Preparing for the College Shock
The rate at which black male students complete college has been rising, but their college completion rates remain the lowest among students of all races and genders. As 300 school leaders gathered in Atlanta in February for a meeting of The Collective (Teach For America’s national alumni of color association), three alumni, two high school students, and a Morehouse College dean gathered around a table with Shannon Wheatley (R.G.V. ’04), Teach For America’s vice president of alumni teaching, to consider: Where do we go from here? (Editor’s Note: This article ran in the Spring 2015 edition.)
1. What Ensures Success in College?
Shannon Wheatley: I’ll jump right in. In the job you each have right now, what's the most important thing you have to do to ensure that your students of color, specifically your males, are successful when they get to college?
Kevin Booker (Associate Dean of Student Life, Morehouse College): As I reflect back on the work I used to do as a middle school teacher and principal, my major concern was that my students had the confidence that they had the ability to succeed. I was blessed because I was a history teacher, so I tried to make connections for my African American male students to understand their history—that they came from greatness.
Jonathan Santos Silva (Head of School at Blackstone Valley Prep High School): As principal of a school that is intentionally diverse—where we have all races and socioeconomic groups—the highest priority work for me is deconstructing notions that people have about black and brown boys and recreating those images in a healthier way.
Part of my job is giving my students opportunities to be out in the community doing great things, whether that’s being on a mock trial team or competing with other schools—anything that puts black and brown boys on stage for doing the right things.
There’s also recreating the images that my families have about what their own kids are capable of. There are a lot of families that buy into, “Oh yeah, all of the kids here are going to college.” But when you start talking about their own kids, there’s this fear that that’s not really possible for their kid.
The last and probably most important piece of this, like Kevin said, is marketing greatness for black and brown boys themselves, and helping them understand that not only can they tap into greatness historically and culturally, but they also have personal greatness to tap into.
Komal Bhasin (Principal, Up Academy Leonard): We’re not here to “make” our students great. They’re great already. But the whole narrative of what we study in school is a false narrative that tells them that’s not the case.
Part of our job is structuring our curriculum to make sure that what we teach in our schools testifies to the existence of greatness in our communities. When we teach world history, are we teaching the history of the kingdoms of Ghana and Mali? I work in a school that has a lot of Dominican students who identify as black. So are we teaching the history of the Dominican Republic? Who has the agency in the literature that we’re teaching? Are there well-developed black characters, or are they static characters who don’t really interact with the plot?
Shannon: Charles, you’re a high school senior, right on the edge of college. What do you think?
Charles Ellis, Jr. (South Atlanta High School Senior): It’s my priority to be a mentor to underclassmen and an example of someone who came from the same situation, or maybe even worse than yours, and found a way to go on and will hopefully do well in college. I’m applying to Stanford, Duke, Vanderbilt, and the University of Southern California.
Shannon: This conversation makes me think about my first year in college. I was that solid student in high school who went to a predominantly white university. I barely made it out of my freshman year. When I think about my network of black male classmates, by my sophomore year it was cut in half, and again by my junior year. As I’ve gotten older and shared my story, I’ve learned that what happened to me is common. What do we need to do at each level of school to prepare students for not only the academic rigor of college, but also the culture shock?
Jonathan: Untold numbers of kids have gone through your experience, Shannon, who didn’t make it through as you did. Talent and being top in your high school class aren’t enough when you arrive at campus and they don’t walk you in a line anymore, and everybody’s not wearing the same uniform as you anymore.
All of these fake things that we equate to being ready? Those aren’t it. We’re not teaching kids how to be self-advocates. If you get to college and you’re overwhelmed, then you sit in your dorm, you go to your classes, and you get your grades at the end and find out you’re on probation. We need to teach kids how to know, who is my contact person if I have a financial aid question? Or if I’m going to need tutoring? How do I approach my professor if I need help?
We also need to realize that colleges are not in the business of keeping your kids in and making sure they graduate. This whole idea that came out of the charter movement that we want to get 100 percent of kids all going to college? Colleges aren’t picking up their end of the bargain and saying, “Yep, we’ll make sure they all get through.”
