The Stories and Experiences of African American Students in Predominantly White High Schools
R. Kelly Cameron and Renee McCall
Not only are urban and suburban public schools vastly different in terms of educational outcomes for students with European origins as compared to African Americans, but their lived experiences and daily interactions differ as well. Urban represents central city; suburban represents areas surrounding a central city within a county constituting the metropolitan statistical area (Hu, 2003).
Conditions that exist in a suburban school setting, such as larger budgets, access to more personalized curricula, and extracurricular activities lead to an increase in the student population’s access to opportunities such as social and economic mobility. On the other hand, according to Darling-Hammond, Friedlaender, & Snyder (2014), inadequate funding hampers many schools serving low-income and minoritized students from fully realizing their goals and addressing student needs. Urban principals report having about seven times less autonomy in matters of school policy, resource allocation, and personnel decisions than their average suburban counterpart (Hannaway & Talbert, 1991). As a result, an urban setting typically has more funding shortfalls and simultaneously fewer resources, human capital, and otherwise, with each negatively impacting urban student outcomes. Incongruity in urban schools, often referred to in research literature as inequality is stark and has the potential to impact students’ long-term personal development. While geographic location and socioeconomic status are just two factors that may lead to difficulties for traditionally marginalized students in obtaining a quality education in American society (Gordon, Gordon, & Nembhard, 1994), the experiences of students in the Metropolitan Council for Educational Opportunity (METCO) program illuminate other nuanced variables that detail their educational journeys in suburban schools in Massachusetts.
A lack of funding for public schools has potentially broad consequences when considering equity and access to quality education. For urban school districts, “Because American schools are typically funded through property taxes and African American families are more likely to live in communities with lower property values, they are unable to generate enough tax revenue to fund their schools at the same level as their suburban counterparts” (Ladson-Billings, 2013, p. 106).
In Massachusetts, during the early 1960s, educational differences and inequalities between suburban and urban public schools created a sense of urgency for low-income parents, particularly parents of African American students. The METCO program was established in 1966 to address inequalities in the urban and suburban education systems and rectify unequal access to formal public education (Eaton & Chirichigno, 2011). The program and participating school districts emphasized voluntary suburban district participation in the public-school integration process. The plan was to bus students from urban communities to suburban school districts that were predominantly White to provide such students with an integrated educational school experience (Eaton & Chirichigno, 2011).
Historically, for some African American students, internalized racism has reinforced thoughts of suburban schools being superior to urban schools, and children who attend schools in the suburbs receive a better education (Golba, 1998). Harper (2007) informs how internalized racism occurs when socially stigmatized groups (e.g., Black males) accept and recycle negative messages regarding their aptitude, abilities, and societal place, which results in self-devaluation and the invalidation of others within the group (Essed, 1991; Jones, 2000; Lipsky, 1987; Pheterson, 1990; Pyke & Dang, 2003). African American students who participate in the METCO program, therefore, gain access to a presumably superior academic experience at a school far from their neighborhoods.
These students often find themselves at a cultural disadvantage in an environment that does not actively affirm and celebrate their ethnic and cultural identities, yet the students attempt to navigate intercultural relationships with White teachers and peers nonetheless (Nieto, 1999). Nieto (1999) further posits that it is not possible to separate learning from the cultural context in which it takes place, or from an understanding of how culture and society influence learning. The learning process is a complicated matter and is influenced by many factors, like the individual’s experiences, cultural values, ethnic and racial connections, and relationships between student and teacher (Nieto, 1999). Furthering the point, Brown-Jeffy and Cooper (2011) inform how crucial it is for teachers to learn about their students, especially those who are culturally different from themselves; teachers must also comprehend that students who are racial or ethnic minorities see, view, and perceive themselves and others differently than those who are of the majority group.
African American children bring to school with them culturally-based ways of doing, seeing, and knowing; however, White teachers responsible for educating diverse populations of students struggle with interpreting the complexity of the influence that culture, race, and ethnicity have on the academic, social, emotional, and psychological development of students of color and its connectedness to learning (Brown-Jeffy & Cooper, 2011). Culturally-based ways of doing, seeing, and knowing are naturally expressed by African American students with urban backgrounds through their use of African American English, code-switching techniques between urban and suburban settings, traditionally Black or African American hairstyle options and clothing choices, often containing socially conscious messages, like “Black Lives Matter” and “Hands up, don’t shoot”. Educators need to learn as much as they can about their students: who they are, what they value and believe, and what they hope for and desire (Nieto, 2012).
