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When Black Males Aren't at School:
A Qualitative Study of Promising Out-of-School-Time (OST)
Programs Serving Black Males

by Margary M. Martin and Naomi M. Jefferson
New York, New York

This paper by Margary M. Martin and Naomi M. Jefferson of the Metropolitan Center for Urban Education (New York University) was presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association New Orleans, April 8-12, 2011. (Linked references open in a new browser window.)


On nearly all levels of academic achievement, Black males underperform in comparison to the rest of their peers. Across the nation they are graduating at disproportionately lower rates than their White counterparts. With research supporting a strong correlation between behavior during out-of-school hours and academic outcomes, if reform strategies want to address the crisis of such high numbers of Black male high school dropouts, there must be attention not only to what is happening in schools, but also what is happening outside of school hours. This study aims to identify the needs of Black males and how out-of-school-time (OST) programs can more effectively meet those needs. The key findings that emerged from this study highlight four areas of need that promising programs must address to effectively serve Black males: support (aiding academic, family, or personal development needs); access (entryway to opportunities that are typically limited or denied); connection (intergenerational and peer relationships that foster healthy development); and continuity (long-term, consistent guidance).


On nearly all levels of academic achievement, Black males underperform in comparison to the rest of their peers (Aronson, 2001). Across the nation they are graduating at disproportionately lower rates than their White counterparts (Schott, 2010). With research supporting a strong correlation between behavior during out-of-school hours and academic outcomes, if reform strategies want to address the crisis of such high numbers of Black male high school dropouts, there must be attention not only to what is happening in schools, but also what is happening outside of school hours. This paper present findings from a qualitative study on out-of-school-time (OST) programs that explicitly seek to improve life outcomes for Black male children and youth, first identifying how these programs articulate the needs of Black males, and second how these out-of-school-time programs design and implement strategies to meet those needs.

Participation in OST programs has been associated with positive outcomes for youth, including: healthier self-concepts and educational and occupational aspirations (Woodland, 2008). Documented benefits also include improved performance in core subjects, decreased behavior referrals, and increased attendance, (McPartland & Nettles, 1991), as well as improved academic achievement, higher graduation rates, and more positive feelings towards school (Deschenes et al., 2010).

Out-of-school-time programs have the capacity to address a variety of needs including academic, socio-emotional, and physical needs. Although there is some supporting evidence that OST programs can work to improve outcomes for Black males, there are a lot of unanswered questions that remain as to how OST programs that serve Black males define their work and in turn design and implement their programs towards this purpose.

Research Questions

While there is some evidence that Black males, like other populations of students, benefit from participating in OST participation, less is known about the theories and processes employed by providers that specifically target their services to Black male children and youth. With this in mind, we began a process of identifying innovative OST programs that serve Black male children and youth, premised on the following research questions:

1. How do innovative programs that serve Black male children and youth define the needs of the students they serve?

2. Based on their definitions of need, what kind of strategies do they employ to address these needs?

To begin the process of addressing these questions, the research team began a long process of identification of programs across two large neighborhoods in an Urban center in the Northeast of the United States, guided first by the research literature on the neds of Black male children and youth, and the benefits of OST programs to address these needs to date. Findings from this initial review are presented below broken down into the following categories: support, access, connection, and continuity. Support refers to the kinds of academic supports needed to improve academic outcomes, social supports related to Black male development, and supports for families that are not readily available in the young men’s local environment. Access refers to types of opportunity gaps, such as lack of exposure to college and labor pathway knowledge that Black males may not directly experience, but are necessary to achieve success and broaden the scope of their future aspirations. Connection represents areas of need that are related to attachment, belonging, and strong intergenerational relationships. Of particular concern to the programs we visited and interviewed was a lack of deep connection to positive Black male role models. Finally, Continuity refers to the need for consistency and predictability in the young men’s lives over the long term. The lack of continuity over time was seen as detrimental to navigating key transitions in life and involvement in long-term trusting relationships.

Review of the Literature


Support refers to assistance given to youth based on academic, family, or personal development needs. On standardized measures of achievement, Black students score below White students in all core academic areas including science, mathematics, reading and writing (Fashola & Cooper, 1999). Black males are severely underrepresented in the most rigorous academic programs including gifted programs, honors courses, and Advanced Placement courses while being vastly overrepresented in remedial academic tracks (Noguera, 2008). Additionally, they are overrepresented in nearly every category of academic failure (Dallman-Jones, 2002; Meade et al., 2009). The compound effect of the educational challenges faced by Black males is that an alarmingly low number of Black males are graduating from high school and attending college, which often translates to higher unemployment rates or low-wage jobs and increased chances of participation in criminal activity or being incarcerated (Mincy et al., 2010; Mincy, 2006), with implications not just on immediate outcomes, but long-term trajectories as well. The support that Black males need extends far beyond academic assistance. Black males are also in need of socio-emotional supports to aid in building resilience, positive selfconcepts, and character development.

Youth development has emerged as a concept of nurturing development of the whole child, opposed to a particular skill set or talent. Youth development places emphasis on behavioral, emotional, cognitive, moral, and social development, in addition to growing various skill sets (Catalano et al., 2004). Some of the positive outcomes attributed to youth development programming include: improved interpersonal skills; quality of peer and adult relationships; commitment to schooling; academic achievement; improvements in problem behavior (drug and alcohol abuse, aggressive behavior, violence, truancy, smoking, high risk sexual behavior); stronger social, emotional, behavioral, moral, and cognitive competencies (Catalano et al., 2004).

