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Study Identifies Strategies for Blacks, Latinos to Succeed Academically

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania decided the best way to find out how to improve the academic performance of young black and Latino men was to go to the real experts: Successful minority students.

The group of researchers interviewed 325 high-achieving juniors and seniors from New York City public schools and 90 graduates who had gone on to college to learn how they managed to succeed in school. The students talked about how they developed their college goals, prepared for higher education, and navigated what can be a challenging path through high school and on to college.

An analysis of the interviews, "Succeeding in the City: A Report from the New York City Black and Latino Male High School Achievement Study," was released Monday.

 All students maintained a GPA of at least 3.0, were involved in several extracurricular activities, planned to attend college, and had taken college-prep courses.

The lead researcher said he encountered many high schools that fostered strong college-going cultures and found many students staying as late as 6 or 7 p.m. most days.

"The schools were just as vibrant at 5 o'clock as at 2," said Shaun Harper, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduation School of Education and the director of the Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education.

Harper, who offered a preview of the findings at a conference hosted this weekend in Boston by the Education Writers Association, noted: "The schools had bright walls. It was not a dark place. We were shocked by college-going messages lining the hallways. ... It was not what you'd think of as an urban high school."

Through a series of conversations, the researchers were able to learn about what motivated kids and how they managed to overcome barriers while many of their peers failed.

The high school students attributed their success to several factors, including:

  • Consistently high expectations from parents and family;
  • Meaningful relationships with caring teachers and other adults in their school who promoted a college-going culture;
  • A desire to transcend poverty; and
  • The ability to develop positive reputations that kept gang members from recruiting them.

Conversations with college students revealed:

  • About three-quarters of the young men were mainly aware of public college in New York so that was only where they applied;
  • They felt intellectually prepared for college;
  • Most did not feel ready for other aspects of campus life, including meeting deadlines and multi-tasking;
  • Few students had built substantive relationships with professors; and
  • About 47 percent earned a college GPA above a 3.0, but most experienced a slight drop in grades compared with high school.

The students interviewed in the study were from 40 schools in the New York City Expanded Success Initiative, where about 94 percent of the student population was black and Latino and 67 percent met the federal low-income criteria for free lunch.

Researchers found that to avoid neighborhood danger in high school, many students said their parents kept them inside whenever possible. This limited exposure outside, as well as being known as smart students, exempted many from being recruited into gangs.

Once enrolled in college, the students told the researchers that it was difficult to develop nurturing relationships with professors. About 58 percent of the students lived at home and most were working. Harper said research shows that students who live on campus are more likely to be engaged in campus life and students who don't have to work do better academically.

The report concluded with recommendations for colleges to improve access and success for black and Latino male students, including expanding outreach and recruiting initiatives, providing more information about financial aid, improving counseling services, and helping students connect with activities and faculty on campus. To high schools, the researchers suggested urban teachers challenge students with rigor and be personally supportive, that counselors help students broaden their college search to avoid undermatching, and that principals lead by creating a college-going environment.

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