Embedded in this research are detailed experiences from the point of view of a sample of African American students who participate in the METCO program. Their narratives describe the ongoing complexity of adjusting to and navigating through unfamiliar terrain and simultaneously building productive relationships—peer-to-peer and student-to-teacher—across racial, cultural, and ethnic boundaries. Broadly put, this research interprets how African American students maintain, negotiate, or veil their cultural and social identities and the strategies they leverage to negotiate a suburban, predominately White school environment.
"African American students in the METCO program adjust to their dominant culture school settings while simultaneously maintaining their sense of value and identity by commonly displaying behaviors, traditions, and cultural styles."
In phenomenological studies, the research is trying to describe what and how individuals experience phenomena while simultaneously avoiding explanation or offering an analysis of the experience (Creswell, 2013). In keeping with the tradition of IPA research, we interpreted the phenomenon of experience as described by our participants, allowing each student to serve as the individual expert. The following argument is presented in a narrative form that captures authentic student voice and experiences. A thematic cross-student analysis demonstrates commonalities amongst the participants but also details distinct experiences.
Through parental ties, three high school students were invited to voluntarily share their individual lived experiences as METCO students for this interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA). The student participants attend three separate suburban school districts participating in the METCO program. The students, a 10th-grade male, and two 11th grade females, each identify culturally and ethnically as African American, even though the male and one of two females also acknowledges their West Indian origins as being important to their identity. Also offering expert insight into this study are two administrative leaders representing METCO, Inc., individuals who are not only cognizant of the African American student experience in predominately White high schools, but who are also working with METCO program students, their families and alongside school leaders to bring about more awareness and need for sociocultural training to White teachers and staffers concerning sociocultural sensitivity training. The two administrative leaders offered recommendations and working with students, families and alongside school administrators to bring awareness to the experience of African American students attending predominately White high schools.
African American students are the focal point of this research for two primary reasons: namely, the cultural connectedness between researcher and participants, and researcher positionality and personal understanding of inner-city African American culture. As an African American with a colorful and storied lived experience, I attended a predominantly White high school during the tumultuous era of bussing in Boston, and the experiences and opportunities afforded to me are similar to those described by participants in this study. The socioeconomic disadvantages often associated with, or contributing to, the lack of African American student success- poverty, long commutes to school, or limited access to learning supports and certain opportunities like tutoring or quality afterschool programming- were all common experiences between the participants and the individuals who conducted this researcher, which happens to be as an African American male and African American female.
By using an IPA method, the research gives voice to the participants as they describe and make sense of their experiences (Larkin, Watts & Clifton, 2008) as African American students from inner-city Boston attending a predominantly White suburban high schools through the METCO program. To learn more about the personal experiences of each participant, a central question asked individually [and privately] of each participant over the course of a nearly 90-minute, nearly six-month interactive interview process was: “What’s it like for you culturally and socially to attend a suburban high school as a METCO student?” Expressed individually from each African American participant were multiple forms of interaction between distinguishable “communities”, like school, home/family, sports, and peer friendships. Figure 1 Web of Support best captures the intersecting points described by the participants actively contributing to their life experiences as school-aged African American youth participating in the METCO program. Unlabeled markings serve as placeholders, exclusively reserved for individuals to add extensions of their networks, or factors contributing to their lived experience as a METCO student.
In spite of expressing a willingness and openness to increasing their friendships in school, expanding friendships to include White student peers outside of the immediate social network presents challenges.
Three themes emerged throughout this research study: (i) long commutes on the school bus contribute to the lived experience and after-school activity decision-making of METCO students; (ii) METCO students possess a desire for their suburban school communities to nurture cultural interactions in a formalized manner; (iii) African American students maintain intact cultural identities in their predominantly White suburban school settings.
Finding I: Long Commutes on the School Bus Contribute to the Lived Experience and After-School Activity Decision-Making of METCO Students.
Participants were asked about their overall attitude toward their daily 50 minutes to get to school on the bus, sometimes longer in the winter, but that’s because we stop at another school.
Continuing, Jennifer furthered her thought about “the good with the bad” by adding: I mean, riding the bus was never really good from when I was younger. Kids were mean and for people to be mean to you for like 50 minutes, it’s annoying, it’s really upsetting. Plus, I feel like sometimes with our classes, too, it’s like I don’t want to say there’s never any mercy, but it’s like we have so much to juggle, the waking up earlier than everyone else and then the long homework assignments and then trying to combine that with sports is also hard and everybody gets home like 3 hours earlier than us, so it’s hard and sometimes it’s like they can’t give you a reprieve, like “I can give you one more night.” They’d never do that, so it’s a little hard sometimes.