Rather than addressing deficits, youth development principles shift the focus to building assets in youth to prepare them for future endeavors (Husbands et al., 2004). Developing a positive identity can be especially challenging for young Black males or other marginalized groups, thus youth development programming is especially important for these groups as they may need it more than others (Nicholson et al., 2004). Many scholars claim that in order to teach students effectively, they must be taught in ways that recognize their cultural backgrounds, respect their identities, and explicitly acknowledge societal power structures and students’ places within them (Delpit, 1988; Fine, Burns, & Payne, 2004; Ladson-Billings, 1994). Furthermore, Nicholson, et al. (2004) highlights the importance for Black youth to learn positive cultural messages, as well as the importance adult relationships play in facilitating this transmission of knowledge:

It is essential for Black young people to learn positive cultural images and messages outside of the usual Black/White paradigm, to critique and reject negative stereotypes learned from the dominant White culture, and to find adults who acknowledge, rather than brush off, the pernicious emotional impact of racist encounters (Nicholson et al., 2004, p 59).

A number of OST programs have been launched with these principles in mind, namely rites of passage (ROP) programs that incorporate cultural awareness in their programming. ROP programs have been associated with greater self-direction, increased feelings of responsibility for schoolwork, and a greater appreciation for the broader context of one’s racial group (Gavazzi & Blumenkrantz, 1993).

In addition to cultural/rites of passage programs, participation in extracurricular activities has also proven particularly beneficial for Black male youth. Woodland (2008) also links participation in extracurricular activities with positive changes in self-concept, schoolwork, educational or occupational aspirations, and academic self-concept, as well as increased attendance, improved standardized test scores in math, reading and language arts, less tardiness, fewer absences, increases in GPA, and significant drops in youth crime, drug use, and police reports of drug activity. Thus programs that combine academic or extracurricular activities with a youth development focus create opportunities not just to strengthen academic performance, but also influence positive social behavior in participants.


From birth, Black males encounter disadvantages not faced by other segments of the population. Almost a quarter (28%) of all Black children live in severely distressed neighborhoods, in comparison to13% of Hispanic children and 1% percent of non- Hispanic White children who do (O'Hare & Mathers, 2003). Black Americans are often subjected to the ills of poverty, which has detrimental effects on their wellbeing, physical health, and their schooling and opportunities to learn. Given the social and economic hardships faced by many Black males from birth through adulthood, it is not surprising that Black males would face severe challenges in education. Black males are disproportionately enrolled in under resourced, poorly performing schools (Rothstein, 2004). In addition to challenges in accessing high quality schools, for low-income and minority families, they are also often barred from access to quality OST programming for their children: “On virtually every measure of satisfaction -- whether it’s quality, affordability, or availability of activities -- low-income and minority parents are substantially more likely than their respective counterparts to indicate they encounter problems” (Duffet & Johnson, 2004). Poverty critically reduces the access many Black youth have to quality schools, programming, and activities. Thus Black males need access to entryways or opportunities that are typically limited or denied because of their racial or economic background.

Throughout the last two decades, there have been numerous studies documenting positive benefits of participation in OST activities as a source of pathway knowledge and access for children and youth living in poverty. Participation has been associated with an increase in academic achievement, higher school attendance, more positive attitudes towards schoolwork (Anderson-Butcher et al., 2003; Pettit et al., 1997; Pierce et al., 1999) higher aspirations for college, better work habits and interpersonal skills, and higher homework completion (Hofferth & Jankuniene, 2001). Despite the difficulty linking specific positive benefits with OST activities, more recent research is suggesting a correlation between frequent attendance in OST activities and positive outcomes (Lauver et al., 2004). In addition to the positive benefits, studies have shown decreases in negative behaviors such as teenage pregnancy, juvenile arrests, and drug activity (Mason-Dixon Pulling and Research, 2002; NIOST 2004; Patten & Robertson, 2001).

A small body of research examines outcomes for both at-risk youth, and boys specifically. Emerging evidence suggests that the greatest positive impact of OST participation is on students who are considered most at-risk for educational failure (NIOST, 2008). One meta-analysis of 35 studies reported that standardized test scores of low-income, at-risk youth improved after participation in after-school programs (Lauer et al., 2006). Other studies on boys have found that in programs with positive staff and student interactions, classroom teachers reported that boys had fewer behavior problems, and when they were allowed to make choices about their activities, reported better social skills with peers (Pierce, 1999). Moreover, there are positive benefits concerning future outcomes such as college enrollment and success (Gardner, Roth, & Brooks-Gunn, 2008).


All youth need intergeneration and peer relationships that foster healthy development. Accordingly, for Black males they too need strong connections to their community, peers, and positive adult role models to promote positive engagement and behavior, as well as guidance as they transition into adulthood.

Emerging findings in the field suggest that mentoring may be especially important for Black males. Research suggests that mentoring has the potential to be a powerful and effective mechanism for success with Black males (Woodland, 2008; Bandy & Moore, 2011). Central to the significance of the mentoring model is the relationships it enables youth to form with adults. Supportive adult-child relationships are critical to the social and emotional development of children. Children who have such relationships tend to exhibit more confidence, experience a greater sense of security, have higher grades, and for Black youth in particular, mentoring has also been associated with higher rates of college attendance (Suarez-Orozco, Pimentel, & Martin, 2009; Woodland, 2008).

