"We Learn Through Our Struggles": Nuancing Notions of Urban Black Male Academic Preparation for Postsecondary Success

by Chezare A. Warren - 2016

Background/Context: Scholars agree that students’ academic preparation for college begins as early as middle school. This preparation includes both instructional and social supports. The present study draws much-needed attention to how Black males articulate the role and function of their Chicago high school for helping them negotiate the challenges of urban living to both earn admittance to, and graduate from, a four-year college or university.

Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: Not enough is known about the specific supports most useful for improving urban Black males’ academic preparation to earn a baccalaureate degree from a four-year college or university. A single-sex public high school in Chicago (Nabur) rose to national prominence in 2010 for helping each of its 100% Black male graduates earn admission to college. This study investigates how members of this school’s inaugural graduating class on track to graduate from college within 6 years of initial enrollment describe their high school academic experiences, and the impact of these experiences for shaping their college persistence. Exploring the contours of academic preparation through Black male students’ perspectives can be instructive for improving urban school reform efforts aimed at better preparing them for multiple postsecondary options.

Population/Participants/Subjects: Eighteen Black males—members of Nabur’s inaugural graduating class who began at Nabur High School in 2006 and graduated in 2010—were participants in the study. Each of the young men, with the exception of one, attended Nabur all four years of their high school career. The young men self selected participation in the study. Each participant was on track to graduate from college within six years of their initial enrollment at the time of data collection.

Research Design: The young men participated in one in-depth one-on-one interview. Instructional and social supports—dimensions of academic preparation explored in this study—help to frame analysis and presentation of the findings.

Findings/Results: Students described teacher availability and academic expectations (instructional supports), as well as community building, social networking, and personal affirmation (social supports) as important aspects of their academic preparation for postsecondary success. Practitioners’ beliefs about Black males’ resilience as a framework for design and implementation of instructional and social supports emerges as most significant to their academic preparation for college.

Conclusions/Recommendations: Implications and recommendations for repurposing “struggle” as a site of resilience in efforts to better meet the unique needs of urban Black males in preparation for college are discussed.

"If there is no struggle, there is no progress." - Frederick Douglass


Academic preparation begins long before young people go to college (Perna, 2005; Reid & Moore, 2008; Wimberly & Noeth, 2005). Schools must have both instructional and social supports working in concert to maximize academic efficacy and improve student outcomes. For urban youth, these supports, and the ideologies or rationales underscoring their design, must account for the dimensions of urban living that impact how young people experience school. Howard (2008) insists that the pipeline to college for Black males is strengthened when sustainable improvements to their schooling experiences at the elementary, middle, and secondary level are made. If hindsight is 20-20 as the old adage suggests, then Black males exhibiting postsecondary success may offer important insights for the types of K12 curriculum, school culture, instructional delivery formats, and teacher dispositions that lead to higher rates of high school graduation and college-going. Postsecondary success is understood in this paper as students on track to graduate from a four-year college or university within 6 years of initial enrollment. The present study draws much-needed attention to how Black males articulate the role and function of their Chicago high school to help them negotiate the challenges of urban living, similar to the inquiry conducted by Harper and his colleagues (2015) in a recent New York City research project.


Tyrone Howard (2014) admonishes readers to understand the nature of Black males resilience. Doing so raises awareness of the impact of student agency on their college readiness and persistence. Querying the impact of urban Black male student resilience relative to their academic preparation for college was not a central aim of this research project. Still, this research was conducted with the philosophical assumption that urban Black males are resilient (Fergus, Noguera, & Martin, 2014; Howard, 2013; Milner, 2007; OConnor, Mueller, & Neal, 2014). Thus, it is argued here that understanding Black males resilience is central to how urban high schools academically prepare boys of color for multiple postsecondary pathways. My insider knowledge as a lifelong Chicago resident and former teacher of the young men whose voices are featured in the current study suggests that these participants are resilient, given their exposure to various risk factors having been raised on the south side of Chicago. Growing up in a low-income family in an urban environment is filled with a number of struggles that sociologists, for example, have characterized as risk factors when attempting to explain the impact of communities and wealth on child rearing (see Furstenberg, Cook, Eccles, Elder, & Sameroff, 1999; Lareau, 2011). Moreover, Leventhal and Brooks-Gunns (2000) comprehensive review of neighborhood research find that neighborhood effects such as socioeconomic status and residential stability most correlated to youth behavior outcomes and school achievement, particularly for young males. However, there is a dearth of literature that captures the impact of urban Black males risk exposure on the utility of an urban schools academic practices, strategies, and approaches to effectively prepare these young men to be successful in college.

Resilience, or the capacity to rebound from, or expertly adapt to, adversity, threat, or stress, bolsters academic excellence (Bonner, 2014; Truebridge, 2014). Howard (2013) points out in his critical review of extant literature on Black male school achievement that little is known of young Black males unforgiving resilience in pursuit of academic excellence (p. 78). Risk exposure for urban-dwelling young Black men such as substandard housing or family turmoil can shape resilience (Fergus & Zimmerman, 2005). As Howard (2013) notes, it is something special about these young men having grown up in an urban environment that may be significant for their preparation to be academically excellent in college, or any other professional/career endeavor beyond high school.

Notwithstanding, the chief aim of the present study was to explore how urban Black males described their high school academic experiences and the influence of those experiences for shaping their postsecondary success. Academic preparation was characterized in the study as instructional and social supports. Pursuit of this aim yielded multiple results, including the importance of these young mens resilience for shaping the tangible benefits of the academic experiences made available by their high school intended to prepare them for college. The next section outlines specific types of risks Black males likely face navigating large low-income urban environments. Following this discussion is an overview of contemporary considerations for circumnavigating such risks to improve Black male academic achievement in urban schooling contexts.


Black males face a unique series of challenges growing up in large cities in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty (Fergus, Noguera, & Martin, 2014; Noguera, 2003; Roderick, 2003). For example, Sampson and Wilson (1995) underscore the damning evidence that disproportionate numbers of Black males in urban environments risk homicide and incarceration at greater rates than their White counterparts, and those living in nonurban settings. They must also contend with vulnerability to gang violence and the lure of participation (Hagedorn, 1998; Harper & Associates, 2014). The subsequent criminalization of Black bodies is another associated risk of growing up in an urban low-income community. The perception of threat by those charged to protect Black males in far too many cases leads to their unarmed murder in cold blood. Consider the cases of Eric Garner in New York, Trayvon Martin in Sanford, FL, and Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, in recent years (see Cassell, 2014). Black males tend to be hypercriminalized (Rios, 2006) as evidenced by disproportionate suspension and expulsion from school because of policies such as zero tolerance (Bell, 2015; Skiba, 2014). These policies maintain the school to prison pipeline for Black boys (Allen & White-Smith, 2014). Black male mass incarceration leading to the loss of basic civic and human rights (Alexander, 2012; Ayers, 1997), high rates of joblessness (Sampson, 1987), few neighborhood institutional resources such as parks and libraries (Jencks & Mayer, 1990), and inequitable access to healthcare (Watson, 2014) are each a cause or consequence of neighborhood risk. The aforementioned are most concentrated in urban, low-income communities.