We need to identify the schools that will take the hand-off. When you pass the baton—here are our precious students—they’re going to make sure that they grab it. And we need to do a better job in guidance because we have to help our parents find those schools.
2. What are the Most Important Indicators of Student Success?
Shannon: Teach For America has evolved over the past 25 years. We recently began considering four indicators of student success: development of skills and academic knowledge, development of social and political consciousness, personal growth, and access to opportunities. Rank them in order—what are the most important to students’ success in college?
Lorenzo Alferos (Teacher, U.S. Grant High School): I’d say that without all four of these attributes you’re going to have a very hard time succeeding, especially as a black male. But I would rank access first. Something we touched on a bit was the importance of counselors in talking to students about college. At my school, my freshman counselor has 550 students. I have a school of 1,800, and this year we’ve already lost three counselors through the revolving door.
We take students on college visits, but they don’t know how to actually get to college. They don’t know what their ACT score means or how to register for the ACT. I see a lot of my students are definitely capable, but they don’t even know what colleges they have access to.
Shannon: Lorenzo, I’m going to push on you. You teach a subject—algebra—that has become, for a lot of students, a gatekeeper to their future success in getting into college. You’d still rank access ahead of knowing the content and skills?
Lorenzo: Yes. Look at my students. A lot of them had no clue what GPA means, so we calculated GPAs at the end of their first semester and I showed them what it would take to get into the University of Oklahoma. They had no clue that if you got straight Cs, you have a 2.0, which is not enough. They just thought a 2.0 is OK because “I’m not failing.”
I’d rank developing social, cultural, and political consciousness next. A lot of our black male students don’t know what their rights are. They deserve to know they have a right to a great education, and that they should expect greatness from their teachers and their peers.
Shannon: What about everyone else? When you’re deciding what we absolutely have to do, how would you rank them?
Komal: If I had to, I’d put knowledge and skills first, then personal growth, then access, and then social and political consciousness.
Kevin: Social and political consciousness is number one. Then access, knowledge, and number four is personal growth.
Jonathan: Personal growth first, then social and political consciousness, then knowledge and skills, then access.
Charles: Access, personal growth, knowledge and skills, then political consciousness.
DeMonté Harris (South Atlanta High School Senior): I say personal growth first, then access, social consciousness, knowledge and skills.
Shannon: So even in this room, we’ve got a diversity of opinions. I’d love to hear, DeMonté, how you as a student came up with personal growth as number one.
DeMonté: I work at Wendy’s in Hapeville. It’s not an African American-friendly city, so I deal with racism every day. When I was in middle school, I wouldn’t have seen myself working in a racist environment because I would most likely have said something back or tried to fight it off. But now, being in that situation, I think before I react. So personal growth is number one importance for me.
Shannon: Can you give an example of what you’re talking about?
DeMonté: Just this previous Sunday, the beginning of February, we ran out of Vanilla Frosty mix. A man came in with his wife, and he was like, “Why, because it’s Black History Month?”
Every time I’m working the front counter or the drive-through, I always get slid the money. I don’t slide you your money. I hand it to you in your hand. But I try not to touch you because, clearly, you don’t want me to. When they hand me a card, they pinch the tip of it to make sure they don’t touch me. I go through that a lot, but I’m not about to react and get fired over something that, clearly, you’re ignorant about.
Jonathan: Can I jump in? First of all, DeMonté, as a brother to a brother, I’m proud that you didn’t punch that man or something. “Hashtag black lives matter,” right? Not only do they not care when a black man is dead, but they don’t even care when he’s alive, right in front of them. Our kids shouldn’t be gunned down walking home, but daily, kids are going through this stuff that DeMonté goes through—sometimes in their own school—and nobody says anything.
That reminds me of when I was walking into a school, and I just happened to be in the lobby. I overheard an administrator say something about “these future felons,” talking about students. Black lives matter in school, too!
3. What is the Impact of Teachers Who Don't Share Their Students' Background?
Shannon: Speaking of “Black Lives Matter” the events that have occurred within black communities like Ferguson have had a large impact on people inside and outside of the black community. Many people have felt called to do something, and even consider teaching. Can we talk about the role of well-intentioned people who don’t share the backgrounds of their students? Can they teach about a culture they don’t understand?