Another way to establish deeper connections with youth is to give them leadership opportunities within the OST programs they participate in: “leadership opportunities may contribute to retention by giving youth a voice, a sense of belonging in programs, and a highly visible role in the programs -- important connections they do not necessarily get elsewhere (Deschenes et al., 2010, p.19). Additionally, research also supports fostering partnerships between the communities and schools, and connections between OST programs and families as promising practices for serving Black males (Bandy & Moore, 2011).


Referring to the need for long-term and consistent guidance, continuity highlights the synergy between these needs and the importance of frequency and quality interactions that Black males have with their OST programs and service providers. Programs that meet on frequent and consistent basis can positively impact Black children and adolescents (Bandy & Moore, 2011). Access to quality programming and opportunities, support from staff and programming components, and deeply rooted connections to peers, adult staff members, and volunteers all highlight areas of need that OST programs must strategically address in order to better meet the needs of Black males. If these services or interactions with staff and peers do not happen on a consistent basis, it becomes quite challenging to capitalize on the gains associated with participation in OST programs.

A substantial contributor to the achievement gap between low-income, minority students and their more affluent peers is a phenomenon referred to as the “summer slide,” the loss of learning that occurs over the summer. The degree of learning loss for each student varies depending upon grade level, subject/skill area, and socioeconomic status. Though nearly all students experience some degree of learning loss over the summer, the summer slide disproportionately affects students of low socioeconomic status (Borman & Boulay, 2004). A number of studies have concluded that the accumulation of learning loss that occurs for low-SES students summer after summer is a key contributor to the academic achievement gap (Alexander, Entwisle, & Olsen 2007; Burkam, Ready, Lee, & LoGerfo, 2004; Downey, von Hippel, P. T., & Broh, 2004). Alexander, Entwisle, and Olson conclude that, “Since it is low SES youth specifically whose out-of-school time learning lags behind, this summer shortfall relative to better-off children contributes to the perpetuation of family advantage and disadvantage across generations (Alexander et al., 2007, p.175).” Those invested in ensuring that student origins do not determine their life trajectories must look for successful models of educating students during out-of school time. Thus programs that offer services in the summer, during other breaks from school, and after school or on weekends, can more effectively address this need and better compensate for learning deficits that may occur from a lack of quality learning opportunities that Black males tend to be more likely to encounter.

In addition to frequency, programs are more effective at meeting the needs of their participants depending on the types of services they provide. OST programs range from single-service provision to multi-service provision, offering one or any combination of academic remediation or enrichments, extracurricular activities, job skills training, character development, etc. According to research, multi-service programs are more effective than single-service because they give youth a mix of choice and structure which is especially effective in retaining youth participants (Deschenes et al., 2010). Furthermore, given the wide array of youth needs, especially in impoverished areas, as Weiss et al. (2009) argues, “no single support is sufficient to insure children’s school success” (p.4). Youth need a variety of services, to aid in their health, academic, developmental, and social needs.


Participant Selection

Our strategy for identifying and evaluating promising supplemental programs located in schools and in the community began with an extensive, phased review of existing programs and strategies designed to improve education-related outcomes for Black male children and youth (ages 5-23), including students who may have been disconnected from regular secondary schools. In all, the selection process took 9 months to complete. First, we conducted a broad scan of programs that target and serve high concentrations of Black males from two areas within the city that had the highest concentrations of Black residents in the city. According to census documents about 75% of Black families in the city of study reside in these two areas.

Graduate Assistants conducted an exhaustive search by zip code to identify all OST programs, utilizing everything from web searches to phone book listings. The scan produced a database of more than 500 programs. From this list of programs invitations to participate in the study and complete a survey were mailed in hardcopy format as well as sent via email. In order to learn about these programs, the next phase consisted of collecting additional data from the programs based on the following questions:

1. Is the program targeted to Black male children and youth or is there a high concentration of Black males served by the program (at least 25%)?

2. Are the goals of the program model clearly articulated?

3. Does the program provide any evidence of improvement for its participants on education related outcomes (e.g. claims on their websites or in brochures)?

In order to learn more about the programs we collected additional data from the programs and further narrowed programs based on a set of criteria outlined in our proposal, vis-à-vis phone interviews as our primary strategy. For programs that were difficult to contact, we also offered an option to complete a one-page on-line survey. As programs were indexed, the research team examined the viability of continuing to explore each program in more depth.

Programs were also removed from consideration if they explicitly opted out of participation, the programs disbanded their services, or the aspects of the program relevant to this study were no longer offered. These questions narrowed the sample to include only programs relevant to the research question (approximately 225 programs), and identify programs that would be solicited for participation in the study, from which further narrowing would take place according to the following criteria:

1. Recommendations or existing and credible evaluations from respected sources as to the effectiveness of the program;

2. Independent evidence of outcomes that these programs/strategies improved school-related performance of the students in some way (as measured by attendance, GPA, class rank, and/or academic honors and college access or other factors);

3. Articulation of the main factors responsible for generating positive outcomes;

4. The capacity for the program, or aspects of the program to be replicated while maintaining the quality of their results in terms of cost and design; and

5. The extent and quality of data collection that can be conducted or is possible to obtain.

Furthermore, in order to identify rigorous and valid research designs within the field, the literature review also focused on key components of effective programs and how effectiveness is being measured in the evaluation literature. Based on this research, two more criteria were added:

6. Programs offer at least two types of services (e.g. academic tutoring and academic enrichment); and

7. Youth development related services are offered, particularly as it relates to the goals of instilling academic persistence, building resilience, or providing exposure to future possibilities or pathway knowledge.

