have provided references to guide individuals who are interested in this work. 

Google folder with relevant articles


Cintron, D., Hines, E.M., Singleton, II, P., & Golden, M.N. (2020). Improving retention and gpas of Black males at pwi: An LLC approach. Journal of African American Males in Education, 11(1), 37-57.

Fletcher, E., & Cox, E. (2012). Exploring the meaning African American students ascribe to their participation in high school career academies and the challenges they experience. The High School Journal, 96(1), 4-19. Retrieved February 23, 2021, from

Fletcher, E, Dumford, A.D., Hernandez-Gantes, V.M. & Minar, N. (2020) Examining the engagement of career academy and comprehensive high school students in the United States, The Journal of Educational Research, 113(4), 247-261, DOI: 10.1080/00220671.2020.1787314

Fletcher, E., Warren, N. &  Hernandez-Gantes, V.M. (2019) The high school academy as a laboratory of equity, inclusion, and safety, Computer Science Education, 29(4), 382-406, DOI: 10.1080/08993408.2019.1616457

Hines, E.M., Harris, P.C., Mayes, R.D., & Moore, III, J.L. (2020). I think of college as setting a good foundation for my future: Black males navigating the college decision making process. Journal for Multicultural Education, 14(2) 129-147.

Hines, E.M., Hines, M. R., Moore, J.L. III., Steen, S, Singleton, II, P., Cintron, D., Traverso, K,Golden, M. N., Wathen, B., & Henderson, J.A. (2020). Preparing African American males for college: A group counseling approach. The Journal for Specialists in Group Work, 45(2), 129-145.

Edward C. Fletcher Jr., Ph.D. is an Education and Human Ecology (EHE) Distinguished Associate Professor of Workforce Development and Education in the College of Education and Human Ecology at The Ohio State University. He serves as Senior Faculty Fellow for the Center on Education and Training for Employment and Co-Editor for the Journal of Career and Technical Education. Dr. Fletcher has over 70 publications and obtained over $4.5 million in federal funding. His research focuses on the role of career academies in promoting student engagement as well as college and career readiness, particularly for diverse learners. Dr. Fletcher’s email address is 

Erik M. Hines, Ph.D. is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Psychology and Learning Systems at the Florida State University as well as the coordinator of the Counselor Education Program and School Counseling Track. Dr. Hines prepares graduate students to be professional school counselors. Dr. Hines’s research agenda centers around: (a) college and career readiness for African American males; (b) parental involvement and its impact on academic achievement for students of color; and (c) improving and increasing postsecondary opportunities for first generation, low-income, and students of color (particularly African American males).  Additionally, his research interests include career exploration in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) for students of color. Dr. Hines has secured research funding to study the college readiness and persistence of African American males to improve their academic and career outcomes. Further, Dr. Hines has worked on several grants aimed at increasing awareness of STEM careers for students of color and rural students. He has over 30 publications and secured over $6,000,000.00 in extramural and internal funding. His research has appeared in peer-reviewed journals, such as the Journal of Counseling and Development, Professional School Counseling, The High School Journal, and Urban Education. Dr. Hines’s email address is

Parent Student

Types of Financial Aid

Vania Silva

Master’s Student, School Counseling, San Diego State University

What are Grants? A grant is money from the federal government that does NOT have to be repaid as long as you meet all obligations. Examples of when you may have to pay back a grant are: you drop out before 60% of the semester is over, you go from full-time to part-time during that year, or you receive the TEACH grant (provided to future teachers) but do not complete your service obligation.

What are Loans? A loan in money that you borrow, and MUST be paid back with interest. This means that you will pay back the full amount you borrow, plus a percentage of your remaining balance. 

For example, if you borrow $2,000 and there is 5% annual interest. After a year, your total amount owed would be: the $2,000 you borrowed + $100 (because 5% of $2,000 is $100). The $100 in this example is the interest. If you do not make any payments towards the loan, the next year you will owe $2,100 + $105 (because 5% of $2,100 is $105).

The types of loans you may be offered include:

Subsidized Loans- these are for students who are considered financially “in need” using FAFSA calculations. With subsidized loans, the federal government pays your interest as long as you are in school at least part-time, for the first six months after you leave school, and/or during a period of deferment (meaning postponing payment which you have to discuss with the loaning agency). 

This means that if you borrow $2,000 (as long as you meet the requirements above) the federal government will pay the interest, and you will still owe only the $2,000 you borrowed. 

Direct Unsubsidized Loans- these are available to students and not based on financial need. With unsubsidized loans, you are responsible for paying the interest at all times, including while still in school.  

Tips: If you are taking out loans, find out if they are subsidized/unsubsidized and what the interest rate is. Also, make sure that you make payments as recommended or more if possible, otherwise you may end up paying much more than you expected. 

Here is a helpful video on “Responsible Borrowing” from Federal Student Aid:

What is Work Study? Federal Work-study is money made available to your college to employ you part-time. As a student, you must seek out and apply to work study jobs on campus. You will be paid for the hours you work, but cannot exceed the amount awarded to you (unless your college can pay your wage after you have used all of your work-study funds). Typical work study on campus jobs are: tutors, library assistants, fitness center positions, computer lab/IT, research assistants, tour guides, department assistants, and many others. 

What are Scholarships? A scholarship is free money that may be offered to you by your college or outside sources. You may be eligible based on your financial need, grades/test scores, talent or athletics, or area of study. You should contact your college’s financial aid office and ask if they have scholarships available and how to apply. You can also apply to local scholarships meant for students in your area and from your high school; ask your high school counselor about scholarships. You can also find scholarships online, though they may require you to fill out applications and have varying deadlines. Companies like Dell, Coca Cola, Burger King, and many others have large scholarships you can apply to, though be sure to read the eligibility requirements. Make sure that you are eligible, keep deadlines in mind, and ensure your application is complete before submitting. You can also search for scholarships depending on your identities (gender, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, first generation, undocumented, etc.), college attending, and area of study. Even, if you are not eligible for federal financial aid, you may be eligible for outside scholarships. It is good practice to start researching scholarships early (beginning of your junior year), since there are various scholarships you can apply to beginning the summer between your junior and senior year. Warning: there should be no cost to submit a scholarship application; if there is, it is most likely a scam. 

CBO Counselor Educator Higher Ed K-12 School Counselor

Reach Higher Stories from Riverside, CA

Priscilla Grijalva

High School Counselor, Riverside, CA

A School Counselor and AVID Coordinator share Reach Higher Stories from Riverside, CA, and all over the nation!

In 2018, my friend, Dan, and I started a podcast called Reach Higher Riverside for educators and school counselors. It started with a conversation as we were discussing podcasts and how I wished there were a podcast about the Reach Higher Initiative. Dan then said, “Why don’t we start one?” At first, I thought no way, but he somehow convinced me to start a podcast and so it began! We share Reach Higher stories from local, state, and national leaders across the nation. This past year we taped 15 episodes with listeners from 37 different countries! I have had the honor to interview some of the most amazing people and so many educational heroes.

What is the Reach Higher Initiative?

Reach Higher, an initiative launched by former First Lady, Michelle Obama in 2014, is designed to inspire a college-going culture, ultimately leading to an increase in postsecondary access and success for our nation’s students. With a focus on first-generation and low income youth the initiative is centered around activating support systems to help students gain access to the tools and opportunities they need to “reach higher” and obtain a postsecondary degree whether at a traditional four-year college, a two-year community college, or through an industry-recognized training program. Feel free to check out our podcast on your favorite Podcast platform! You can find information on our website here: