In the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, and the loss of far too many other Black lives, we’re highlighting the work of School of Education faculty members who seek to discover and implement culturally responsive practices in education, advocate for systems change, and lift up marginalized communities. -Ed.
Janise Parker, assistant professor of school psychology, still remembers an article she read in graduate school that questioned why some African American students who grew up in challenging circumstances became successful while others did not. The article, along with her own experiences working with students of color in schools, sparked a deep interest in examining the factors that contribute to marginalized students’ academic success.
More than five years later, she has become the author of almost 10 scholarly papers on the topic.
Her most recent article, published in School Psychology Review, is titled “It Takes a Village: Understanding African American High School Students’ Self-Determination in School.” The research investigates how self-determination skills such as goal-setting, problem-solving and decision-making influence academic success in African American high school students and how such skills develop outside of the school environment.
Parker’s interest in this topic comes from years of experience working with educators to support students from diverse backgrounds, which was where she was first able to look closely at African American student experiences and the cultural factors behind academic success.
Her fascination with the article she read in school never waned. Years later, it beckons her to answer a question she has always wanted to answer since: How is it that some African American students who grow up in deprivation succeed in school while others do not?
“I walked away from that article wondering what it all meant from an individual and psychological perspective,” Parker says. She was curious about what these students were thinking, feeling and experiencing as they sought to make their aspirations a reality but were held back by systemic-level barriers that deterred them from achieving the goals that their peers met.
Parker’s academic career has been devoted to answering the question of what factors make it more likely for students to succeed and connecting educators and students to resources to make that happen. Her research has led to insights about the role religion and spirituality plays in influencing marginalized students to pursue goals after high school, how self-determination skills are associated with better academic outcomes, and how community resources foster the development of marginalized students. These findings are guided by her motivation to support marginalized students by building upon their cultural strengths and addressing systemic-level factors that serve as a barrier to their success, she says.
The title of Parker’s study alludes to an important finding: the connections African American students make with their community contribute to student success in a way that school environments alone may not. Students who are involved in community-based programs such as youth groups that offer group activities, discussions, field trips and the opportunity to interact with peers develop self-determination skills and implement them into their academic experiences. Parker believes the success of these programs might come from students having mentors who care about their development and provide them with opportunities for personal growth, which influences their academic success.
The study’s findings on the importance of community support for African American students leads Parker closer to answering the question that has been guiding her career. Involvement in community-based programs that provide mentorship and support might make students more successful than others, even among students who face barriers that make it more difficult to achieve academic success.
Parker’s research encourages partnerships between community programs and schools to benefit marginalized students. Many local organizations go unnoticed by schools because they lack national notoriety, yet they are just as valuable. However, educators can cultivate relationships with these hidden gems and share resources to maximize their impact in the school setting, she says.
For a goal that might seem overwhelming or time-consuming for many, Parker says a first step can be facilitating conversations in the community.
“We should have more conversations with parents, students, and community leaders and learn from them because they understand their life circumstances—the highs and lows—more than any of us,” she says.
Barely one month after the publication of her article in School Psychology Review, Parker returns to the written world of academia, working on two papers, one on the influence of family support for African American high school students and the other on how a supportive school can determine student success.
In the future, she wants to delve into research that focuses on interventions. Amid the knowledge she has gained through her many years as a researcher, she has found a new research path that calls to her, this one guided by her curiosity in the experiences of transitioning from high school to life after graduation for African American students. Her foray into this topic will combine themes from her previous research about student engagement and self-determination with unexplored topics of college and workforce preparation.
Parker’s research has always been guided by the voices of the students she wants to help as she continues to question what African American students feel and experience as they overcome obstacles to reach their goals. The research process allows her to listen to students share their experiences and share that world with educators and leaders who can change it.
“As an African American researcher who studies African American youth, I believe I have a responsibility to make sure their voices are heard authentically.”