Lastly, given the number of high quality non-profit programs, and the extreme narrow foci of most for-profit service providers in the scan to focus on “academic remediation only” interventions, the research team decided to only include non-profit organizations. Eventually, the initial scan led to 34 programs that met the criteria for participation. Participation in the study was invited via email and mailed letters. Followup phone calls and emails were made to programs that did not respond. Fourteen programs accepted the invitation and the research team began more in-depth data collection with these participants.

Data Collection

Once the intensive program selection process was complete we conducted insession site visits, interviews, focus groups, and a data assessment. Teams of 3-5 researchers went on site visits to the participating programs. Each team included at minimum a lead researcher or advanced doctoral student, along with a research assistant, and a high school or undergraduate intern. During these visits, the team would observe both structured and unstructured activities, and conduct both formal and informal interviews with program staff, volunteers, and participants. In some cases the program also arranged for parent focus groups and alumni interviews.

In total, the research team conducted 60 interviews with program directors, staff, volunteers, and alumni. Focus groups were held with participants, parents, and alumni. In addition, while school was still in session, the research team spoke with principals, school counselors, and community coordinators at various sites in order to see if there was consistency across the various stakeholders who served the young men and to inform our protocols and tool development.

Relevant documents were also collected including items such as promotional materials, participant work samples, annual reports, and evaluations. In addition to the initial survey that went out to all of the programs that were invited to participate in the study, each of the 14 programs completed a Background Data Assessment form designed by the research team to gather demographic information (age, background, SES, etc.) about the youth they serve.

Data Analysis

Data were coded through a number of steps. First, the research team prepared the data for analysis by organizing the data within programs into a number of categories related to OST programming: The needs of Black males, academic preparation and support, relationships, partnerships, child/adolescent development, and evidence of success in meeting their goals. Data were then analyzed across programs for common themes. The basis for the analysis was the ways in which programs framed the needs of the Black males they served. Four themes around the needs of Black males emerged: support, access, connection, and continuity.

Next, data were further organized within these broad need area themes, and analyzed to determine the programmatic approaches, or attributes associated with these needs. For each attribute the team conducted a deeper analysis to identify programmatic components from multiple data points within and across programs (observations; interviews with directors, staff, students, parents, etc; documentation; focus groups) to develop a list of emerging, program components for each program attribute.


A lot of the schools (we work with) are failing, failing schools. And then, if they are not failing, they’re not what we would call culturally competent. So, the students aren’t -- specifically the males -- are not understanding that their path to success is through this education system because they don’t believe in it. And they’re not believing in it because it doesn’t feel relevant to them because the things they learning about aren’t relevant. ... They don’t see themselves in their teachers, or they aren’t seeing themselves in the things they are studying. (Education Coordinator)

Strong themes emerged in our research on how all the programs we visited and spoke with framed the needs of the Black males they served. All the programs approached their work from a common theoretical frame, premised in a “whole child” view of child development known as ecological systems theory (see Bronfenbrenner, 1978). From this view, children’s lives are embedded in a series of direct (e.g. family, teachers) and indirect (e.g. laws, policies) relationships that influence their trajectories through life. These relationships can either bend trajectories towards a positive direction (e.g. college) or a negative direction (e.g. dropout) that can have a major impact on their quality of life. Surrounding these individual relationships are larger contextual realities that can contribute to risk of failure (e.g. poverty, discrimination) or to success (safe neighborhoods, good school). The programs are designed to mitigate against these negative influences, and to encourage positive development.

With four broad themes of need in mind -- Access, Support, Connection and Continuity -- program attributes were mapped to each theme. We then identified strategies across the programs that addressed each need area under each theme. (These are outlined in Table 1 below.) In this section, we first describe the common needs programs identified as particular to Black males. We then further match emerging promising program components to each attribute. These program components were selected because they were present in most of the programs that participated in Phase II of our study. While not exhaustive, the prevalence of each component across programs suggests that these components are noteworthy.

Table 1: Mapping the needs of Black males in OST programs to practice
Need Area Program Attribute Examples of Program Components
Support Academic Preparation 1-1 Tutoring
Summer Academic Component
Personally Responsive Approach
Study Skills Development
Rigorous Academic Enrichment
Support Black Male Development Character Development
Racial and Cultural Pride
Critical Thinking Skills Development
Life Skills Training
Support Parent and Family Support Responsive Parental Involvement
Family Guidance
Advocating for Parents and Children in School
Support Reciprocal Partnerships School Partnerships
Other Strategic Partnerships
Access Highly Competent Adults Experienced Leadership
Employment of social workers who are MSW
High Retention
Ongoing Training Staff and Volunteers
Access College Pathway Knowledge Personal Counseling
Exam Preparation
Navigating the Application Process
Assistance with Forms and Making Deadlines
College Visits and Experiences
Access Labor Pathway Knowledge Career Exploration
Workplace Experience
Job Application Techniques
Connection Strong Peer Networks Peer Single-Sex Cohorts
Collaborative Learning
Consensus Building
Long-term Relationships through Program
Connection Positive Black Males Black Male Mentors
Black Male Staff
“Slightly” Older Black Male Staff and Volunteers
Continuity Long Term Guidance and Monitoring Program Entry before Puberty
Managing School Transitions
Collection and monitoring of school performance and attendance
Continuity Predictability Highly structured programming
Year-round programming
Clear and consistent goals

Findings: Support

In our interviews and focus groups with Program Directors, staff, volunteers, parents and boys, participants identified several areas in which they felt Black males lacked support in their daily lives. These included: lack of academic supports, lack of socio-emotional supports, and lack of supports for parents and family. The program attributes related to Support include academic preparation, Black male development, parent and family support, and reciprocal partnerships.