Yet, there are numerous counterstories of young men who defy the odds to achieve academic success at the highest levels (Allen, 2014; Amechi, 2013; Harper, 2012; Harper and Associates, 2014; Harper & Davis, 2012; Howard, 2008; James & Lewis, 2014; Terry & Howard, 2013; Thomas & Warren, 2015; Warren, 2014). Their stories prove significant for broadening and disrupting mainstream narratives of Black male school failure. This growing body of research provides direction for schools and education practitioners committed to identifying and creating schooling conditions that serve as protective factors (Fergus, Noguera, & Martin, 2014) such as personal affirmation. Critical to the fields conception of the problems with improving Black male school achievement and resulting reform efforts is the dissemination of much more research that builds upon, centers, and leverages young Black mens perspectives of the factors that improve or impede their scholarly trajectories. Noguera (2007) argues that listening more closely to students is necessary to improve the qualitative impact of school reform efforts. These data help to nuance existing knowledge regarding academic preparation. Not all Black males will want to attend a four-year college or university, nor should they be forced. Multiple ways of thinking about postsecondary success are encouraged. The focus of the present study is on Black males who did navigate four years of high school in a high poverty predominantly Black neighborhood, went on to college, and will graduate or have graduated from a four-year college or university. It is their critical viewpoints offered here that provide important insights for helping urban schools become more effective at meeting the needs of Black males in contemporary large cities.  


Black males points of view is an important first step for understanding how environmental risk factors affect their journey to and through college. Improving contemporary Black male school achievement begins with belief in these young mens resilience as a cultural strength. Noguera (2003, 2008) argued that it is within the purview of urban schools to counter harmful environmental and cultural forces (p. 434). Schools need to have more first-person accounts of how these forces look and the influence of those forces for aiding or undermining the schools efforts to improve student outcomes. This precedes how districts account for and work to minimize the deleterious impacts of risk factors in the urban environment. Thus, it is essential more research document how Black males whove earned a degree of academic success articulate their academic experiences in schools shrouded in urban environmental contexts rife with risk. These young mens perception of a schools efforts to shape their engagement in school can be very instructive (Howard, 2008; Terry & Howard, 2013). It is equally imperative to pursue knowledge of the sociocultural, political, and historical contexts from which urban schools emerge.


Given what is known of the structural barriers historically faced by people of color attempting to obtain an equitable public education in the United States, it is difficult to imagine the ingredients for producing high academic outcomes for Black students in K12 urban schools without some knowledge of societal barriers. Bryk, Sebring, Allensworth, Luppescu, and Easton (2010) found that ten years of school reform efforts in Chicago failed to consider the issues of crime, housing shortages, health needs, and other key issues. Similarly, Milner and Lomotey (2014) emphasize that one crisis in urban education includes the failure of urban practitioners to adequately respond to the social and psychological well being of urban youth. Exposure to excessive incidences of violence, economic disenfranchisement, and lack of access wear heavily on a young mans social and psychological well-being. Bryk et al.s (2010) spotlights the negligence of contemporary urban education researchers and policymakers to more critically examine the impact of broad structural problems such as race and racism in teacher education (Milner & Howard, 2013), social stratification (Bowles & Gintis, 2002), and social reproduction (Bourdieu & Passeron, 1990) affecting Black males schooling outcomes and postsecondary aspirations. The intersections of race, poverty, and inequitable distribution of resources to schools in low-income urban communities of color, for example, make it increasingly difficult for any meaningful reform to effectively improve the capacity of a school to meet the needs of todays Black male student growing up in a U.S. city.

There is no way to help Black males achieve in school without attending to the impact of the lives they live outside of school. Noguera (2014) insists, the inability of urban schools to respond to the complex environmental challenges confronting the communities they serve has exacerbated the challenges confronting African American males. (p. 115). In other words, not paying close attention to out of school factors mediating the teaching and learning process only makes the job of educating urban Black males more difficult (Bryk et al., 2010; Roderick, 2003). Dancy (2013) concurs by insisting that practitioners must, familiarize themselves with histories of discrimination, systems of oppression, and contemporary manifestations of marginalization. (p. 19). Understanding the social context is not about feeling sorry for the lived realities facing many urban Black males. Raising their achievement is about understanding these realities from the young mens points of view. Doing so allows the schools agents, such as their teachers for example, to become better equipped to respond to those realities and make clear the relevance of what they are learning to the young mens personal lives (Allen, 2014).

Moreover, Dancy (2013) offers that developing knowledge of the social and historical context helps stakeholders to better conceptualize and envision the origins of potential mistrust, skepticism, and cynicism by communities and cultural groups that may have been excluded or devalued by [the] institution and its leaders (p. 19). Public schools have long disenfranchised Black people, and Black males more specifically, as teachers and school leaders cast deficit views of their intellectual capabilities and life possibilities without key knowledge of the factors influencing their motivation and engagement in school (Davis, 2003; Warren, 2014). This history is useful for drafting visions of urban schooling that directly cater to the present-day needs of urban youth. Without such critical perspectives, school becomes yet another hurdle young Black men must overcome to improve their life chances, rather than a network of support augmenting the brilliance they bring to school.


Multiple scholars, researchers, research centers, and policy advocates map the landscape of Black male school achievement in the United States (Center Collaboration, 2014; Harper, 2012; Harper & Associates, 2014; Schott Foundation, 2012; Shah & Sato, 2014; Toldson & Lewis, 2012). These scholars also outline steps for advancing their school success across the P-20 educational pipeline. Clear, consistent messages about the multiple benefits of doing well in school, going to college, and then making achievement data readily accessible to students, teachers, and families can have a major impact on students academic efficacy and their beliefs that a college education is attainable. Tierney, Bailey, Constantine, Finkelstein, and Hurd (2009) argue that high schools must establish a culture of achievement and a culture of evidence (p. 9) if young people, especially those from historically marginalized culture groups, are to be prepared for college level work. The schools that Tierney et al. (2009) envision are places that maintain high expectations for academic achievement and pay close attention to the student behaviors and habits that predict their college readiness. Moreover, their work suggests that high schools preparing young people for college likely have multiple instructional and social supports for students as they progress from freshmen through senior year of high school.

Academic rigor, for instance, is an important aspect of developing a culture of achievement (Anfara & Waks, 2000; College Board, 2012; Martinez & Klopott, 2005). Academic rigor can account for multiple aspects of an academic program including access to highly qualified teachers and gifted and advanced placement courses (Barton & Coley, 2009). Rigor implicates the quality of instruction, curricular innovation and variety, and exposure to instructional content and experiences of the caliber students will encounter at the collegiate level. On the contrary, Ford and Moore (2013) find that academic rigor is too often compromised in urban schools serving Black males. For example, teachers low expectations for Black male intellectual capabilities and their negative beliefs about what Black students can accomplish academically significantly compromise academic rigor (Allen, 2013; Ford & Moore, 2013; Ford, Moore, & Scott Trotman, 2011; Milner, 2007, 2013). A teachers beliefs and perceptions about what students are capable of accomplishing matter for the types of learning experiences he or she makes available to youth (Ferguson, 2003). Low expectations hamper any efforts intended to prepare Black young men for success in high school and college. Thus, preparation for college and other pathways to success beyond high school require, at the very least, instructional and social supports that hold students to high expectations for performance. The individuals implementing these supports should be aware of the challenges Black males face, but regularly communicate their belief in Black males capacity to perform at high levels.


Academic preparation shows up as a chief predictor of college access and success (College Board, 2012; Perna, 2005; Tierney et al., 2009; Wimberly & Noeth, 2005). Students from low-income urban communities of color continue to be underrepresented on college campuses and are least likely to access the resources needed to be college ready. College going is a particularly important issue for urban Black youth (Reid & Moore, 2008). In addition to the broader environmental challenges described earlier in this paper, impediments to learning mediated at the school-level such as the influx of underprepared teachers to staff the most needy teaching assignments, fewer college prep course offerings, and unsafe schools make up the contemporary landscape of urban education (Adelman, 1999; Noguera, 2014; Roderick, 2003; Toldson & Lewis, 2012). Organizing instructional and social supports that account for the aforementioned while simultaneously responding to the specific needs of urban Black males is essential for minimizing the negative impact of urban environmental risk exposure on their capacity to achieve admission to, and graduate from, a four-year college or university.