Finding II: METCO Students Desire Their Suburban Schools to Nurture Cultural Interactions in a Formalized Manner Across the Student Body.
As Harper (2007) informs, peer support is critical to African American student success and significantly enhances the quality of their experiences in predominantly White learning environments. During the interviews, noticeable among participants was their willingness to establish friendships of different types across cultures and ethnic groups, yet all participants resisted the concept of trying to “fit in” with their White peers.
Peer-to-peer friendships are established, or attempted, in a variety of ways and settings in school, like the classrooms, or common areas like the cafeteria and athletic field. In addition to classroom interactions, the African American participants emphasized nonacademic spaces, like athletics, student clubs, and the cafeteria as chances to cultivate friendships with their White peers. Each participant in METCO emphasized how the amount of time in the program played an important role in the formation and sustainability of their multicultural friendships.
In some cases, attending a predominantly White school can appear culturally isolating, prompting African American students to form culture cliques where groups of students who share similar interests or cultural traits gravitate towards one another in an affinity. Debra Ward, Director of Student Support Services for METCO, put it this way:
"In my experience, students of color who live in the suburban town and those from the inner city felt some isolation, but once inside the school, formed their own bond and were protective of each other. They would all sit together in the cafeteria, and staff would ask, “Why are all the Black kids sitting together?” So, we look at things like that and ask; what is the affinity, where do kids get their support during the day, particularly in the high school? Because they’re all in different classes and sometimes they’re the only one of their kind in a classroom. By the time lunchtime rolls around, they want to be with somebody who looks like them, who understands their language, and their language not just being English, but understands their cultural language, their diversity and where they can take a breath, let their hair down, so to speak, and just be themselves."
With a majority of participants providing a glimpse into how they view and value their interracial friendships, it remains unclear exactly how those friendships were established. Even more, the number of cross-race ties the African American students participating in this research tells little about whether the boys or girls feel like a valid member of their respective school community (Holland, 2012). In spite of expressing a willingness and openness to increasing their friendships in school, expanding friendships to include White student peers outside of the immediate social network presents challenges. The participants shared views of isolation, whether consciously or unconsciously, and the degree of difficulty in their efforts to form new friendships across the cultural spectrum and school community. On the other hand, students who have been in the program over multiple years described how their long-standing multicultural friendships have substantive meaning.
The establishment and maintenance of meaningful peer-to-peer relationships are important, but the racial composition of both the school and individual classrooms can also affect students’ friendship choices (Fries-Britt, 1997; Goings, 2016; Harper & Quaye, 2007; Holland, 2012). From personal interviews, students indicated how long-standing relationships with White students who reside in the suburban school district were extremely pleasing, enjoyable, and sustainable to the participants. Still, for some African American students, forming new friendships with White peers outside of their immediate social circle remained somewhat knotty. Sydney, a 17-year old 11th-grade female who has only attended a METCO school describes it this way, saying:
At my school, there’s not that many of us, there’s only two people of color that I’m really close with and then there’s one student who lives in the town that we’re all close with, so it’s like the five or six of us, but the METCO kids are usually on one side, and the White kids who live in the suburb are on the other side and they’re not gonna come say anything to us, so the only way we’re gonna be friends is if the METCO kids mingle in with them.
Similar in thought to Sydney, Jennifer said:
"I don’t want to say I’m isolated to METCO students and kids that are ethnic, but that’s how it feels a lot of the time, but if you’re an athlete and you’re Black at my school, your status is elevated to the max. Everybody knows you, all the girls like you. I wouldn’t say all the Black girls like you because if you’re in METCO and you’ve been with these kids since kindergarten, they’re like that’s just Paul and nobody cares about Paul, but a lot of the White girls, they go crazy over the Black athletes."
Finding III: African American Students Maintain Intact Cultural Identities in Their Predominantly White Suburban School Setting.