Academic Preparation

There were a great variety of strategies utilized to support and enhance academic performance across the programs we visited. One of the criteria for inclusion in our study was an academic component to the program. All of the programs sought to provide important academic supports and enhancements to their students that schools were unable to fulfill, or to prevent summer learning loss. The programs, no matter their foci, emphasized the need to develop critical academic skills in the young men they worked with. Many of the boys came into their programs below grade level in their academic skills, in particular literacy and math skills. As such, programs worked to address these needs by providing remediation services. The primary strategies programs employed to improve academic outcomes were individual tutoring and additional instruction in study and organizational skills. All of the programs provide tutoring services, specifically homework help during the school year, and many also include specific skills development, particularly in math and reading. As part of any academic component, all programs included some type of study skills development such as strategies for completing homework and making schedules for completion of schoolwork. The following table further illustrates the size of each program and the services offered by each program participating in the study, indicating the primary hook or program focus, as well as the supplemental services offered, and the age groups served.

Table 2: Participant Profiles: Program Services and Youth Served
Table 2: Participant Profiles: Program Services and Youth Served

As Table 2 shows, four of the programs were primarily academic enrichment programs and it was these areas of enrichment that attracted or served as “hooks” for participants into the program. But even in the three programs where sports were emphasized, opportunities for enrichment—for example creative writing, arts instruction, debate -- were included as part of their programs. For the two programs with a strong cultural focus, academic support was directly linked to the expression related to Black history and culture, artistic expression, and civic engagement. As a director in one of cultural programs explained, “(I want them) to learn how to be a change-maker and to learn that they have the power to make things better in their community -- that their voices.”

To offset summer learning loss, all of the programs except one maintain a summer academic component, usually with a strong literacy emphasis. These courses or academies have very small adult-student ratios (1-7 on average), and are often held in the morning during the summer, and in programs with males and females. Most of the programs have a strong academic component integrated into their overall program as part of the program’s central approach. Only one of the programs does not include a summer component for students, using the summer time to train new staff and classroom teachers from their school partnerships for the upcoming year.

At the same time, programs sought to enhance students’ academic skill by providing academic enrichment in fun and engaging ways. As one teenage boy explained in a focus group, “When we’re reading an article and we go over it and afterwards he (the group leader) asks us what WE think, what did WE get out of it, what did you learn, what did you gain?” There were a number of strategies utilized to embed rigorous academic enrichment into the youth programs.

Black Male Development

Us children just say we don’t like school. We are looking for
(12-year-old boy focus group participant)

While the boys needed specific help in improving their academic skills, programs reported that they also needed social and emotional support within a safe space to learn to cope with the negative aspects in their environment that contribute to their development as Black males. This lack of acknowledgement, attention, and someone who would listen was prevalent across our conversations with the young men we met.

Based on the general research on effective practices for OST programs for at-risk youth, a second criterion for inclusion in our study was youth development. Programs tended to specialize in different areas of youth development depending on the overall theme or goal for the programs. Two of the programs we visited served exclusively Black males and two had sub-components within the larger co-ed programs that targeted only males, usually Black and Latino males. Common to all four of the arts/cultural programs was a stated strong cultural-historical component including ROP programs.

Other strategies employed by programs included isolating males from females during key developmental periods such as during middle school or for certain workshops or other activities, in particular those related at preventing at-risk behaviors related to sexual health, drug use, or violence. That said, while there were differences in approach and magnitude, all of the programs stated their purpose was to instill resiliency in the boys and young men through character development, with an emphasis on being responsible, dependable, and confident young men. Many activities related to character development and were specifically designed to provide socio-emotional supports to the young men they served. Supports included providing safe spaces to be themselves, learning how to open up and relate to other young men, building confidence and cultural pride. Almost all the programs articulated that character development was particularly important for them becoming successful Black men.

In interviews with program directors and staff, the vast majority spoke passionately about how young Black males do not learn about their people and their past, and as such have difficulty in forming a positive cultural identity as a counter narrative to the negative stereotype they encounter on the street. Accordingly, a number of the programs employ ROP programming just as the boys entered puberty. This identity work is undertaken to reportedly break down negative self-identities and rebuild it with an alternative view of being. As the program director of one program put it, a “Black man with a future. These individual activities include teambuilding activities such as sports activities, sharing, trust activities, and personal counseling.”

In addition, programs employed a variety of activities to help the children and youth in the program gain critical thinking skills, in particular those related to healthy decision making, thinking through problems, and working collaboratively to consider and evaluation options. For example in two programs, youth work together to solve difficult problems related to engineering or global crises such as climate change, poverty, and violence. Many programs require that their students create community service projects related to their community and beyond. On the other hand, three of the programs were explicit that children and youth also learn to think through difficult personal situations that affect their everyday life such as discrimination, institutional racism and bullying.