Researchers emphasize the importance of academic rigor, social relationships and supports, and high school-university partnerships for preparing urban youth for college. Martinez and Klopott (2005) synthesize two decades of literature to ascertain key factors for boosting college preparedness. They approach this task by investigating effective urban high school reform efforts for students from low-income communities of color. Four particular factors emerge as pivotal to the success of these high schools to get students to and through college. They include: (a) ensuring students have access to a rigorous core curriculum; (b) personalized learning environments; (c) academic and social support for students that lead to the development of strong peer social networks and stakeholder relationships; and (d) streamlining curriculum between K12 and college to ensure seamless transition and preparedness for college-level workload. Similarly, Adelman (1999) argues that a high schools curriculum counts more than anything for ensuring a students academic preparation. By curriculum, he is emphasizing course content and the quality of instructional experiences similar to those young people may encounter once on a college campus. The current study for which this paper reports sought to discern, from Black males perspectives, specific instructional and social supports offered by their high school, that they believe in some way inform their postsecondary success.

Adelman (1999) concludes that to fully grasp contemporary imperatives for postsecondary preparation of low-income youth of color, that the bulk of our task lies both after the college matriculation line, and in communication and outreach between postsecondary institutions and high school (p. xvii). Adelmans work emphasizes that noticing the material impacts of high school academic preparation requires engagement with students beyond high school, hence the impetus of this study. Also, his work acknowledges that institutions have a commitment, but that students academic trajectories are not wholly molded by schools and colleges (p. xxiv). Students play an active role in their academic preparation, and therefore necessarily have much to say about what they believe worked and did not work in reflection of their journey through high school, to, and through college. Furthermore, his assertion implies that these students bring tremendous agency to their schooling, and that their out-of-school experiences must be viewed as consequential to the effectiveness of schools to academically prepare urban youth for college.


Eighteen Black males on track to graduate from a four-year college or university within six years of enrollment participated in this research project. Six years is the time period originally introduced by the 1990 Student Right To Know Act, which has been adopted and used by the National Center for Education Statistics to measure college graduation rates in the United States (National Center for Education Statistics, 2015). These young men were members of the inaugural graduating class of Nabur High School for Young Men (Nabur HS), a single-sex public high school located on the south side of Chicago. The school boasted that 100% of its graduates had been accepted to a four-year college or university in 2010. This news was exciting because many of the schools studentsall Black young menwere raised in a notoriously dangerous part of Chicago known as Englewood. With a 100% college acceptance rate, these young men far exceeded the citys average for Black male high school graduation and college acceptance rates. Data for this paper are from a larger study that investigated the broad role and function of Nabur for bolstering its graduates college persistence, resilience, and retention in four-year colleges and universities. Notwithstanding the impacts of attending a single-sex school, this paper attempts to unveil the dimensions of academic preparation that in some way underscore these young mens capacity to achieve postsecondary success. Inattention to contextual variables related to Naburs status as a single-sex high school could be viewed as a limitation of this work. However, my aim here is to specifically foreground those aspects of academic preparation in the data that are likely transferable to multiple secondary schools serving urban Black males.


Chicago has been an epicenter of urban school reform for at least the last three decades. Famous for broad citywide school reform in 1988 and 1995, the district has covertly catered to the interests of private investors and corporate financiers under the guise of school choice and equal educational opportunity for Chicagos poorest residents (Lipman, 2004). Nabur HS was founded in 2006 after two failed attempts to charter the all-boys public high school. The school was opened as part of the citys Renaissance 2010 initiative led by U.S. Department of Education Secretary, then Chicago Public Schools (CPS) CEO, Arne Duncan. Announced on June 24, 2004, Ren 2010 as most people referred to it in CPS, was to be a bold plan by city government to close between 6070 schools in Chicago, replace them, and add another 30 or more schools for a total of about 100 new schools. This plan was aimed at rebuilding neighborhoods and reforming failing neighborhood schools. The initiative was to do this by granting charters to charter school management corporations for at least two-thirds of the new schools, thereby purportedly increasing parental choice (Lipman & Haines, 2009). By 2008, 46 charter campuses were opened with Nabur being one of them, while about 61 Chicago public schools were closed, phased-out, consolidated, or turned around (Brown & Gutstein, 2009, p. 6). Many of these schools are in neighborhoods serving racially homogeneous, economically disadvantaged predominantly Black and Latino youth on Chicagos south and west sides.

Nabur now has campuses in three predominately Black neighborhoods in Chicago. The network of schools serve over 1,400 Black male students. Information from the schools website reads that Nabur was established to be a direct response to the urgent need to reverse abysmal graduation and college completion rates among boys in urban centers. Moreover, the school aims to provide a high quality and comprehensive college-preparatory educational experience to young men that results in our graduates succeeding in college. Based on a data brief published by the school in 2011, Nabur reported that the average ACT score for its graduates was 16, whereas the average score was 1315 for Black males in Chicago Public Schools attending neighborhood and nonselective enrollment high schools. Every year since 2010, Nabur has boasted 4-year college and university acceptance for 100% of its graduates. The young men who participated in the present study represent a cadre of graduates who were enrolled in college as fourth year matriculants on track to graduate within 1.5 years from the time data was collected.  


This study aims to do as Moustakas (1994) suggests, which is to empirically describe how the participants viewed, engaged with, and interpreted various aspects of their academic preparation at Nabur HS. Academic preparation has been partitioned into two dimensions: instructional and social supports. The primary research question in this paper is: How do members of Nabur HS inaugural graduating class attending a four-year college or university on track to graduate within 6 years of initial enrollment describe their high school academic preparation for college? The participants commentary paints a vivid picture of the various instructional strategies, learning experiences, teaching, and stakeholder interactions they encountered while students at Nabur HS. Subsequently, they also offer some feedback on the quality of these experiences for shaping their college-going aspirations and the skill sets they employed to stay in (or get back into) a four-year college or university to obtain an undergraduate degree.

The study was conducted through collaboration with another researcher who worked at the school from 20062010. A phenomenological methodological approach (Creswell, 2013; Moustakas, 1994) was employed in the study. Broad narratives were constructed of the participants path to college from their transition to Nabur High from elementary school through discussion of their plans beyond college. The primary source of evidence was one semistructured, in-depth interview with each participant (Patton, 2002) that tended to last between 1.52 hours. We did not want to make assumptions about the nature or quality of the educational experiences of the participants. Seidman (2013) insists, a phenomenological approach to interviewing focuses on the experiences of participants and the meaning they make of that experience (p. 16). Hence, the young men were asked a range of general questions to describe, for example, the neighborhood where they grew up, their friends and teachers in high school, their transition to college, their greatest regrets in college, and to provide reflections on differences between them and their peers who were no longer in college. Much of what the young men discussed was personal, as evidenced by their use of I statements. At other times, the young men spoke explicitly about the institution, its teachers, its social and cultural norms, and their classmates. These were the data of greatest significance.

The young men were scattered at schools around the country. My collaborator and I split responsibility for traveling to complete face-to-face interviews with each participant when possible. We split the list of students regionally, deciding who would interview whom based on where the participant was attending college. I was on the east coast while my collaborator was in the Midwest. At least a third of the interviews were conducted during a holiday break when the young men were home in Chicago visiting their families. Participants were asked the same set of questions, but we took the liberty to probe relevant points of significance as they came up in the interview to ensure that the interview was responsive (Rubin & Rubin, 2012). This allowed us to clarify and contextualize the participants responses to questions posed in the research protocol drafted for the study. Follow-up phone calls to clarify meaning for specific data were done as necessary. Fifteen of the interviews were conducted face to face. Due to multiple scheduling difficulties, three of the interviews were conducted using Skype.


