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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

References

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 http://www.jstor.org/stable/23275421

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. https://doi.org/10.1108/JME-09-2019-0064

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. https://doi.org/10.1080/01933922.2020.1740846.

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 fletcher.158@osu.edu. 

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 emhines@fsu.edu.

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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: https://bit.ly/ReachHigherRiverside

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CBO Counselor Educator Higher Ed K-12 Parent School Counselor Student Uncategorized

What is College Counseling Now?

By Laura Owen & Venus Israni

Executive Director, Center for Equity and Postsecondary Attainment, San Diego State University & Doctoral Candidate, Boston College, Higher Education

Never has it been more evident that our postsecondary pipeline and advising systems need a major overhaul. Students and adults have long noted that the support they desire falls woefully short, leaving too many without the guidance they deserve and need. School counselors are licensed, trained and prepared to serve all students, yet they are consistently bereft of the resources necessary to meet the competing demands of their job. Magnified by an all consuming pandemic with emerging and competing areas of need (COVID-19, mental health, racial injustice and postsecondary planning), we can no longer continue to ignore this shortfall without being accomplices in maintaining this system that perpetuates inequitable postsecondary opportunities.

The past year has amplified the isolation so many of us have felt. None more so than graduate students who struggle under normal conditions to remain connected due to the nature of their programs and excessive time demands. 

Success at the doctoral level isn’t easy to come by with roughly half of students leaving their programs before graduation. Minoritized doctoral students are especially vulnerable. Managing several expectations and projects simultaneously is the norm we operate within, often without the institutional support we are in dire need of. In light of the events of this last year, I ask myself what will happen to us now and in the future, given that we are and have been overlooked in higher education? The seemingly endless bad news on so many different fronts has been crippling to say the least. The small moments I used to share with my peers (of color) on campus, which notably included processing hard realities seems so far away. I have noticed more and more instances where I struggle to catch my breath due to the sheer volume of all that has been transpiring. I have been trying to push myself forward while also coming to grips with a political system and nation that has continued to fall apart. I’ve lied awake worrying simultaneously about protecting my aging parents from COVID-19 and how I will get enough participants for my dissertation study. We matter and we need support.

Venus Israni, Doctoral Candidate, Boston College, Higher Education

K-12 students face similar concerns, attempting virtual, face-to-face and hybrid formats of school while also providing day care for younger siblings whose parents are working at essential jobs. School counselors are meeting with heartbroken students whose loved ones have contracted COVID-19 and, in some cases, passed on. Counselors are listening to the concerns of racially marginalized and isolated students who are just plain “done with everything” and have checked out. They are addressing the mental health concerns of parents and staff while doing everything in their power to ensure that the individualized needs of every student on their caseload are met. They are overseeing food distribution, helping with homelessness and collaborating with community partners to address an increasing set of needs. While the ground underneath them seems to shift every five minutes, school counselors are working with students who face increased academic struggles in the face of this new model of learning.

Under any other circumstances, each area of need would require 100% of a school counselor’s time, but that is not possible given the urgency and serious challenges that students and families are facing. All of these students’ needs must be addressed.  We cannot possibly recover from the damage this pandemic has inflicted without a thoughtfully designed plan to revise our comprehensive advising structures and policies.

Students and parents need responsive and informed guidance that is adaptable to the daily disruptions and competing challenges from this pandemic. They need College Counseling Now.

College Counseling Now Campaign

The College Counseling Now campaign will address the four intersecting pandemics and more specifically, respond to what many are referring to as COVID-19 melt, where academically-qualified students are choosing not to attend or return to college. We will look at nontraditional pathways that connect students to real opportunities for high-wage, high demand jobs. 

Recognizing that there are many people who work towards helping students navigate their post high school options, the #CollegeCounselingNow campaign will engage and bring together all partners (students, parents, guardians, K-12 educators, higher ed. partners, community based organizations, school counselors, graduate students, counselor educators and researchers) to respond to the clarion call for creative, decisive, and equity focused solutions. 

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CBO Counselor Educator Higher Ed K-12 School Counselor

Back to Basics

By Karen Arnold

Associate Professor, Educational Leadership & Higher Education, Boston College

When my daughter was 14, I asked her whether she thought she might like to go to college at the university where I taught. She had been to my campus countless times by then, most often to the School of Education where my office and classrooms were located. My daughter answered that she wouldn’t choose to attend my college because it was too small. With some surprise, I told her that we had 14,000 enrolled students. Her reply: “How do they fit them in that building?” 

I was taken aback that my daughter hadn’t realized that the entire campus was part of the university. I’d never really told her exactly what a university was, though. I guess I thought that she –that anyone—would just know that. 

So imagine the assumptions and misperceptions of high school students who do not grow up visiting college campuses with their professor parent. Indeed, in my role as a researcher of college access, I have come across innumerable instances of similar disconnects between what we educators assume students know and what they actually know:

“I’m not interested in liberal arts. I’m not liberal and I don’t want to study art!”

“What is a passing score on the SAT?”

“I don’t know what I want for my career, so I can’t start college yet.”

“This college costs $60,000—there is no way I can afford that!”

“The FAFSA gets you scholarships, right?”
 

Why in the world should we expect a 16- or 17-year-old to know unwritten yet crucial terms and concepts like the definition of liberal arts, the difference between sticker price and cost, or the components of financial aid? How would they know why it might matter that institutions are public, private, for-profit, in-state, or out-of-state? And what does it mean for college counseling to stop assuming such common understandings?