Parent and Family Support

There was no single approach to parental involvement employed across programs. Some programs required parents to sign contracts outlining their commitment to the program, while other programs required nothing from parents other than permission for their child to attend. None of the programs were fully satisfied with their relationships with parents, and it may be worthwhile to further explore the ways these programs serve parents and families. Still, there were some common themes underlying their approach to parents:

  • All of the programs also offered opportunities for celebration, where parents were invited to events (e.g. sports events, performances, celebratory ceremonies), which appeared to be the most successful program strategy.

  • All of the programs sought to be responsive to the parents and caretakers of their students, trying to tailor opportunities to parent schedules and capacity to be involved.

  • Some programs focused on parent knowledge with an “open-door” policy where parents were contacted regularly and kept fully informed of all activities, without the expectation of deeper involvement.

  • Some programs offered opportunities for parents to volunteer as tutors, chaperones for field trips, or organizers for events and fundraisers.

Probably the most successful program for parent involvement was one of the single-sex programs we will call “Success Academy” (pseudonym). While they utilize the strategies mentioned above, there appears to be one key difference to their approach. Each life coach (the social worker in charge of a cohort of boys) establishes a relationship with the parents of their boys, and the relationship builds over the years of participation so a long-term relationship can be established. Parents are also expected to bring their children to each “Saturday Academy”. The directors and life coaches reported the parents have bonded amongst themselves and have developed strong relationships to each other, and parents confirmed this in informal conversations with researchers at the program site. They have independently organized get-togethers for the boys and share information about schools and supporting their children.

All of the programs we met shared that the boys they worked with overwhelmingly came from distressed homes, commonly without a father. As was common with many of the programs we visited, a staff member from one program noted this lack as one of the reasons for further developing their program, “Many of them don’t have their fathers, and some of them not even their mothers. They’re being raised by their grandmothers.” Accordingly, most of the programs offered formal and informal family guidance in their program and advocated for parents and caretakers in school in some sort of way. All stated that they assisted parents with managing school transitions, including guidance on selecting schools and preparing for college.

One comprehensive service center offers wraparound services for children and their family, including partnerships with legal and social services for families, and classes for young parents with the goal of working with children from womb to adulthood. A number of programs worked directly with schools and teachers on behalf of the family and the children/youth in their program. At Success Academy, life coaches reported that they are often involved in meetings with teachers and staff. Each of the life coaches is expected to serve as a liaison for a parent and one of his boy’s teachers, advocating on behalf of the family and helping them navigate the school system. The life coach will also intervene if they have a concern about one of their boys and contact the school directly.

For example, when a young boy was having difficulty with bullying, the life coach contacted the school and worked with them to address the problem. Later, the life coach was asked to consult the school on how to handle bullying. Serving as another example of connectivity, one of the cultural programs included in this study has become well known in the city for how it has assisted schools in creating highly active parent organizations at the schools they work with.

Reciprocal Partnerships

Across the programs, we found that all of the programs were involved in multiple strategic partnerships. Key partnerships include: school partnerships or some other kind of strategic reciprocal partnership -- either with governmental, non-profit organizations, or community-based or grassroots organizations.

All of the programs were involved with the city schools in a variety of ways. Two of the participating programs opened small schools in recent years; some of the programs have close relationships with schools from where they recruit their students. Further, a number of programs provided services to schools related to their afterschool programs or family services. For example, a family resource center at one program provides a “Fresh Start” program, an alternative to a detention program, where it offers school-based counseling and crisis intervention during the school day to assist schools “overwhelmed” counselors.

In addition, the various programs are involved in a variety of partnerships to serve their students. These include university partnerships -- including teaming up with universities to provide services or provide training to youth providers and future teachers, visiting universities as part of their college preparatory work; partnerships with social and legal providers to assist students and their families to assist with city and state bureaucracies; and partnerships with community based and grassroots organizations to combine forces to provide advocacy and resources to the distressed neighborhoods they work in, and in turn provide opportunities for community service and self-advocacy for the children and youth they serve.

Findings: Access

According to the programs we met with, and in line with existing research, lack of access is a key contributor to the opportunity gap for Black males. Chief among those opportunity gaps are: lack of access to highly competent adults -- both in terms of experience and relevant knowledge -- that can teach and guide Black male children and youth, lack of college pathway knowledge, and lack of labor pathway knowledge. Programs reported that at all stages of development, explicit instruction and guidance is required to navigate the educational system and social systems in order for the young men to achieve their optimal potential.

Highly Competent Adults

It is well known that high need schools in urban setting are often staffed with the most inexperienced administrators and staff. Daycare and afterschool settings, traditionally low-wage jobs also discourage highly educated people into the field. To offset this trend, the city where our study took place has implemented a number of reform strategies to provide accelerated training to young people with impressive education resumes to become principals and teachers in the city’s schools. But knowledge is only one aspect of competence. Our interviews and observations at program sites revealed a multifaceted definition of competence that may be necessary for adults to successfully work with Black males. We define highly competent adults as those who possess the following characteristics: content knowledge, experience working with the population of children and families they serve, institutional competence (the ability to understand how institutions interact with poor communities), and cultural competence (a deep understanding of the struggles of the communities they serve).

Most notably, all of the programs who participated in our study were led by highly experienced directors, many of whom were instrumental in the development of the program. All of the programs leaders had worked in other, well-established OST programs (e.g. 21st Century, Headstart) or social service agencies or programs (e.g. Children’s Aid, AmeriCorps) before taking on the new program. The experience level ranged from 6 to 25+ years for Program Directors.