We took a purposive sampling approach (Fraenkel, Wallen, & Hyun, 1993). Students were selected based on two primary criteria. First, eligibility for the study required that each participant attended Nabur HS beginning in its founding year, 2006, through to graduation in 2010. There was one exception to this rule, in the case of a young man chosen to participate who left Nabur in the middle of his sophomore year and returned in the middle of his junior year. He was gone just under 12 months and went on to graduate from Nabur with his original classmates in 2010. He was the very first of his Nabur HS classmates to walk across the stage and graduate from college. We made an exception for his inclusion in this study because we believed his experience would add diversity to the range of perspectives offered by our participants. As a student who started at the school, then left because of disciplinary reasons, and later returned, his narrative of academic preparation would be one of the more unique experiences when compared to the other participants. We deemed this to be valuable for triangulating the dataset.

The second criteria for selection required that each participant be currently enrolled in a four-year college or university, and be on track to graduate within six years of initial college enrollment. We began with a list of 88 young men in the 2010 graduating class of Nabur HS who attended Nabur HS for their freshmen, sophomore, junior, and senior years. Any student in the first graduating class of 2010 who transferred into the school between 2007 and 2010 were excluded from the final list of potential participants. They would have had a qualitatively different set of schooling experiences, having not been at Nabur in its founding year. We reached out to students via social networking platforms such as Facebook, phone, and email as we acquired contact information. My collaborator and I contacted students we still remained in contact with, who we knew were enrolled in a four-year college or university at the time of data collection. As we made contact, the young men would help us to locate and get in contact with other former Nabur students on our list. We were able to make contact with, schedule, and interview 18 young men in total. The participants were enrolled in four-year colleges and universities around the United States including Alabama, Connecticut, Indiana, Michigan, Kentucky, Washington D.C., Tennessee, and Illinois. Participants attended both predominantly/historically White institutions and Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Table 1: Participant Demographics

Participant Name

University Type




Guardian while in High School

Cumulative GPA at HS Graduation

Significant Obstacle to College Completion*


Medium size, non-selective state public school

Music Education

December 2015

Raised w/single parent (Mom)


Death of sibling, 2 semesters out of school


Medium size, non-selective state public school

Criminal Justice

December 2014



Lack of financial resources impacted enrollment


Historically Black College or University

Computer Science

May 2014

Both parents


Homelessness in college; Lack of financial resources


Large, selective Predominantly White Institution

Broadcast Journalism

May 2014



Death of Mom a couple years prior to enrollment in college


Selective liberal arts college; Predominantly White Institution


May 2014

Mom and Stepfather




Highly selective Predominantly White Institution


May 2014

Raised w/single parent (Mom)




Medium size, non-selective state public school

African Studies

May 2015

Both parents


Academic probation; attended community college (1yr); death of mom


Small liberal arts college

Communications/Media Studies

December 2014





Historically Black College or University


May 2015





Small liberal arts college


May 2014





Highly selective private; Predominantly White Institution

Political Science

May 2014

Both parents




Historically Black College or University


May 2015

Both parents




Small, selective liberal arts


May 2015

Both parents


Academic probation; Sat out of school 1 semester and switched schools twice


Selective, public state school; Predominantly White Institution


May 2015

Both parents




Small, private school

Audio & Acoustics

May 2014





Historically Black College or University


May 2014

Raised w/single parent (Mom)




Small, private school


May 2015





Small, liberal arts college

Biology Pre-Med

May 2014




*Specific events in the participants lives that they identify during our interview as most significant to almost derailing their college persistence


This qualitative project was not without my own assumptions, biases, and subjectivities, especially since the participants in this study are former students of mine and my collaborator. Both of us were founding teachers at Nabur in 2006. The participants in this project were enrolled in my Algebra I course as ninth graders. Nabur represents a project in public education intended for, designed, and organized to meet the needs of Black young men in Chicago. I was uniquely positioned to conduct this research given my first-hand familiarity with the school, its aims, and the population of students it served. My collaborator and I were among the early cadre of teachers influential for drafting policy and cultivating aspects of the schools cultural ethos. Some of that work is made apparent in the social supports section of the findings. I viewed these things as an asset in my pursuit to nuance what we know about academic preparation for Black males in urban American public schools.

My positionality, relative to collecting data and being a former employee, posed several benefits for data collection and analysis relative to understanding the young mens meaning making (Morrow, 2005). A chief impact of my positionality was the rapport I had with these young men. Rapport and comfort with the researcher(s) is an important aspect of qualitative interviewing (Berg & Lune, 2014; Creswell, 2013). Many of the participants were already Facebook friends on my site, for example. On the contrary I had not seen or had substantive interaction with any of the participants in at least four years, which minimized the degree of familiarity between us. The young men readily agreed to be interviewed because they trusted me, and they each took the task seriously. The participants were forthright with descriptions of their experiences at Nabur. They had little restraint in our conversations, which made for a rather robust data set. Moreover, the participants and I shared a context for the conversation we were to have about Nabur. Certain references to school policy and practice were not lost on me, as I was present when those policies and practices were first enacted. The participants had become inculcated with the significance of Nabur in the broader discourse of Black male school achievement and college readiness. It is with this understanding that they committed themselves to an honest conversation of what they feel was done well at Nabur, and the things that were not done so well.


The first goal when reading the data was to code and catalogue chunks of data from each participant into one of two broad categories: (a) the what (specific instructional or instruction-related strategies, approaches, interactions, and experiences) of the participants academic preparation at Nabur HS; and (b) the why (participants perspective of how the aforementioned supported their college preparation and successful matriculation towards graduation). We wanted to look at what sorts of experiences the participants had as students (textural) and how they made sense of those experiences in terms of the conditions, situations, or context (structural) (Creswell, 2013, p. 80). For example, several participants discussed how they thought Naburs college counselor was great for ensuring that many students got access to college preparatory summer academic enrichment programs (textural). We then searched out data that connected participants perceptions about how participating in such programs affected their preparation for and persistence through college (structural). We did this for each student, and later took common mentions of an experience broadly and searched the data set to discern evidence of the factors shaping the impact of the experience on the young mens postsecondary success.

Table 2

Codes of Academic Experience Used To Analyze Data

Learning Experiences/Opportunities

References to external academic programs and enrichment opportunities viewed as college prep


References to actual instructional content


References to instructional strategies and approaches employed by classroom teachers

Course Sequences

References to any course(s) they took in preparation for college

Stakeholder Academic Interactions

References to physical exchanges between adults and the participant or the participant and other classmates with an intended academic outcome

After reading through the transcripts at least once chunking relevant data into one of the two broad categories mentioned above, we commenced the next phase of our analysis, which was to take a more deductive coding approach based on students consistent reference to various aspects of their schooling. We identified five broad categories (i.e., learning experiences/opportunities, curriculum, teaching, course sequences, and student-stakeholder academic interactions). We reread each participants data and coded his responses using these five categories. Brief descriptions of how these five categories are defined are listed in Table 2. My collaborator and I agreed that these five coding categories capture the dimensions of students academic preparation, as the young men define specific experiences. The final phase of data analysis was to scrutinize data in the five categories for broad themes of the factors that students believe had the most influence on their postsecondary success. Using the literature from the theoretical framework as a guide, we aimed to identify these themes as either instructional or social support. Again, the focus here was not to catalogue a set of specific experiences of individual students. Rather, our goal was to pinpoint aspects of the schools academic work that the participants believe had a significant impact on shaping their postsecondary success. The findings convey the essence of academic preparation across the sample categorized by either instructional support or social support. No theme presented is without agreement with at least a third of the sample.

