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%.


Dialing in on Career & Technical Education

The Journal of Research in Technical Careers (JRTC) is an open-access, peer-reviewed journal published twice yearly by the Department of Teaching and Learning at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas’ College of Education. JRTC provides an intellectual platform for sharing scholarship among researchers in career and post-secondary technical education and related disciplines. This includes, for example, agricultural science education, business and marketing education, engineering and technology education, family and consumer sciences education, health science education, trade and industrial education, and postsecondary education. Submissions are encouraged related to any of the career clusters in the National Career Clusters Framework.

Why is the JRTC important? Prior to this publication, there were two primary journals in this area,  neither of which is open-access, therefore limiting options for scholars to publish their work. JRTC has increased opportunities for the dissemination of scholarly activity in a field that has gained national prominence due to the recent increased emphasis on STEM disciplines.

National emphasis on CTE. We are supporting research that backs a national trend in CTE and associating the UNLV College of Education with that research. The Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act of 2006 (Perkins IV) authorized federal funding for CTE nationally; reauthorized in 2016 as the Strengthening Career and Technical Education for the 21st Century Act. You can see more info on CTE in Dr. Xing and Dr.Gordon’s recent publication High Quality Career and Technical Education: Implications for Nevada published in the College’s Policy Issues in Nevada Education (2017)

JRTC accepts manuscripts for review and possible publication in all 16 career clusters and their career pathways from faculty, graduate students, and professionals working in the field.

National Career Clusters® Framework Career Clusters:

  1. Agriculture, Food & Natural Resources
  2. Architecture & Construction
  3. Arts, A/V Technology & Communication
  4. Business Management & Administration
  5. Education & training
  6. Finance
  7. Government & Public Administration
  8. Health Science
  9. Hospitality & Tourism
  10. Human Services
  11. Information Technology
  12. Law, Public Safety, Corrections & Security
  13. Manufacturing
  14. Marketing
  15. Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics
  16. Transportation, Distribution & Logistics

For more information on submitting to or becoming a reviewer of the Journal of Research in Technical Careers, see our policies.

Want to support the JRTC? Donate at the UNLV Foundation Website by selecting “Journal of Research in Technical Careers.”

UNLV Education Executive Associate Dean Named American Counselor Association (ACA) Fellow

The College of Education at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas is proud to announce that Dr. Danica G. Hays, executive associate dean and professor in the Counselor Education, School Psychology & Human Services department, has been awarded the prestigious American Counseling Association (ACA) Fellow Award. This honor is presented to less than 1 percent of the more than 56,000 ACA members.

The ACA Fellow distinction is bestowed upon members of professional distinction who have been recognized for significant and unique contributions to the counseling profession through professional practice, scientific achievement, leadership and governance, and/or teaching and training.

Dr. Hays earned a Ph.D. in Counselor Education and Supervision, with an emphasis in multicultural research, from Georgia State University. She has published approximately 100 refereed journal articles and book chapters in her areas of research expertise. She is co-editor of Qualitative Inquiry in Clinical and Educational Settings (1/e, Guilford Press), Developing Multicultural Counseling Competency: A Systems Approach (2/e, Pearson), and A Counselor’s Guide to Career Assessment Instruments (6/e, National Career Development Association). In addition, she is associate and content editor of the American Counseling Association Encyclopedia of Counseling (1/e, ACA), co-author of Mastering the NCE and CPCE (2/e, Pearson), and author of Assessment in Counseling: A Guide to Psychological Assessment Procedures (5/e, ACA).

She has extensive leadership history in the Association for Assessment and Research in Counseling (AARC) and the Association for Counselor Education and Supervision (ACES), including serving as AARC President, ACES journal editor for Counselor Education and Supervision, and President of an ACES region. The American Counseling Association has recognized her nationally for her research and advocacy as a counselor educator.

Dr. Hays will be recognized in April 2018 at the American Counseling Association Conference in Atlanta.

Student Abroad Spotlight: Jocelyn Silva

By Daniel Mendoza, M.S. • January 3, 2018

Jocelyn Silva is double majoring in English and Secondary Education with a teaching field in English Comprehensive. As part of her final requirements, Jocelyn is currently completing Student Teaching abroad. Going abroad is not a requirement for graduation but for Jocelyn, taking a chance and doing something different like studying in another country was an idea she always loved. While she questioned the ability to do it at the beginning, the thought of being in England was an opportunity she could not pass up. Besides, where else can you find Platform 9 ¾ ?