Second, almost every program had certified social workers on staff in key positions. Each life coach at Success Academy, for example, is certified and has a Masters of Social Work (MSW). Many directors shared the belief that MSWs may be the best equipped to help the young men through their socio-emotional development. Further, they are uniquely placed to educate others -- educators, parents and other adults -- who interact with the young men on their socio-emotional needs and development. Third, whether in paid or unpaid positions, efforts are made by all of the programs to recruit members from the community to work as staff members, interns, coaches or volunteers. There have been particular efforts to recruit Black men into the programs -- both from the immediate community and from universities and colleges in the city. Once recruited into the program, all of the programs provide initial and ongoing formal, structured training of staff and volunteers. Two of the cultural programs have taken their work a step further and are now providing extensive professional development and training workshops for educators and youth workers across the city. They have also published books on their curriculum and approach. Several other programs we interviewed referred specifically to one of the cultural programs when talking about their own training or how they train their staff and volunteers.

Finally, all of the programs have relatively low turnover rates, especially among key personnel. Four of the programs assign individual coaches to a group of boys who (ideally) follow them from the time they enter the program to graduation, 6-9 years on average. While we were not able to fully uncover how these programs are able to maintain higher retention, we did find that staff and volunteers were highly dedicated to each program and its mission. All expressed being attached to the children and youth they serve, and we heard several times that the job required a greater commitment beyond the workday -- they were first committed to the children and youth they served. As one staff member put it “you can’t do this just to have a job. You have to be there for the boys.”

College Pathway Knowledge

The end goal for all our students is to get to college and succeed once they get there. That’s our goal for kindergarten as much as it is for a ninth grader. (Program Director)

In his recent book on college completion, William Bowen and his colleagues (2009) suggest that there is a mismatch -- in particular for low income and minority students -- between the ability of the student and the college he attends, which contributes to college dropout. In other words, these students are, as a group, not applying to the competitive schools for which they are qualified, settling for easier college programs, and as a result, are more likely to dropout of these programs for which they are overqualified.

This mismatch may perhaps be related to the lack of knowledge, guidance and preparation students receive in their efforts to go to college. All of the programs in our study involved “college readiness” preparation in a number of ways. In the younger years, college pathway knowledge is focused more on expectations for all students to attend college and college exposure. College preparation becomes more intense starting in the middle school and high school years. All of the programs that worked with middle and high school youth arranged for visits with colleges and some had university partnerships where students could have longer experiences taking classes and “living” on a college campus. Programs also provided, or arranged for exam preparation, assisted students and parents through the application process, including the completion of Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) forms and researching scholarship funding.

Labor Pathway Knowledge

Similarly, all programs include a career component in their programs. Career exploration is a primary focus for young men from very young ages all the way through high school. Programs utilize a variety of different strategies to expose students to the vast array of career possibilities. For example, one program that works with elementary aged boys has implemented a series they call “Everyday Heroes.” Everyday Heroes are Black men who volunteer as guest speakers each weekend that come from a host of career fields. These men share their journey to success (failures, challenges, inspirations, etc.) with the young men and show them that they too have what it takes to make their dreams a reality. The director shared a story about a young boy who wanted to be a magician. She found a magician and he became an everyday hero. The boy is now a member of the magician’s guild.

As students get older, programs start to emphasize job skills and workplace experience. These include interviewing techniques, writing resumes, professional behavior and completing applications. One alumnus who now volunteers with one of the programs explains the extent to which his program provided access for him,

As junior and seniors, you work on resume writing, professional career or job training ... There’s a job director who would call and try to place us in real jobs ... It’s more about youth development than baseball. Baseball isn’t as important as we used to think it was. They want us to have a backup plan.

Larger programs have a designated person who seeks summer jobs and internships for the youth in their program and over half of the programs in the study hired the older students to work with younger students in the summer.

Findings: Connection

One of the greatest needs identified by the programs we visited were meaningful and positive connections to other Black males, young and old. Programs emphasized the need to have older Black male role models from different age groups, who could represent success and positive Black male development along a spectrum, creating an intergenerational network of Black men for the isolated youth.

Strong Peer Networks

Positive peer networks have been highlighted in the literature as a key predictor of academic success. For the programs in our study, these networks not only support academic achievement, but also provide the young men with lifelong friendships with positive role models where it is normative to be successful. As a program director explained, “That’s what we’re trying to show them, that you can be a role model right now, not when you graduate and become a teacher, or a lawyer, or what have you.”

For 6 of the 12 coed programs that were in the study, boys were separated from girls during some portion of the day, typically as they entered puberty. Along with the two single-sex programs, these cohorts are created, in part to build tight peer networks among the boys, as well as to guide positive behaviors as a normative process. These cohorts of boys spent the duration of the program together, from elementary or middle school through high school, with the intention of creating tight bonds or as three program directors put it “brotherhoods” that they hope will serve as positive peer supports and lifelong friends. Another stated goal is that the young men also learn how to socialize and be with other young men in ways that are positive as opposed to confrontational. This view is exemplified in the following example from a young man who participated in the study, “I think when they say about becoming a brotherhood -- that’s kind of what the game is, it’s about hanging out and just leading by example.”

Positive Black Male Role Models

Too often, as several program leaders reported, the Black males in their programs had relationships with adult Black males in school that revolved around discipline and behavior modification. As noted earlier, programs report that many of their young men have little or no relationship with their father, or close relationships with positive Black male adult figures.