Steps are taken to minimize threats to data reliability and ensure what Guba and Lincoln (1989) refer to as authenticity criteria. That is, my collaborator and I took the importance of fairness seriously, given our closeness to the research participants. We were sensitive to the potentially awkward position the young men might be put in by participating in the study and we wanted to yield data that offered rounded, more complete depictions of Naburs actors and cultural practices. We asked participants to avoid using specific names or events and focused the protocol on very general questions. Second, data were triangulated by the multiple perspectives these young men had of their academic experiences (Patton, 2002). The participants had varying academic and behavioral profiles (see Table 1). No one student necessarily shared the exact same set of encounters with teachers, instruction, and the curriculum while attending Nabur.

Finally, we employ a member checking strategy (Guba & Lincoln 1985) and collaboration with participants and the other researcher on the project (Creswell & Miller, 2000). The young men were invited to be meaning makers with us. Furthermore, we had a former colleague, who still worked at Nabur at the time of data collection, provide feedback on the findings that we later use to further improve our interpretation of the findings relevance to academic preparation. Patton (2002) emphasizes dialogue amongst multiple perspectives in qualitative research. These perspectives not only include participants, but the dialogue of their experiences with the researchers experience. Much of what Ive seen as a teacher at the school could not be disentangled from the young mens descriptions of their academic experiences. Nonetheless, special care is taken in this study to clarify the participants meaning making. Having worked at Nabur helped to clarify the context of the young mens schooling experiences, but it is in the participants commentary that a connection is made between their actual academic preparation, as they experienced it, and its significance for their postsecondary success.  


Instructional support captures participants views about the quality of teaching and learning experiences in their high school academic preparation for college. Social support represents perceived group-level (i.e., student body writ-large) benefits for having attended Nabur HS. These are the aspects of the schools design/structure and cultural ethos that may have had the greatest impact on decisions and visions of college-going for Naburs 100% Black male students, according to participants. Four themes are documented that capture the collection of insights offered by the participants relative to our inquiry of academic preparation from the young mens first-hand perspectives.

Figure 1: Dimensions of Academic Preparation



Two patterns in the data emerged as particularly salient to the concept of instructional support. Availability emerged as especially important for ensuring the participants experienced academic success in high school. The young men make multiple references to the importance of their teachers being patient with them; available to answer their questions; and, respecting the time it took for them to acquire mastery of a learning concept. On the contrary, after further reflection of the significance of their pedagogical experiences at Nabur, several participants lamented how poorly their instructional supports prepared them to be independent, critical thinkers in college. The participants perception that they did not have as rigorous of an academic experience in high school is a point of regret. It is after matriculation into college that they realized the importance of learning to struggle academically. That is, having instructional support that provided them tools for intellectual engagement, and practice using those tools to achieve academic excellence. These sentiments are captured in the second theme academic expectations.


The young men made multiple mentions of time and availability when describing the teachers at Nabur. Time correlates to the effort teachers gave to their work. Availability includes aspects of the teachers character, such as their ability to be transparent and a good listener. Participants acknowledge the significant effort teachers put forward to prepare culturally relevant and responsive learning experiences. They often connected the language of there for me to their teachers commitment to care. Sims maintains, All of our teachers cared. They were there for us. They supported us. . . . They wanted to make sure we were grasping this information. . . . It was genuine.  Woods fondly articulated,

I would say they went [to] the extra extent. When class was over with, they had a break, and theyd still assist you with whatever concerns you had at the time. They spent a lot of time.  Even if you didnt have that class, theyd help you. They were very supportive because they were doing stuff that they wasnt even getting paid for, most of them at least.

The participants tended to have specific teachers in mind, but would at certain points export their perception of the majority of their high school teachers. Evans contributed,

Some of my favorite teachers I had were really diligent with making sure everyone understood it. I liked the fact they were willing to take time out of their day to really make sure students were doing good in their classes.

Teachers, administrators, and staff people mentioned by the participants were highly visible and worked actively to offer extra help to students who needed it. Kipping remembered, Teachers were there to assist after class and they stayed on you and made sure that you got everything that you needed done, which I think that was helpful. He also talked about the academic accountability of the Black female office manager, a person with whom he interacted daily because of his work as an office assistant. There were multiple school stakeholders who inquired about Kippings academic progress. It was a village of people who checked on him inside of the school. These individuals demonstrated their willingness to serve students and make the necessary sacrifices to make available resources accessible to the young men.

The students especially appreciated teachers for encouraging them beyond what they perceived to be their best effort. Osborne emphasizes, They [teachers] never gave up on me, they were willing to hear my story, and they were really there for me. They just kept pushing and said, You might not get it this time but you can get it. Participants appreciated having teachers who did not look down on them. Darnell offered, He didnt treat us like, I have all of these degrees and looked like he was superior. Ill give it to Nabur HS, they really knew what we needed even though we didnt know. Regardless of the gender of the teacher, participants appreciated teachers who were honest and real, even when it involved aspects of the school the young men thought needed improvement. Darnell goes on to mention, We could also talk to him about things that were going on and even things with the school that we didnt like.

The young men also reflected upon not wanting to let the people down who had invested so much in their academic preparation for college. I dont want people to see me fail, one participant remarks. He comments about wanting to give up and remembers the many words of wisdom from his teacher to persevere. He also thought back and commented on the significance of the schools creed, We Believe, which was something the young men said every single day. The creed has several lines of affirmation that include, We are exceptionalnot because we say it, but because we work hard at it. We never fail because we never give up. We are committed, dedicated, and focused. We make no excuses. Sims revealed that the life lessons one teacher gave him were essential for helping him to navigate college early on. He said, Providing us with those mentors back then gave us you know, life lessons . . . just letting us know that you know that the real worlds real, that you will get eaten alive. The teachers transparency earned them respect amongst the students, and it also positioned them as role models. This communicated to the participants that the teachers genuinely cared, and thus, students tended to take their teachers advice more seriously. Another participant discusses hearing different teachers voices in his head encouraging him when he shared in our interview, Just that aspect kept me going. The young men spent a lot of time with their teachers as the Nabur HS school day was eight hours long. Many of the young men seem to have internalized the messages they were given from the adults in their high school who they perceived cared. These are messages that they believed really helped them in college.

Academic Expectations

Participants make multiple mention of the academic expectations of Nabur. They viewed their academic expectations to be high when they were students at Nabur. Correspondingly, the school boasts double periods of English instruction, required summer academic enrichment programs, and hands-on access to cutting edge technology as evidence of the schools high expectations of students performance. Naburs founding teachers, advisory board, and administrators made firm commitments to improving student achievement. An emergent theme underlying discussion of these supports by the participants reveal that implementation did not necessarily yield the intended long-term benefits of a rigorous college-preparatory program. For instance, six-week assessments intended for use by teachers and administrators to keep track of the young mens academic progress were sometimes used as extra credit to keep the young men from failing. If a student was in danger of earning an F in a course, their score on the test, or another teacher-made assignment, was used to bump the grade up. Routinely passing a course without intensive follow-up support to reinforce the skills students had not mastered over time turned out to be a crippling response. It is experiences like these that became salient to participants once they were faced with the academic rigors of college courses in their freshman and sophomore year.

