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Supporting African American Boys in School
Low educational achievement contributes to and perpetuates socioeconomic, health, and other inequalities for African Americans. And for males in particular, educational and employment outcomes have declined, even over the past two decades.
Research into low academic achievement for African American children shows that the culture of children and their teachers affects student engagement and learning, and that parental involvement and social networks are important.
Many African American children do not live in nuclear families; they live in a variety of adaptive family structures. This is especially true for low-income and working class Black families. Researchers and teachers know relatively little about how these adaptive family systems support African American children, beyond the fact that they have historically helped African American families survive and meet their psychosocial, cultural, and material needs.
To gain insight from children’s lived experiences, and to map networks of social support, UW-Madison professor of Human Ecology Jeffrey Lewis and colleague Amy Hilgendorf interviewed 28 African American boys in grades 4-6 from two elementary schools and a middle school in Beloit, Wisconsin.
Lewis and Hilgendorf asked the boys who helped them be a “good student” and how these acquaintances provide this support. The support the boys discussed was often complex and multidimensional and worked in at least four layers (see sidebar).
Friends and siblings made up 26% of the supportive individuals the boys identified. Adding cousins, children accounted for slightly more than one-third of the boys’ identified support networks.
As anticipated, the boys viewed women as providing substantial school-related support. Mothers grandmothers, and aunts accounted for slightly over 30% of all responses. Adult males also played a significant role for nearly all the boys. Fathers, grandfathers, uncles, mothers’ boyfriends, and others accounted for nearly one quarter of those identified as providing homework support. When one considers the number of times the boys named their peers as providing support, males made up about 38 percent of the supportive individuals reported.
Many adult males mentioned were “non-residential” fathers who were nevertheless involved in the boys' lives. Some of the men were surrogate fathers—their mothers’ boyfriends and unmarried partners. Brothers, cousins, and friends also played significant roles in support networks. They were particularly important when the boys were in trouble.
Two boys said the majority of their support came from households in other communities. This agrees with reports from many that their families made regular trips to visit relatives in other cities up to 3 hours away, and that they had regular phone conversations with supportive adults in other cities, including calls to discuss school. Thirteen of the twenty boys reported receiving most of their support from one location. However, six reported support networks that were spread over two locations.
Mentoring programs represent a common approach to securing support for African American boys. Yet regardless of their effect, formal mentoring programs have reached a relatively small percentage of these children. Many boys who want mentors must wait a year or more and many cannot meet the criteria necessary for success. Moreover, Lewis says, these approaches often fail to identify or tap into support already available within the boys’ social networks.
Most boys identified supportive adults in addition to their primary caregivers, most often members of their extended and social families. Their support parallels many functions of mentors, including encouragement and reinforcement. These adults told the boys “to do the right thing” in school, voiced clear expectations for academic achievement, and celebrated the boys’ successes.
Some boys also mentioned ways these adults modeled positive school-related behavior. Some recalled personal stories that conveyed lessons relevant to school and their education. Many adults provided instrumental help with schoolwork, paralleling the tutoring function of some mentoring programs.
Lewis argues for the importance of finding ways to connect African American boys’ natural mentors to their school lives. While the important individuals the boys identified already serve many mentor functions, these adults may not be well equipped to provide other functions, for example, providing “bridging” social capital. Natural mentors have few opportunities to connect boys with more advantaged individuals or with employers or institutions of higher education institutions, Lewis says. But school staff are likely to have access to bridging capital. When made aware of the boys’ support networks, school staff could provide this service to the boys and to their mentors. The entire social network as well would be strengthened.
Boys expressed some ambivalence about school—they did not always view it as “safe and familiar.” However, the sixth graders named at least one teacher with whom they felt comfortable. Most of the sixth grade teachers had at least one African American boy that experienced their classroom as a good place to be. Lewis says he views this as a hopeful sign that productive and caring relationships can be established between the boys and their teachers.
Lewis is still gathering data on the boys’ experiences of not having support, and he cautions that his analysis in this are preliminary and suggestive. However, the data revealed two issues to consider:
Lewis recommends a number of ways to improve school-related support for African American boys.