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4 Key Strategies for Improving School Culture for Black and Latino Male Students

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This week we are hearing from the Research Alliance for New York City Schools (@RANYCS). This post was authored by Sarah Klevan, Dr. Adriana Villavicencio (@AdrianaRuth), and Kayla Stewart of the Research Alliance for New York City Schools.   

The Research Alliance previously blogged about inequities in college access and success.

Today's post is written from the researcher perspective. Stay tuned: Thursday we will share the practitioner's perspective.


Researchers and practitioners increasingly recognize that a positive school culture not only enhances students' day-to-day experiences, but also plays a role in raising student achievement. A safe, supportive school environment has been linked to better attendance, academic achievement, and teacher retention.[1]   

Strategies-for-improving-school-culture.jpgYet evidence suggests that Black and Latino young men often face cultural barriers at school. They frequently have a different cultural background than their teachers, often don't see themselves reflected in curricula, and are more likely to face low academic expectations. Black and Latino male students are highly overrepresented among students who have been suspended or expelled. They tend to have weaker relationships with their teachers and less academically oriented relationships with peers, compared to their White and Asian counterparts.[2] Barriers such as these have contributed to many Black and Latino young men experiencing a school culture that does not support their success.

An initiative launched in New York City in 2011 has attempted to address some of these issues. The Expanded Success Initiative (ESI) was designed to improve college and career readiness for the City's Black and Latino male students by providing financial resources and professional development to 40 NYC high schools to help them create or expand supports for young men of color. Many of the schools implemented strategies that were either implicitly or explicitly aimed at improving school culture.

The Research Alliance for New York City Schools is undertaking a mixed-methods longitudinal evaluation of the initiative to understand whether and how it benefits students. Over the past four years, we have conducted hundreds of interviews and focus groups with ESI teachers and administrators, as well as a handful of in-depth case studies in ESI schools. Again and again, we heard from stakeholders about changes that had taken place in the overarching culture of participating schools. Our findings pointed to a number of specific approaches, which we documented in our 2016 report Strategies for Improving School Culture: Educator Reflections on Transforming the High School Experience for Black and Latino Young Men.

School culture has been defined as the "underground stream of norms, values, beliefs, traditions, and rituals that has built up over time as people work together, solve problems, and confront challenges." Here are four key strategies ESI schools used to improve school culture for male students of color:

1. Developing Culturally Relevant Education (CRE) by:

  • Affirming student's cultural identities; and

  • Making classrooms relevant to students' lives.

Research suggests that students of color often experience a disconnect between their cultural backgrounds and their experiences in schools.[3] CRE attempts to engage and empower students by incorporating their racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds in classrooms. For example, ESI educators reported selecting texts written by or featuring people of color, communicating positive messages about students' cultural backgrounds, and discussing issues that are relevant to the students' lives.

2. Adopting Restorative Approaches to Discipline by:

  • Developing peer mediation and conflict resolution programs; and

  • Adopting a new mindset about student discipline.

Disciplinary approaches that involve removing students from classrooms, such as suspensions, are correlated with a multitude of negative outcomes, including poor academic achievement, being held back a grade, dropping out of high school, and becoming involved in juvenile and criminal justice systems.[4] Many ESI educators saw alternative approaches to discipline—which reduce the need for student removals—as a key strategy for improving educational outcomes for Black and Latino young males. They emphasized the importance of shifting to a mindset focused on preventing unnecessary suspensions and creating opportunities for students to repair harm to their community.    

3. Promoting Strong Relationships in Schools by:

  • Developing mentoring programs; and

  • Offering advisories.

A growing body of evidence suggests that positive relationships in school—including student-teacher relationships and relationships between peers—contribute to students' success.[5] Teachers and students in ESI schools felt that relationships in their building had improved, in part as a result of mentoring programs and student advisories, which allowed students to talk openly about personal issues.

4. Providing Early Support for Students' Postsecondary Goals by:

  • Communicating college expectations;

  • Focusing on the concrete steps involved in preparing and applying for college; and

  • Providing academic supports to keep students on track for college.  

ESI schools worked to provide early exposure to—and stoke interest in—college, often beginning in 9th grade. Schools reported taking students on college trips, helping them set college-related goals, and providing support to help them achieve those goals.

Our interview findings suggest that these four broad strategies often added up to positive changes in school culture and meaningful, overarching shifts in how educators thought about their students and about their own ability to reach and support them. Whether these changes led to other positive outcomes for ESI students is still an open question. Our forthcoming report will highlight key findings about ESI's implementation over four years and examine the initiative's impact on students' experiences, attitudes and academic achievement, including high school graduation and college readiness rates.


Please visit our website for additional information about the Research Alliance evaluation, previous reports on the initiative, and practice guides describing ESI strategies in more depth.


[1] Kraft, Marinell, & Yee, 2016; Fergus, Noguera, & Martin, 2014; Bryk, et al., 2010; Thapa et al. 2013.

[2] Rudd, 2014; DiPrete & Buchmann, 2013; McKown & Weinstein, 2002; Gershenson, Holt, & Papegeorge, 2015.

[3] Gay, 2000; Howard, 2006; Ladson-Billings, 1994.

[4] Arcia, 2006; Eitle & Eitle, 2004; Fabelo et al., 2011; Gregory et al., 2010; American Psychological Association, 2008; Gregory & Weinstein, 2008.

[5] Wells et al., 2011; Riegle-Crumb, 2010; Haynie & Osgood, 2005.


Photo courtesy of NYU Steinhardt

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