“This last picture is of me on my first full day in England. At this point I had no idea what to expect, what I would do, or who I would meet. I was adjusting and questioning my choice to study abroad. I didn’t know how to use public transportation, where to eat, find groceries, or find WiFi. I’m still learning, but I’ve learned to love my home away from home. Everyday is something different. I take the time to appreciate the places I see on my way into town, the people I meet, and taking in the simple things such as a walk to school. I’m learning to appreciate the unfamiliar.”

Where did you grow up?

I was born in Anaheim, California but I was raised in Las Vegas for the majority of my life. My senior year in high school I thought a lot about moving out of state but I wanted to cover most of my tuition expenses myself and graduate debt free. I’ve never regretted my time at UNLV and I continue to feel that it was the correct choice for me.

What inspired you to become a teacher?

I’ve always loved learning but I haven’t always enjoyed school. I remember thinking about all the things I would do differently if I had my own classroom and how I would motivate my students to become lifelong learners. I want to become a teacher because I feel that a diverse and valuable education makes a difference and that we are all capable of reaching our academic potential.

What or who inspired you to Study Abroad?

I’m not sure that any single person or event inspired me to study abroad. I’ve always loved the idea of studying in a different country but I never seemed to have the motivation to do so. I began to question all of the reasons I believed I could never study abroad:  It was too expensive, I have a job, I’m too old, and I’ll never graduate on time. The reality was that I never informed myself enough to know whether I could make ends meet, my job is not my career, I am 22 years old, and I’m spending an extra year and a half at school anyway. I ended up with three different study abroad scholarships. Two were from UNLV and to my amazement, I attained the Benjamin A. Gilman Scholarship.  I came to the realization that it was the time to take a chance on something different and so far it’s paying off.

Our study abroad group and I traveled to London our first full weekend in England and it was everything I imagined. All of the buildings looked so historical and there was always something to do. After miles of needless walking and confusion we were able to navigate through the underground to visit the London Bridge. Worth it.

Why England?

I love anything that has to do with literature and history and England is home to some of my favorite events/books: War of the Roses, Jane Eyre, Harry Potter, etc. I am sure that most English majors have imagined themselves in England at one point or another.

What do you hope to get out of Student Teaching abroad?

I hope to have a better understanding of myself as a teacher and as a student. It has been interesting listening to people’s opinions about American politics and culture. Having discussions and listening to people’s views of the United States from an outside perspective is sometimes surprising, flattering, and even concerning but overall enriching. I know I will be a better teacher for this experience.

Any concerns/nerves before leaving?

Definitely. I worried a lot about having my visa documents sorted out and being able to get to campus once I landed. Honestly, it felt a little lonely to get on a plane all by myself but I was seated next to a lovely couple from California who had traveled all around the world and whose children studied abroad as well. They definitely reassured me about my decision to go abroad and told me it was one of the best decisions I would make. Luckily, I was able to reach out to visa experts via email from my host university and I met up with one of my study abroad colleagues at the airport since we landed at the same time.  I confess that we took the easy way out and caught an Uber. Better safe than sorry.

Is this the first time living away from family/friends?

Yes! The idea of spending so much time from my family and friends was a little mind boggling. I’ve always been considered more of an introvert and while there is no shame in that, I admit that I’ve always been a little too comfortable with the familiar. It was time to explore uncharted waters.

“Amsterdam is Europe’s cool cousin. Everything feels so progressive, the people are welcoming, the food is great, and there is always something interesting to do.”

Any specific sights, events, etc. that you are looking forward to seeing while in Europe?

I was able to travel to Amsterdam just last week. I sailed through the canals, visited the Anne Frank House, the Van Gogh Museum, and took pictures at the ‘I Amsterdam’ sign. I would love to visit Italy, Spain, Ireland, and France soon.

Name 1-3 things that you could NOT leave home without?

My favorite jean jacket, camera, and phone.

Tips for students thinking about studying abroad?

  • Apply to all potential scholarships early, don’t leave it until the last minute.
  • Speak to previous study abroad students if you feel anxious or uncertain, I doubt anyone has truly regretted going abroad.
  • Just go to the informational meetings, if you overthink things you’ll talk yourself out of them.
  • Buy your plane ticket sooner rather than later and don’t procrastinate on important paper work.
  • Don’t let opportunity pass you. When else will you be able to say you lived in another country?