Kevin: Obviously they can.
Charles: I lived with one of my teachers who is white, who is from a town that was all white. His uncle was the sheriff and a racist, but my teacher (Thomas Dunn, [Metro Atlanta ‘09]) became a civil rights lawyer, and for many years he was a death penalty lawyer. He teaches the law class and talks about racism constantly to all of us. When Troy Davis was executed he talked to us about that, because he worked on that case. I think he’s taught us more about political consciousness than anyone else at our school.
Komal: I’ll start with the assumption that these teachers are well intentioned folks who are treating students as if they’re their own kids, right? I’m lucky to work in a school and a district with lots of educators who come to the table with that intention. But it’s not enough to explicitly want that. There’s a lot of internal work that every educator needs to go through, and the first step is to make sure that you’re aware of your own biases.
There’s a documented disproportionality in disciplinary outcomes. If you just look at trends nationwide, black students get suspended for more subjective things—for speaking in a threatening manner—whereas white students get suspended for objective things, for possession of an illicit substance. All educators need to be aware of our biases and how that’s affecting how we perceive our students in ways we may not explicitly desire.
And then our teachers are in a position of advising students where to go to college and what opportunities to take advantage of. Part of deciding where you want to go to college has to be acknowledging the fact that you may be a minority in that college, and considering what that experience will be like. I think that kind of conversation can be more difficult for someone who’s not from the community that they serve. We have to take steps to prepare for those kinds of authentic conversations and increase our comfort level.
Shannon: Komal, you’re in a school that just went through turnaround and you’re under a microscope to get results. How much time do you spend in a year doing that, with all of the other things that you’re trying to accomplish with your teachers?
Komal: We’ve done quarterly professional developments with our staff—for example we did a session based on the series by Jeff Duncan-Andrade on developing critical hope with our students. It’s not as frequently as we’d like, but these conversations leave me fired up and realizing how much more work we have to do as adults to confront all of our different feelings on these complicated matters.
Jonathan: Many of the things Komal said I agree with. Where I’m not with her yet is the first part, which is the assumption that all these teachers care about all these kids.
Kevin: They don’t.
Jonathan: Even in a school like mine where I have great people working with me, I know we’re not there yet. When I see teachers wrestling with and really agonizing over disciplining our kids, then I’ll know. Because I know that to be true with my son—when I have to discipline my son, it hurts me. And I don’t know that it hurts all teachers to discipline black boys yet. I think they get away with it because they can say, “Oh, I was TFA,” or, “I went to this social justice education school.” They can throw all these credentials that are proxies for “I care about kids.” But if that were a reality, then more than half of our schools wouldn’t look the way they look. I wouldn’t walk into a building and hear people say that these students are future felons.
Shannon: How do you get there?
Jonathan: It has to start with leaders. Whether it’s Lorenzo in his classroom, or Komal and me as principals, or the dean at the college level—wherever you have power, wherever you have control, wherever you have an influence and a voice, it’s up to you to say that you’re tired and you’re not going to accept a half-assed commitment.
Shannon: I’m listening for something concrete.
Komal: So there’s a psychological study that says that when we look at others—people we perceive to be others—and they do something, we’re going to make dispositional attributions. We’re going to say, “That’s your disposition, you’re a bad person, you don’t care.” Whereas the way that I look at my son when he does things, I make situational attributions. I say, “Well, he didn’t sleep well last night.” I see the circumstances that led him to make that choice. I hold him accountable—don’t get me wrong, there are time-outs in my house—but it doesn’t change who I think he is.
Research shows that students and families come to schools wanting to go to college, with very high goals for themselves. The job of our schools is to help them achieve the goals they set for themselves. When you’re in the classroom, and you’ve been up late grading papers, and someone disrupts your lesson, it’s hard. But you have to look at the situation and see why that student was compelled to make that choice.
Lorenzo: It’s hard if you start with a deficit mind-set. There are four teams on my grade level at my school, and one has written twice as many [disciplinary] referrals as the other three teams. That’s their mind-set. I wasn’t like this in my first year, but I’ve learned to pull a student aside and ask him why he’s sleeping in my class. Some students will tell me, “My father’s an alcoholic and he kept me up all night.”
