What’s the Alternative? Advancing Learning Opportunities for Black Students

By Dr. Iesha Jackson | Originally posted on National Center for Institutional Diversity

During the 2013–2014 school year, I conducted a qualitative research study in a transfer high school in New York City. I wanted to understand how Black students make sense of their schooling experiences at the intersections of race, gender, and age. Six young adults, Amir, Evelyn, Karma, Monica, Shaun, and Wayne*, ranging in age from 18 to 20, were ultimately my guides and teachers as I pursued these answers. Together, the six students had attended a combined total of 15 schools prior to enrolling at Seeds of Promise High School (what I’ll call “Promise High”), where the study was conducted. They had unique Promise High experiences and various reasons for attending this particular school. However, they all expressed a commitment to earning a high school diploma and a desire to go to college.

What I found during my time with these six Black young adults is that there was limited access to curricular, extracurricular, and culturally relevant opportunities that would support the holistic development of what Cahill, Lynch, and Hamilton (2006) call “overage, under-credited” (OA/UC) learners. OA/UC students are at least two years behind their peers in terms of age and credits earned toward a high school diploma. Not surprisingly to those familiar with issues of educational inequity, students of color, students just like Amir, Evelyn, Karma, Monica, Shaun, and Wayne, are overrepresented in this population throughout the United States.

Based on insights from Amir, Evelyn, Karma, Monica, Shaun, and Wayne, as well as research in teaching and learning, I have outlined four essential approaches to creating culturally relevant, age appropriate learning opportunities for OA/UC Black students.

  1. If you’re there, care.

As legal adults who had spent more than the traditional 13 years in K-12 schools, the high school students I met discussed the pressures they felt to graduate before “aging out” (i.e., becoming ineligible to re-enroll because of their age). Their stories were wrought with contradictions as they wavered between discussing the supportive environment of the school and the various types of invisibility they faced. Thankfully, these students were able to find occasional support. This support often came from their female teachers and administrators of color who made students feel individually heard and valued. On the other hand, students also had specific teachers they felt were “only there for a paycheck,” and they talked about practices they felt did not honor their positionality as Black young adults in New York City capable of making mature, self-motivated personal and academic decisions. Monica described her “welcome” to the school by saying:

I felt like when I first came, they [school professionals in charge of enrolling new students] was like…they didn’t really want to accept me because of my age. They didn’t think I would do any work. They probably think I would just stay in here being 18, 19, 20, 21 and not do anything.

The young men and women indicated that key changes to practice they wanted at Promise High include teaching with passion, making use of current technology, and supporting students to high levels of academic achievement while creating a learning environment in which students feel cared for by all school professionals.

2. Provide life-centered learning.

Towards the end of the school year, I gathered participants for individual interviews, asking them to reflect on their personal experiences at Promise High over the year. Because Wayne had recently started working and realized “it’s a struggle to manage [money],” he expressed interest in learning more about financial literacy and links between economics and politics. He shared:

I feel like we should be have more economic, political classes, or geared toward the subject. Because a lot of us are still in the mindset of, ‘Mommy and daddy are gonna take care of me. Then I’m gonna leave high school, get a job, and I’m gonna have so much money. Like making $80 dollars an hour. I’m gonna have an apartment and a girlfriend et cetera.’

While economics is offered at Promise High, the students who took the course described it as impractical. Therefore, the students requested curricula that realistically address their future goals as well as their present circumstances. This recommendation speaks to the importance of both covering the standards so students like Wayne can graduate, but also endeavoring to make learning personally meaningful and directly applicable for students.

A shared assumption between culturally relevant pedagogy and adult learning theory is that learners bring with them life experiences that orient them to course materials and objectives (Baumgartner, Lee, Birden, & Flowers, 2003Ladson-Billings, 2014). In other words, for Black adult learners, teaching and learning exchanges are most effective when they are connected to students’ prior knowledge, ways of knowing, and personal interests. The participants of this study recommended changes to curricular and extracurricular activities that spoke to these elements from their experiences as older high school students with life experiences and interests that shaped what they wanted to learn in school.

3. Use critical race praxis, or, as Karma says — “dig deep into their personal life.”

From an intersectional perspective, institutional racism and oppression are intensified in the schooling experiences of older Black students by segregating them into transfer schools. Transfer schools in New York City are intended to provide an opportunity for students, most of whom are Black and Latino**, to acquire requisite secondary and post-secondary skills in a rigorous and supportive environment; however, the students who attend Promise High do not have access to core academic content such as chemistry and physics, which the New York City Department of Education lists as courses students should complete to “prepare for college and careers”. Karma shared her perspective on the absence of opportunities (Jackson, 2016, p. 79):

I feel like for science…maybe you could get more lab equipment, maybe people would actually experience what science is before leaving high school. I never da — what is it? dissected a frog? I never dissected anything. But I feel like this is something I wanted to do for the simple fact that I want to do autopsies when I get older. Let me start with animals first. Like, let me see what he been eatin.