It means that we need to communicate and unpack basic information about higher education and about every other aspect of the college choice, application, and financial aid process. We need to “pressure test” students’ understanding of this information. It means avoiding the term “financial aid” until and unless we’re sure students understand that assistance in paying for college comes from a combination of family contribution, grants, loans, work, and scholarships and what each of these represents. Above all, it means checking ourselves for what we assume “everyone” knows. 

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CBO Counselor Educator Higher Ed K-12 School Counselor

Forget the College Counseling Timeline- What Do We Do Now?

By Kathy Chau Rohn

Doctoral Student, Educational Leadership & Higher Education, Boston College

2020 brought both new challenges and shed light on the same problems we’ve experienced in the field of college counseling for years. 

In “normal” times, we, school and college counselors, often use variations of the same college application checklist with our students. The usual items are on there: (re)take the SATs or ACTs, finalize college lists, discuss options with family, write a personal statement, visit colleges, complete the Common Application, request fee waivers, submit the FAFSA, and the list goes on. The format of the checklist itself implies that the college process is linear–a neat laundry list of discrete tasks that we can help students check off, in order, one by one. We give presentations based on where students “should” be on the college timeline. Yet, as many of us experience, especially now as we navigate through the challenges of COVID-19, counseling students through the college process is far from simple or perfectly chronological. Students are at different places, at different times, at every juncture. Part of the problem is that we only have the capacity to do so much given the resources we have and the systems we operate within. And, part of the problem is that the tools we use follow an overly simplified checklist approach that does not work for all counselors, families, or students and certainly does not work in the context of 2020. So, how can we start college counseling off the timeline?

Based on a nationwide text-message college advising campaign for 35,000 students, a team of practitioners and researchers from K-12 and higher education began to identify the parts of the college application process that do not occur once, but continue to emerge and re-emerge. We realized that we needed a more realistic and dynamic representation of the college process. To that end, we are creating and evolving an interactive “timeline” that captures the non-linear messiness of the college counseling process. As we hear from counselors, students, and parents about their concerns and challenges during this unprecedented year, we will update this new “timeline” in part 2 of this blog post to help counselors reimagine when and how they provide information and support to their students. Stay tuned and send us your ideas and feedback!

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Rethinking College Advising During A Pandemic

By Laura Owen

Executive Director, Center for Equity and Postsecondary Attainment, San Diego State University

Billions of dollars have been spent and countless efforts employed to close college opportunity gaps and while we have witnessed encouraging trends to provide more equitable access, the pandemic is rolling back the clock, wiping out many of the gains that have been made and exposing the systemic educational failures that got us here in the first place. We can sit back and watch the process unfold or we can acknowledge our mistakes and devote our energy to create a new equity centered, antiracist advising and counseling system that more intentionally serves all students.

Current Enrollment Trends

A recent report from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center confirms startling college enrollment declines. While high school graduation rates remained stable for the class of 2020, postsecondary enrollment decreased by 21.7 percent nationally and direct high school to college attendance for students from high poverty schools fell by 32.6 percent versus 16.4 percent for low poverty schools. Students attending high minority schools saw attendance decrease by 26.4 percent, while those enrolled in low minority schools witnessed an 18 percent decline. If that news were not alarming enough, early indicators predict a continued downward enrollment trajectory with even more discernible losses ahead. Common App recently shared college application rates are down by 8 percent for first time applicants and applications from students who are first in their family to attend college and those utilizing fee waivers decreased by 16 percent.

The Challenge Before Us

The events of this past year have only added to the complexities that students face in traversing their educational path, one that has long been riddled with roadblocks and obstacles. While school leaders have worked heroically to respond to the challenges brought on by the novel Covid-19 pandemic, college advising has unsurprisingly taken a back seat due to the many urgent and pressing needs that school staff have been juggling. This has forced students to wait patiently for guidance as shifting deadlines and polices have become the actuality.

Parents have agonized over how to best help their child carve out a viable post high school plan. One friend recently shared that he didn’t want to pay college tuition for his daughter to be two doors down, sitting on her bed and taking classes on her computer all day.  Another wished her son could experience all that college has to offer, including living on campus; so, ultimately, he decided to take a gap year. Other families made decisions to move forward as planned and students enrolled and completed their first semester of college, albeit not as they had expected. 

Students and parents are frustrated and stymied by a quickly changing landscape coupled with misinformation. They are looking to school counselors and college advisors for responsive and informed postsecondary guidance that is malleable to the daily disruptions and competing demands – they need College Counseling Now.

College Counseling Now Campaign

The College Counseling Now campaign will elevate and broadcast what is working. We will identify the mechanisms that influence postsecondary opportunity and expose how each piece, no matter how seemingly big or small, impacts everything else around it. 

As the saying goes, “it takes a village”. The College Counseling Now campaign will bring together students, parents, guardians, K-12 educators, higher education partners, community-based organizations, school counselors, district school counseling directors/supervisors, graduate students, counselor educators and researchers to create a community of practice committed to strengthening postsecondary advising. Together we will respond to the clarion call for creative, decisive, and equity focused college counseling solutions. 

We will:

  • Elevate the voices of parents and students 
  • Identify counseling and advising practices that support equity, antiracism and justice
  • Share lessons learned from summer melt advising interventions
  • Work with higher ed, K-12, community partners and college access organizations to thought partner and brainstorm solutions. 
  • Develop college advising tools, resources, and training 
  • Utilize social media and virtual spaces to hold Twitter chats, conduct Facebook Live events, share Instagram infographics, publish blog posts, and host webinars 

Stay tuned for more information to get involved in the #CollegeCounselingNow campaign. We can do this together!