Komal: And it’s not about letting him sleep in class, it’s about helping that student build skills. So I might agree with a student that when he’s tired, I’m going to give him a signal that helps him get up, or he’s going to proactively note that he’s sleepy. He’s going to splash some water on his face and keep going.
Kevin: Empathy. Students don’t care how much you know. They care how much you care. If you’re truly about all of them, then getting to know your students for who they are and what they experience makes you better at your job.
4. Is Character Education Enough?
Shannon: We’re talking about this notion of reaching in and having the endurance to really be there with a kid and a family, and having the courage to lead your staff through some difficult conversations. One of the approaches that’s popular right now is character education. Do we think character education is the same as helping students develop social consciousness? Is character education enough?
Jonathan: Character education’s not the same in my definition. I’m thinking about these prepackaged systems and programs and cards where you need to have the seven traits of this and that, and if you can do these five things and color-code that, then you’re going to be ready for college.
I read Paul Tough’s book [How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character] and I like it. But what I love is at the end, he reveals, “I’m a white dude who dropped out of college, has this awesome job working in the newspaper, and I write best-selling books.” That isn’t the narrative that generally follows black drop-outs. “Black drop-out” doesn’t usually get followed by “successful” anything.
I hate the idea that we can grade kids on their persistence. I’m going to give you an F in persistence because you didn’t finish your homework, but I’m not going to give you an A in persistence because you got up at 4 a.m., got yourself dressed, got your siblings dressed, got on a bus, rode an hour, got off the bus, walked a half an hour, got into school at whatever god-awful hour in the morning, didn’t leave until the evening, so you haven’t seen your parents in the daylight. You got an F in persistence because you didn’t do all 50 math problems I gave you?
That’s bogus, and it’s not developing social consciousness. I love the seven habits of success, but it doesn’t address the fact that you can have knowledge and skills as a black or brown boy, but it’s not the same as being white and being a Smith, and your dad was a Smith, and everybody knows who Mr. Smith was, so come on in, right? That’s access, and our kids don’t have that. That’s social capital that they don’t have. So they have to know how to prepare to build it on their own.
Komal: Every day at the end of the day in school, we do shout-outs for how we showed perseverance. A student might say, “I was doing this math problem, it was really tough, but I said to myself, ‘You can do it,’ and got back in the game.” Or “I wrote for 45 minutes straight and developed an independent claim.” That’s character education, where you’re constantly reflecting on the traits your students showed in the school day, and helping them build that concept.
I wish that our vision of character education involved building social and political consciousness, because it is so crucial. But the way character education is defined right now, they’re separate.
Here’s an example of what we did for social and political consciousness with our eigth grade. With all the things that have been happening in Ferguson and Staten Island, we used morning homeroom and had students read articles from different perspectives. We showed them videos and a blog by Jay Smooth. We had them do a gallery walk in which they wrote notes about how they felt. They were studying art as a vehicle for expression, so they made protest signs in art class for whatever idea related to the topic they were hoping to expose.
We hosted a student-led assembly for students who wanted to come and speak and share reflections, and we hosted a spoken-word poet from the community.
That, to me, is developing consciousness. There’s so much rage you can have inside, and we need to help students find a productive outlet for that rage instead of letting it bubble over. DeMonté, hearing your stories about what happens to you at work, I don’t know how many people I know who could have such a mature response. The world will require that of our students.
Kevin: I think that’s the problem. We don’t think about what our children experience after they leave our doors.
Shannon: I’m going to play devil’s advocate. When I became a principal, eight percent of ninth graders were proficient on our first algebra benchmark. When kids have to overcome that great a distance academically, shouldn’t that be the only thing we focus on?
Komal: We didn’t cancel math class to develop consciousness. We canceled the morning’s homeroom where you sit and take attendance. We had 15 minutes in the mornings and used it. It’s not an either-or phenomenon. We must do both.
Charles: I’d say, if eight percent of students are passing algebra but they have no idea about what’s going on culturally and politically, then they may just think that’s normal, that it’s Ok to fail. But if they look at social inequality and at education, that should persuade them to go home and study. Look at how well people do in subjects, and then how well they do in their life from that point on. Look at college acceptance rates. I think that developing social, cultural, and political consciousness will persuade children to study harder and do better on their own.