Though we laughed and those in the room who had the opportunity to dissect animals (Shaun dissected a baby pig at a previous school, and I talked about my experience dissecting a frog) said it was not enjoyable, Karma raised an important example of an opportunity gap. The education Black young adult students receive after being pushed into Promise High does not match the standard at most traditional high schools. Furthermore, the difference in curricula options for students at transfer high schools compared to their peers in traditional high schools renders invisible the role of race, gender, and age in shaping how some students are educated in certain high school spaces.

Addressing this opportunity gap from a culturally relevant, age appropriate perspective will require education leaders and policymakers to reconcile issues of interest convergence. Interest convergence is the idea that any policy or practice that appears to benefit Black people ultimately serves the interests of maintaining race-based power structures more (Bell, 1995). In this case, the separation of older students who have had academic challenges ultimately serves the needs and goals of the district itself more than the students like Amir, Evelyn, Shaun, and Monica.

If high schools and districts are truly committed to ensuring academic excellence as well as college and career readiness for older Black students, they must examine the courses offered to ensure that students planning to pursue post-secondary education will graduate high school ready for college (Knight & Marciano, 2013). Specifically for Black young adult students, the curricula and instruction should include various opportunities for students to engage in critical inquiry rooted in students’ individual learning styles, experiential knowledge, and community concerns. In that vein, schools and districts serving OA/UC student of color should use a critical race praxis, which infuses anti-racist practices with justice oriented action (Yamamoto, 1997), from an intersectional perspective to structure teaching and learning exchanges that eliminate opportunity gaps. When Karma described when she was most excited to be in school, she said:

Oh my gosh, I love my criminology teacher…she inspires me a lot…just taking her class made want to become a lawyer and if not a lawyer then a medical examiner. [I learned] many people — innocent people would go to jail [because of] the medical examiners, like, their accusations. For instance, one guy was accused of raping this girl and she — she wasn’t raped, she had a rash…And that’s what inspired me to wanna be a medical examiner.

Karma acknowledged that for her, becoming a medical examiner is an issue of justice, working to keep innocent people out of “the system.” Just as important, her experience in a criminology class (taught by a woman of color) inspired her to pursue a STEM related career. This, to me, sounds a lot like critical race praxis.

4. Respond to student voice.

Throughout my interviews with the students, they provided a sophisticated critique of the curricula, instruction, and culture of Promise High. But how could I share their brilliance with as wide an audience as possible? My approach to the study was grounded in an attempt to amplify the voice of these young people in school decision making processes once information was shared with the principal. Student voice, or students’ roles in affecting educational policies and practices through sharing what is viewed as their legitimate perspectives and recommendations (Cook-Sather, 2006), has transformative and liberatory potential to improve schools and schooling for Black students. When students are positioned as experts of their own experience, capable of articulating problems and potential solutions, students’ agency, belonging, and competence can increase (Mitra, 2004). For Promise High and other schools like it, this means that the experts, the most knowledgeable, the most advanced analysts, are sitting within your own walls. However, potential limitations to student voice were exposed in examining students’ unwillingness to share their critiques with administrators. The dilemma with student voice exposed here is that “issues of voice are…embedded in historically located structures and relations of power” (Fielding, 2004, p. 300). That is, Amir’s voice is silenced by systems in place that benefit from this silence. In light of this, it is important to expand notions of student voice and further consider the ways in which some marginalized students enact their voice; students who may not share all of their discontent with school professionals will continue to speak through their behaviors, such as waning attendance, engagement, and motivation. Therefore, we as educators must learn to listen to silence as communication when considering the role of student voice in school reform.

How Will YOU Respond?

When “overage, under-credited” Black students are relegated to transfer high schools, it is likely that their learning environment will not fully support them in achieving academically and gaining skills necessary to successfully pursue post-secondary options, including college. They are subsequently left with little if any substantive alternative to the schooling experiences they faced in traditional high schools. I believe appropriate and affirming alternatives can be fashioned to improve schooling experiences for adult Black students in transfer high schools. But how do we get there? An important first step is to listen and respond to the voices of the students in these spaces. Though Wayne was talking about a specific teacher in the quote below, his words offer a call to action that we must consider:

It’s like, I’m sitting here. I’m ready to learn. I’m calling you. But you don’t respond to me. I understand that you are helping someone else, so I’ll wait. When I see you’re available I’m gonna call you again. If you don’t come over here, then you don’t care because I’m calling for assistance.

Iesha Jackson is an assistant professor of teacher education at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She is a member of the Diversity Scholars Network at the National Center for Institutional Diversity.

*Names for students and the school are pseudonyms used to protect anonymity.
**This estimation is based on research of demographic information for transfer school in the city. Each transfer high schools website provides statistics of student enrollment by race according to % Black and Hispanic. Based on this data, I calculated that the average of Black and Latino students in all transfer schools in New York City is 78.4%.