In hindsight, Sims admits,

Not saying it's extremely easy to get good grades at Nabur HS, but it was very manageable or whatever . . . we got food . . .what is it? Spoon-fed a lot of stuff, so it was easy for me to go to class and like "slack" off.

Darnell and Evans both used the word babying to describe how they felt some teachers approached instruction. The young men commented that they did not realize it at the time, but some of the interactions and grades they earned were the result of their teachers unwillingness to allow them to fail. Looking back, not being allowed to fail seemed to be the result of low expectations. The young men did not necessarily have to demonstrate mastery on core academic competencies before earning course credit. Rather, data suggested teachers were encouraged to provide multiple opportunities for students to earn points that would translate into a passing grade, even if the activity did little for increasing students content knowledge.

In retrospect, some of the participants interpreted extra time to submit an assignment, extra credit projects, and the opportunities to retake courses or school assessments as drawbacks to their preparation for college. In high school, they enjoyed these privileges. Yet, in college, they tended to view these same approaches more negatively. Darnell continued, Youre here to get an education, not here to hold your hand to explain his view of a students purpose for attending Nabur HS. I think that was one of the problems with Nabur HS was that they would hold your hand and then they [graduates of Nabur] got to college and was like, What the hell is this? Darnell has an especially strong opinion because he had gotten kicked out of his first university, sent home, and had to start over somewhere else. He got to college and felt as if his high school education did not adequately position him to respond to the rigors of college-level coursework.

Naburs Black male students had a wide range of ability levels, needs, and academic experiences. Some students indicated that they just did not feel challenged by the core curriculum. Neal offers, You didnt have to really be smart. I never tried hard because the stuff that was hard for everybody else was easy for me. Another participant, Mr. Sampson, adds, I felt like some stuff we didn't have to do. I felt like we're just doing stuff just to pass time. Evans was one of the top students in his class throughout elementary and high school. He bemoaned, They [some teachers] would give us easy work like it was elementary school, like we didnt understand what we were doing. Dumbing down the material so everyone could understand it. I feel like that impeded my progress. Karp reflected on some of the reading material he was given in high school by saying it was, Walter D. Myers-esque reading . . . Basic, not challenging.

Kipping had one of the more scathing critiques of Naburs academic program. He explained,

I feel like it was challenging from a sense but it's almost like when you have a challenge but they don't allow you to actually experience the challenge . . . it's just like me [a teacher] giving you like a challenge or giving you something, a task, a big task to do. Thats my [the teachers] responsibility to give you the tools and you are supposed to take what I [the teacher] give you and be able to work through it instead of me being actually being right there with you in the midst of the challenge, helping you. Like, Okay, let me take your finger, let's do, okay, let's do this together.

He uses this metaphor to say that it is one thing for the educator to provide a student with tools to work out their own problems, but it is another thing entirely for that educator to create space and expectations for the student to use or apply those tools to solve their problem, academic or otherwise. The contrary is providing students with the tools and then holding their hands to use those tools to solve problems. He went on to say of Nabur HS,  

And, so I don't think we had the ability to actually experience our challenges to a certain extent. Yeah and so junior and senior year, it was more toward like okay, come on, let's go, you don't do good, okay, let's take a proficiency test. Students thought I got the hook up with this teacher, and so they are going to allow me to pass instead of actually allowing me to struggle . . . It's different. . . . Because you learn through your struggling.


Kipping offered this commentary as the preamble to descriptions of his academic preparation during his first and second year. He did not attribute his academic challenges in college to a lack of exposure to curriculum or low-quality teachers. On the contrary, this commentary reflects his perception of the failure of his teachers to challenge him intellectually. Put simply, he regrets not having to work through the most difficult aspects of the curriculum to ensure he was aptly prepared to do college-level work. He cites this, like several other participants, as a distinct disadvantage of his academic preparation.

The participants believed Nabur offered numerous instructional supports valuable to them in high school. It is not until after thinking through the utility of these efforts on their preparation for college that the young men are able to articulate the long-term impact of these supports. Data suggests that students must be challenged to demonstrate mastery of content, not be given extra help to earn a grade to pass a class. Multiple platforms for reflecting evidence of students content knowledge are an important aspect of instructional planning and delivery of high quality learning experiences. The average ACT score for Naburs 2010 graduating class was a 16. The level of instructional rigor could not be fully ascertained from this study.


Two particular themes relevant to the students social supports emerged across the eighteen interviews. The first theme, community building and social networking, chronicles how the participants perceive the utility of their interactions with one another. The young men in the study make multiple mentions of the relationships they built with their classmates during Pride, also known traditionally as advisory period or a homeroom. This was a cohort of students who met together for about half an hour a day in groups of 2025 during all four years of high school. The same adult/faculty member is meant to lead the pride the entire tenure of a students high school career; for as long as that faculty member remained employed at the school. There were various academic and behavioral conduct competitions amongst the different prides at Nabur HS. This was one way they built strong communal bonds with classmates and adults. Additionally, the other theme had to do with the strong sense of self that the students developed during their time at Nabur. There are multiple reflections by the participants of the ways teachers, classmates, and others who frequented the Nabur high school community, personally affirmed the young men. Personal affirmation in this study refers to the aspects of the schools culture and practice that communicated to the participants the brilliance of their own and their classmates diversity and unique points of view. It is also the actions taken by school stakeholders to recognize student potential and well-doing.

Community building and social networking

The participants make frequent references to their school as a family and a brotherhood. Stone maintains, The all boys . . . it was a brotherhood. A legit brotherhood or whatever within Nabur HS. We didn't realize at the time until we graduated . . . The brotherhood aspect you know that made Nabur HS the best for me.

Darnell concurs by separately contributing, It did feel like a family aspect. It was like these guys at school were not just classmates, they were more than that. It felt like a family. The pride was a source of accountability and peer pressure that challenged the young men to do well academically. Nelson fondly reflects, My pride especially developed into a family. When you do well, and people know that you can do better than you're doing, or know you can do good, and they want to see you do good. There's that pressure. These academic social networks emerged as important to many of the young men ability to interact with others who are different from them. They also discussed the social skills developed in Pride as useful for identifying friends once on their college campus. Pride was also significant for building confidential, trusting relationship between the participants and their peers. There were times where I couldnt talk to my mom but I could talk to a friend from Nabur HS who would help me out. Even though I had a brother, they played a brother role, added Mr. Evans during his interview. The Prides were the spaces where students networked with other students who had similar interests, but it was also a place where students got to know people who were very different from them. Dempson said of his Pride, Id say they meant everything because they were like a support system. I needed them; thats what I needed when things got hard and I just needed to hear certain things.

Several participants underscored the importance of the heterogeneity of the Black male student body at Nabur HS. Sims commented,

Nabur HS had everybody from all over the city of Chicago, mostly the south side, that came from like these troubling homes or whatever. With me, you know . . . I was a lot more fortunate and that was a wake up call for me or whatever in a certain sense.

He later reflected, It was challenging in a way that, it just made me realize that there's a lot more going on then what I see, you know in my community. I knew that but seeing it, it was completely different. Karp was even more candid. He made the observation, The first year, I was like, Man, who are these thugs? Who these miscreants, Neanderthals? He goes on to say, I had all those words set in mind for them, but after a while, it's just like, man, these are actually like some really cool dudes who've just come from a very different place than I do. Woods admits how hard it was to initially believe that people in the school were not out to take advantage of him or harass him. He says, Regardless of how I felt at the time, people [classmates] were trying to help me. And thats hard to understand coming from where you come from. Speaking of his out of school surroundings, he insisted, You come from an environment where people are tearing you down, so its hard to believe people want to help you.