From identity, multiple layers are discovered and revealed. In theory, both objective and subjective identities emerge. The subjective identity produces a personal identity, which is made up of “unique elements that we associate with our individual self” (Ting-Toomey, 2005, p. 212) and a collective identity that influences our social and cultural identities (Jameson, 2007). Ogbu (2004) posits, “People express their collective identity with emblems or cultural symbols which reflect their attitudes, beliefs, feelings, behaviors, and language or dialect” (p. 3). Unmistakably, situations and circumstances involving race and culture arise, particularly for African American students in suburban, predominantly White school districts. Professionally, the current CEO of METCO, Inc., Milagros Arbaje-Thomas is keenly aware of issues concerning or affecting METCO students and offers suggestive approaches to addressing issues involving students, race, and culture. She said:
"I keep aware of all the racial incidents in the towns and following-up with the districts about what they’re doing. I’m hiring a director of diversity, equity, and inclusion, with the METCO headquarters supporting the towns around racial incidents that are happening. I’ve been keeping up with all those things, people using the N-word, people putting videos out there, and making fun of our students. To respond to that from a headquarters level, we’ll have a person respond to that and support a process when it does happen, at both proactive and preventative levels. This person is going to be creating a new curriculum for us on diversity training, cultural competency, and curriculum bias. My goal is to go to all the towns if you are a METCO town; you have to go through our training, and we can be a professional development entity for the sites and towns."
Even though some educational research has sought to unpack the social and academic experiences of African American students attending predominantly White schools, an increasing amount of research – like this – has been exclusively dedicated to the life experiences of African American students attending predominantly White schools (Ford & Moore, 2013; McGee, 2013; Thompson & Davis, 2013).
The purpose of this research was to interpret the lived experiences of African American students attending predominantly White high schools through the METCO program. Using cultural identity theory as the theoretical framework, this study interpreted findings from one-on-one interviews conducted with a sample of African American high school students. Shared are findings from the personal accounts of how African American students manage their cultural and social identities, while simultaneously making sense of their placement, belonging, and interpersonal relationships in their predominantly White school districts as students in the METCO program.
Researchers have not paid enough attention to similarities and differences in the daily experiences of African American and White students (Tyson et al., 2005). As increasing numbers African American families move into White suburban areas each year, research remains mainly concentrated on academic experiences of African American students within predominantly White suburban schools (Eggleston & Miranda, 2009). Because race is such a significant part of American society, most African American students are able to report feelings about being African American and attending a predominantly White suburban school (Rowley et al., 1998). Still, “the effects of racial integration are quite pervasive and often present situations that are almost impossible with which to cope” (Hornburger, 1976, p. 239). Separately, each participant interviewed articulated situations validating their collective identity, mentioning how they either encountered, handled, or coped with culturally sensitive challenges at school.
Browaeys and Price (2015) inform how culture partially shapes our identity, how we define ourselves, and how we define others. Socially, the participants independently identified themselves as METCO students who participate in multiple non-academic activities within their suburban school, like sports, student clubs, and occasional school dance parties. Not surprising, the students culturally identify through parental descent and naturally gravitate toward their defined culture group in school, where they feel most comfortable and possess a true sense of belonging. Still, interview findings illustrate a collective sense of not wanting to change who they are or how they speak; they simply want to be understood and accepted for their differences from suburban classmates and peers while participating in all school and community-related activities (Fecho, Davis, & Moore, 2006; Hill, 2009). As Ms. Ward put it:
"I tell my students, this is your learning environment, you have 4 years to complete it, and the only difference between you and them is your zip code, so therefore I want you involved in everything possible."
Although Ms. Ward promotes a message of sameness between the African American students participating in the METCO program and the White residents of suburbia, she is not suggesting the cultural differences and lived experienced of individuals from each of the two distinct groups are similar, they’re dissimilar. Later in her interview, Ms. Ward talked about how her message is meant to inform the African American students, the access and opportunity to a quality education and afterschool programming is the same between the two groups, so take advantage of all that is available while you’re a student in this school district. As researchers, we intend to learn firsthand about the lived experiences of African American students participating in the METCO program. In response to learning, we plan to revisit METCO leadership and other interested parties to share research findings. In doing so, we offer a suggestive proposal to assist in planned efforts to formalize professional learning in the area of cultural competency for teachers and administrators. Effective teacher interaction with students that support and affirm their identities is critical. An emphasis must be placed on dedicating time and space to provide that training to improve staff-student relations and students’ perspectives on school climate and culture. A series of professional development that supports school and district staff inquiry into issues of race and gender identities, along with effective teaching and learning strategies and their intersectionality, could address the needs that surfaced during the focus groups. A firm commitment to more inclusive practices in a setting that values and affirms the backgrounds of others will serve as a safeguard against disconnection and serve as a scaffold for increasing students’ sense of belonging.
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R. Kelly Cameron: R. Kelly Cameron, EdD is a program administrator and thesis lecturer with Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA. As an education researcher, Kelly is committed to empirical and phenomenological research highlighting Black and Brown students in public, private, secondary and post-secondary schools. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Renee McCall: Renee McCall, EdD is a high school principal with extensive experience leading high needs schools with Boston Public Schools, Boston, MA. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.