Jonathan: Drop the mic, Charles.
5. How Can We Remake This Country Into a Place that Sees Black Men as Part of a Positive Future?
Shannon: Let’s zoom out, big picture. What’s the most important priority right now to remake this country into a place that sees black men as part of a positive future? What scares you the most? What gives you the most hope?
Kevin: For me, beyond a shadow of a doubt, the priority is to identify African American males at Morehouse who have the potential to teach. To equip them with the real information about what makes teaching a special field—that it’s not the lowest-paying field in terms of career aspiration, but there are lots of opportunities in education. We’re working on a certification program at Morehouse so that we can be a pipeline for doing that work as teachers.
What scares me the most is that there are not enough African American or Latino male teachers in the profession now to be the models that we need for our students. The students who have already graduated from Morehouse and who are on the front lines in this field give me hope to continue doing the work.
Jonathan: I also think for white kids, to be able to see big black men as people who love them and care for them and not as threatening people is the way you deconstruct their notions of Trayvon Martin, right? They need to have all different ethnicities teaching–Native American…
Komal: Asian American…
Jonathan: Everyone, right? Every time I meet young brothers like Charles and DeMonté—anytime I see kids who, in spite of all that society is trying to tell them about themselves, continue through their actions and choices to say, “I don’t believe that, I will not believe that, and I’m going to craft my own narrative?” That is what gives me hope.
Lorenzo: We definitely need more black and Latino teachers, and administrators who are willing to discuss race. I think there’s a huge void in terms of administrators who are willing to do that, because either their staff is extremely large and predominantly white, and they just don’t want to rock the boat, or they just are not socially, culturally, or politically conscious themselves.
Something that scares me, on the flip side, is educators who are culturally incompetent and insensitive, just seeing the damage that does to my students. I heard a teacher say about a student, “Your mom should have just kept dancing all night.” If people say racist stuff about Obama, or [Seattle Seahawks quarterback] Richard Sherman, it’s so much worse when they say it to our kids.
Charles: People don’t know that Richard Sherman had a 3.9 GPA at Stanford.
Komal: I’m going to take it a little broader. I think the most important priority for our country needs to be creating a massive public relations campaign. Specifically, I want to hail the successes of people of color, and I don’t want to ignore the role of strong women of color whose successes, particularly in the civil rights movement, have often gotten pushed to the side. I understand that the focus of this panel is on young men of color, which is hugely important, but I do think we will not get the returns that we wish unless we uphold and create this campaign to hail the successes of women and men of color.
What scares me is how easy and often tempting it is to be silent on these issues. It scares me how easy it is to sometimes say nothing to combat a micro-aggression or combat a misinterpretation, as opposed to taking that stand and facing the discomfort that it creates in the people who uttered it, and facing the consequences of creating that discomfort.
Charles: What scares me the most is, in my school, people not caring about having conversations like this. DeMonté and I are—
DeMonté: Pushers. We don’t care who you are, we’re going to talk about it.
Charles: Most of the people in our school are not like us. But I know most of my peers say they want to come back and help South Atlanta. I think that’s what gives me the most hope.
DeMonté: What scares me the most, I want to say, is some of my own teachers. One will tell me, “C students often do better than honor roll students in college because they’re used to working.” It’s like they’re scaring us about college. They’re like, “Oh, it’s going to be different. You aren’t going to be able to go into the refrigerator and eat something.”
Stop doing that to us. Encourage us. Charles and I were discussing that it’s not going to be like that. If you can get scholarships, you’ll have enough food to eat.
And don’t put us in a box. The counselor gives you certain applications to fill out, and most of them are in Georgia. I love my mom and I love my home, but I’m trying to go as far away as possible. So don’t scare us. Make college a dream for us instead of a scary nightmare.
About the Author
Susan Brenna joined One Day in 2014 as its editor-in-chief. As a writer and editor, her reporting on education has appeared in numerous publications, including New York magazine. She has worked in New York, New Jersey, Texas, Georgia, and Maryland. She lives in Brooklyn. Email Susan Brenna.