Personal affirmation

A major factor in the young mens decision to go to college and their overall academic efficacy was measures taken by Nabur HS to personally affirm its students academic and behavioral efforts. One way many of the participants acknowledge being personally affirmed was through the gifts and other incentives that they received as a result of their academic progress and success. Northington emphasized, The gift certificates, everybody wanted this. It was cool because youd go crazy when you see other people receive the gift, its like I could have did that, I could have got that and I was one of those persons. Nelson offered in his interview, We had little lunches for the students that were doing well. Those were dope. Those were cool. Evans separately agreed by stating,

Thats one of the things I really loved about Nabur HS was that they rewarded you for being successful. . . . A lot of black men on the news today are either on the news about a killing theyve done or something like that. I found it very interesting that Nabur HS rewarded success.

Though the participants admitted to being lectured quite a bit for problems in the school, they also appreciated that there was always a celebration for doing the right thing. On the contrary, a couple of participants offered some dissent regarding the extravagant gifts and rewards Nabur HS offered students. Kipping commented, That's a nice incentive but it's like okay, so, what are we here for? A lot of money being put towards that but we don't have money and resources for other things. . . . Is any of it going to my curriculum or you know, things like that? Similarly, Neal acknowledged, If your grades were bad, you had no voice. If you had a bad grade, there was nothing you could do. There was nothing you could say. He insisted, There was nothing you could add, even if it was valuable, you would have to go to the people who had good grades. Some of the participants believed that the rewards fostered a school culture where students only worked to receive them or expected to be rewarded for doing what they were already supposed to do. In essence, a few participants pointed out that the system of rewards created a sort of caste-like system. This emerged as a hidden subtext regarding who routinely received acknowledgment or accolade and who did not. The trends suggested students who performed the worst were the most marginalized, their voices got lost in broader matters of school governance.

Another form of personal affirmation was the multiple messages students heard about their capacity to go to college and earn a college degree. The participants commented numerous times about interacting with and discussing examples of college educated Black men. These were Black men who they saw everyday as teachers and administrators. They also got to interact with Black male entertainers and political figureheads that included filmmaker Spike Lee and President Barack Obama. These experiences helped the young men to see themselves as capable of attending college. The participants count these interactions as central to developing belief in the possibility of a college education. Osborne reflected, Hed [The school founder] come in every blue moon, and hed tell us that were going to college and were not trying to get you to college, but through college. Osborne later said, I always thought college was a fairy tale. You graduate high school and then you work [laugh]. But they talked to us about going to college and finishing college. So, I believed in it and I just stuck it out. Sims reflections complimented Osbornes. He asserted, I think Nabur HS in general kind of set up the tone for what I wanted to do when I got to college. Just you know the whole system of black males succeeding. He talked about finding a Black male group on campus that he connected with for academic and social support. His experience at Nabur HS suggested to him that to get through college, he needed to continue to interact with and maintain contact with other like-minded Black males.


The compendium of voices featured here help to (re)construct and (re)write a narrative of academic preparation that more acutely accounts for and responds to the unique educational needs of urban Black males in the United States. Academic preparation to be successful at the postsecondary level confirms existing research that specific instructional and social supports are needed. The participants placed a premium on high academic expectations and interacting with adults who are accessible individuals who make themselves available. They appreciated attending a school where the cultural ethos points to the brilliance of its students. Discussion of Pride was important. Thus, suggesting the young men enjoyed having intentional space in the school where they could cultivate social networks and learn from the student differences/diversity amongst their Black male classmates. Finally, the participants articulated the importance of a schooling environment that regularly broadcasts what Black males are doing well, and maintains institutional systems/structures that reward progress. These instructional and social supports parallel what scholars identify to be protective factors underscoring students resilience (Benard, 2004; OConnor et al., 2014; Truebridge, 2014). In other words, these instructional and social supports work to buffer the societal hazard, or risks associated with the intersectionality of being Black, male, young, and urban in todays society.

The instructional and social supports described by the young men in the findings section stand out as essential for their significance to helping the young men to minimize the adversity caused by their environmental risk exposure. High expectations are important, but broader interpretation of the data suggests the social and cultural frames of reference practitioners use to set those expectations matter more. In other words, how teachers and school leaders perceive and think about the skills and capacities young Black men bring from their communities into the school building necessarily shapes the construction of academic experiences offered to them in preparation for college. Too often, teachers, school leaders, district administrators, and policy makers make critical professional/school reform decisions regarding the academic preparation of urban-dwelling young Black men without accounting for the agency they already possess (Davis, 2010; Howard, 2014). This is an agency they employ to expertly navigate tremendous odds in the urban environmental context. The young men could not reflect on their academic experiences without mapping the significance of those experiences onto the lives they live outside of school. In essence, academic preparation must account for and appreciate the unique set of cultural resources and various forms of capital (Yosso, 2005) that students already possess (and employ daily) to navigate the space between home and school. These young mens resilience is central to how they acquire and expend capital to survive.

Nuancing, or developing complicated sensitivities toward and awareness of urban Black male academic preparation for college, requires further interrogation of practitioner belief systems about the sociocultural contexts where urban schools are located. Nabur creates a climate where teachers begin to do this through their engagement with the young men in Pride. For instance, this advisory period was a space for social networking and academic support for students and teachers. Moreover, the schools creed was written by Naburs founding teachers based on their vision of the skills and dispositions needed by urban Black males to overcome the challenges they daily faced to access the possibilities available to them in their future. The young men learned to embrace the creed, and the participants reference it as something they used as encouragement during moments of turmoil in college. Additionally, Nabur was intentional about hiring numerous male teachers. These men were professionally evaluated by the schools administration for the relationships they built with students. The participants greatly appreciated the advice, particularly because of the participants perception of each teachers authenticity.

The instructional and social supports at Nabur played a fundamental role in sustaining the participants resilience by helping the young men to focus their energies toward the long-term goal of graduating college. This dovetails with research claims that resilience is a process impacted by external factors and not just an individuals character trait (Luthar, 2006; Luthar, Cicchetti, & Becker, 2000). As Benards (2004) work on resilience demonstrates, the participants needed a school where they could (re)imagine, and contribute input about, their postsecondary possibilities. Certain aspects of the young mens academic preparation such as the community/social networking aspects of the school (e.g., Pride) and the personal relationships with teachers seem to have done a fine job of making the young men feel heard and a valued member of the school community. On the other hand, it appears that Nabur was not as adept at challenging the young men intellectually to the degree that they were ready to perform well at the college level. Yet, the young men in this study did persist in college, which says something about the resilience they possess. Additionally, the strength of Naburs social supports, in some ways, help to compensate for the potential weakness of the schools academic program. Still, imagining social and instructional supports that minimize existing deficits in students content knowledge, while at the same time expanding Black males already existing capacity to bounce back, skillfully negotiate risk, and overcome adversity, should be priority for urban school reform efforts.


"If there is no struggle, there is no progress." - Frederick Douglass

Unpacking the relationship of each participants resilience to his academic preparation required further reflection on their frequent references to their neighborhood and aspects of their upbringing in our interviews. Struggle had become normalized in their lives, producing in them a fierceness to survive under conditions many adults could not fathom having to endure. As their former teacher, I can say with confidence that each of the participants came to school with toolslinguistic moves, cultural knowledge, and social networksobtained in the communities that helped to parent them, that they used to successfully navigate those communities. One of Naburs strengths was the facultys commitment to use these tools to connect the young men to standard learning objectives, which in turn enlivened them. Building on Black males resilience to nuance academic preparation might be, to borrow from Mr. Kippings critique, to help these young men learn through their struggle, rather than just try to overcome them. Research on Black male student grit, for example, considered alongside the current studys findings help to conceptualize struggle as a domain of student resilience that can equip urban schools to increase the number of Black men who both make it to college and graduate.