The majority of programs sought to connect their young men to older Black males from different age groups. Older successful Black men could serve as examples of what the boys could become, while Black males who are older but closer in age to the youth participants can serve as “older brothers” -- people they could confide in and who could model positive behaviors for the boys to emulate. In long standing programs, these “slightly” older males were alumni or older participants in the program. In newer programs, alumni from other programs, as well as older students who volunteered or were hired during the summer, served as “older brothers” for the younger male participants.

These relationships were, by design, nurturing long-term relationships with caring Black male adults. While it would be ideal to have 1-1 mentoring for boys starting at a young age through young adulthood, the logistics involved have proven difficult for youth development programs. This may be one of the reasons only one of the programs in our study relied heavily on 1-1 mentoring. Three of the programs placed Black males in key staffing roles such as coaches and group leaders (who stayed with entire cohorts of boys throughout their participation in four of the programs).

One program was very specific in its approach to providing Black male role models. They hired only Black male MSW certified men, one for each cohort. To provide exposure to a variety of positive Black male role models, the program relies on its “everyday hero” program described earlier. This was envisioned as a way for professional Black men to volunteer their time with their participants in a way that might provide flexibility for the volunteers, while still providing the young men with exposure to successful men in a number of professions who “look like them,” while delegating the deep connection-work to the life coaches. However, given that so few Black males enter the social work profession, the program worries that their model of Black male “life coaches” may not be sustainable or possible if the small program goes to scale.

Findings: Continuity

One area of need that has not been significantly explored in the past is the need for continuity and consistency for young Black males in the long term. Many of the program directors and staff members we spoke with referred to the many losses the young men often face in their lives, as well as trauma related to poverty, mobility, inconsistency and unpredictability in their lives. Of particular concern is the transition into puberty, which occurs at exactly the same time the young men are transitioning from elementary school to middle school and then high school. Overall, programs spoke of young men getting lost in the shuffle, left to navigate their childhood and young adulthood themselves, with little ongoing support from the various schools they may attend. To offset these potentially damaging effects and create a purposeful pipeline to success, programs spoke to the importance of continuity over the long term. As one director put it,

You need to do very long term high dosage work with participants and you must involve yourself deeply in all other elements of their lives. From day one until today, our staff visits with all the teachers of all our students every week. We work with specific schools in the community.

We found two primary program attributes of continuity: long-term guidance and monitoring, and predictability.

Long-term Guidance and Monitoring

Most of the programs we studied emphasized the importance of providing guidance over the long-term and careful monitoring of student participation in the program and performance at school. Most directors pointed out that while the students in their programs changed schools, their program remained as a constant in the young men’s lives. That said, when asked what advice they would give to someone who wanted to begin their own program, one of the most common responses was “start them as early as you can.” Based on our findings the ideal time to begin a program on average was no later than 4th grade. The reason for this was to establish strong relationships and positive behaviors as normative as the young men entered puberty, and as their schooling environments changed.

In order to closely monitor the children and youth over time as well as evaluate their own effectiveness, programs collected various data to track student performance and engagement. Data included: student performance indicators such as test scores, grades, and homework completion rates, student attendance both in the program and at school, student behavior indicators such as disciplinary actions, detentions, and suspensions at school, and in a couple of cases, health and wellbeing indicators such as HIV status, sexual behavior, and mental health affective measures.


The programs we studied were all structured and highly organized. Rules and the interactions between the children and youth as well as the adults who worked with them seemed highly predictable and routine. There were three program elements common across the programs. All programs maintained highly structured programming, yearround programming and clear and consistent goals.

Given the unpredictability in much of the children and youth participants’ lives, every aspect of the programs is carefully planned, executed and communicated to the young people they work with. These structures are maintained from year to year. Even for larger programs divided by age groups, the boys we interviewed could articulate to us the goals of the program as well as their personal aspirations. In addition, they could tell us exactly how their schedule worked, and what they would do when they “moved up” to the next program.


In sum, our research of programs that were serving their Black male students well provided surprisingly consistent beliefs about the needs of Black males from childhood through adulthood. Although the locale of all the programs were situated in one city and the final sample size was small some of the findings are consistent with the literature and prior research studies on OST programs. Furthermore, they approached their work in similar ways, even if the actual strategies and particular program “hooks” and foci across the programs differed.

The key findings that emerged from this study highlight four areas of need that these innovative programs seek to comprehensively address: support (aiding academic, family, or personal development needs); access (entryway to opportunities that are typically limited or denied); connection (intergenerational and peer relationships that foster healthy development); and continuity (long-term, consistent guidance).

The findings of this study call attention to critical components that OST programs serving Black males may want to consider. However, it is important to note that given the size of the sample, our findings are not necessarily generalizable to all OST programs and young Black males, nor other cities outside of where our research took place.

The goal of our study was not to criticize or critique the work of the programs that participated in the study, but rather to better understand their perceptions about the needs of the Black males they work with, and what they do to address these needs. As such, our research should not be read as a “how to” on creating programs for Black males, but rather as a starting point from which to conduct more research that considers a full array of outcomes that specialized programs such as the ones that participated in our study aspire to, and the common set of strategies employed to reach their objectives. Finally we do not claim that findings from this study identify strategies that can only work with Black Males. Attention to these findings can assist in the design and implementation of OST programming for underserved youth in general.

Published in In Motion Magazine September 25, 2011.

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