As a 2014 graduate from an elite liberal arts college, Mr. Kipping characterizes struggle in his feedback as the opportunities when students face their greatest academic challenges head on. These are the times when they should receive training and support needed to demonstrate perseverance. Students need practice solving complex problems, and then be pushed to realize their full intellectual potential. Without plenty of opportunities to struggle in high school, Kipping believes that students are shortchanged once they get to college, but that they wont know it until after they have experienced some failure. He contends this failure in college can be avoided if Nabur had a different orientation toward allowing its students to struggle. That is, equipping them with the tools to persist in academic difficulty and then provide safe space to practice using those tools. Struggle, then, is viewed in this paper as a dimension of resilience that in turn supports the development of grit. Strayhorn (2014) finds that grit, defined by Duckworth, Peterson, Matthews, and Kelly (2007) as perseverance and passion to achieve long-term goals, was predictive of Black male grades in college. Grittier Black male collegians were found to have higher grades in high school, higher scores on the ACT (college entrance exam), and higher grades in college than their less gritty Black male classmates.

After reflecting on his own academic transition to college and preparation to be successful, Kipping notes the importance of enduring and appreciating struggle. In so doing he concludes that the social and academic challenges associated with college persistence become less foreign and disconcerting and that practicing to struggle towards accomplishing ones academic goal(s) in a safe, supportive environment (i.e., high school) is necessary for developing the grit needed to persist in college. As mentioned earlier, the instructional and social supports reported in the findings section mirror the protective factors predictive of resilience. There is no one thing that Nabur or any urban high school can do to change the circumstances students bring to school. However, schools can meet students at their point of need by tailoring its instructional efforts to account for the unique points of view young men use to survive those circumstances, just as Black teachers did for Black students in segregated schools post-slavery and pre-Brown in the south (Anderson, 1988; Siddle-Walker, 1996). Teachers and school leaders have the capacity to routinely remind students of the circumstances shaping their resilience and just how strong they are as contrasted to the academic challenges they (will) face.


Helping Black males work through their struggle(s) means acknowledging the challenges they face inside and outside of school, not as sites of shame, but points of pride. Ignoring the environmental risks that they face does not support their healthy social and intellectual development. Authors in Bonners (2014) Building on Resilience underscore this very point. The philosophical assumption threaded throughout the book is that Black males are resilient, and thus studying them and/or their school achievement across the P-20 pipeline requires theoretical frameworks that build on and expound upon their cultural strengths. The barriers to accomplishment they overcome are reminders of the possibilities set before them to transform their future lives, and consequently improve upon the unfortunate circumstances of their background, for which they had no control.

This orientation also implicates the role of institutions to co-negotiate visions of success with students, rather than for students. The participants commentary about Naburs academic expectations reifies Harper and Davis (2012) counternarrative that young Black males care deeply about their schooling. They need to be held to high academic expectations, in word and deed, despite the perception of the deficits they bring into school. Remediating them academically only slows them down. It does not give them the skills and confidence to learn more, faster. Swanson, Cunningham, and Spencers (2003) work confirms that school practitioners are important for helping young men mediate their coping with the external factors shaping transitions between out-of-school and in-school contexts. To that end, practitioners have a responsibility to help students tap into the resourcefulness already inside of them by pushing them to demonstrate evidence of skill mastery. Teachers and school leaders do this by unveiling and being responsive to the resourcefulness the young men use daily to navigate the very communities many scholars believe disadvantages them or puts them at risk. The participants speak of the advice they got from teachers about the real world. They also laud the investments of Nabur in their social well-being as evidenced by the strong emphasis in teacher evaluation at Nabur on building and maintaining personal relationships with students. Affirming interactions help students feel safe to fail, with the intention that the necessary programs and other academic experiences are available to enable their academic success.

Furthermore, instructional supports for urban Black males who may not have many diverse role models of postsecondary success should ultimately communicate multiple postsecondary options. These supports should present multiple opportunities for students to grapple with real-world problems and practice using the intellectual tools needed for successful preparation for the academic rigors of a four-year college or university. Whereas, social supports should be used to reinforce these young mens capacity to chart their own path towards accessing multiple possibilities for college or careers after high school. Schools do this by creating strong in-school social networks where the young men can receive guidance for negotiating development of an academic identity as well as receive peer-mediated accountability for their academic performance.

Less helpful is the inclination of adults to project onto these young men visions of success that are incongruent with the realities of their present lives. Alford Young (2004) argues that young Black mens visions of success for their future selves are intimately tied to the nature of and exposure to various environmental factors. Schools have to consider how young men make sense of their out-of-school experiences as a way to ensure that academic preparation is truly culturally responsive. Teachers and administrators do not know where students will end up, the types of opportunities they will have in their future, or the variety of challenges they will encounter along the way. Therefore, it is irresponsible to make decisions about what these young men may need academically without knowing, from their perspectives, the realities and pressures they face. Teachers and school leaders need to help young men to conceptualize success in tandem with their own desires for their future lives by appreciating the experiences and cultural knowledge they bring to school.


Black males in the United States live in a conundrum of educational inequity across multiple contexts that mutually exclude factors of intelligence, pedigree, or familial accomplishment when perpetuating deficit narratives of achievement. Nabur provided the young men in this study with multiple opportunities for interaction with diverse Black men. These images of Black male success were immensely valuable in developing visions of college going for the participants, in part because these encounters reinforced how resilience served to bolster these mens success. Instructional and social supports that empower and embolden the grit characteristic of young Black men is built on the resilience they already possess. The simple act of intentionally putting Black male teachers in front of Naburs students and providing the young men with access to many other successful Black men is one basic way the school acknowledged Black male resilience as a strength to be valued in ones academic preparation for college and careers.

Academic preparation for urban Black males necessarily includes anchoring struggle as a guiding concept for design and implementation of instructional and social supports. OConnor et al. (2014) insist that it is advantageous to consider all school children at some risk given the contemporary climate of school violence, for example, in both affluent and underresourced communities. Taking this view requires that schools invoke these same childrens assets and resources in the interest of developing differentiated academic pathways by which resilience might be cultivated. (OConnor et al., 2014, p. 89). Struggle is the space where Black males resilience and intellectual development intersect with educational opportunity and high academic expectations. These are educational opportunities and expectations shaped by practitioners beliefs in Black males extraordinary capacity to be irrepressible no matter how tough their circumstances.

Struggle also epitomizes the inherent strength and resolve of Black males to survive in urban social environments replete with multiple traps that have historically ensnared them, not unlike navigating the social milieu of many U.S. four-year colleges and universities. Urban-dwelling young Black men and boys must be acknowledged and affirmed that their sensitivities and cultural codes are an asset to their schooling trajectories, not a liability. This is done by superimposing aspects of the Black male identity into the design of instructional and social supports.

Whatever the push and pull factors, preparing urban Black males for postsecondary success necessitates reclaiming the concept of struggle to incite visions of hope, not despair. Schools play an important role for harnessing Black males, and all human beings, innate ability to avoid absconding that which is difficult to maximize achievement outcomes. Preparing Black males academically requires recognizing the psychological, intellectual, and emotional toll that formidable circumstances create, but also providing young men with the intellectual and social tools to work through those circumstances. It is within the purview of education practitioners to frame Black males capacities to expertly negotiate high-risk urban environmental conditions as markers of their genius and fortitude. These young men are born with all that they (and educators) need to improve schooling outcomes for them.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 118 Number 6, 2016, p. 1-38
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