Highlighting racism and unequal access to mentors in schools

Flitner, A., McQuillin, S., Kornbluh, M., & Thompson, D. (2023). Spotlighting racism in schools: Teacher mentors and the mediating effect of school safety. American Journal of Community Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1002/ajcp.12680

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest:

  • Evidence shows that access to supportive relationships with adults and feeling safe at school increases the likelihood of youth success.
  • However, despite this finding, many schools are treating Black students unfairly in ways that reduce their sense of safety and limit their opportunities to form caring relationships.
  • Considering how mentorships are known for promoting positive youth development and future-oriented outcomes (e.g., educational attainment and income), they have the potential to alleviate some of these detrimental effects.
    • However, while mentoring can have a significantly positive impact on underrepresented youths, they [underrepresented youths] are less likely to have access to a teacher mentor due to racist school practices and policies.
  • This study evaluates the relationship between school safety and Black students’ access to teacher mentors.
  • Youths are more likely to have a teacher mentor if they have a higher socioeconomic status (SES) and have more educated parents.
  • Black youths are less likely to have a teacher mentor.
    • School safety mediates this dynamic and affects Black youths’ opportunities to form mentoring relationships with their teachers.
  • These findings are troubling since students from more privileged backgrounds have an easier time navigating school, accessing resources, and developing supportive relationships with teachers, thus reinforcing existing inequities.
  • Schools must address racist practices and policies to ensure a welcoming, safe environment for all students instead of focusing on eliminating violence via zero-tolerance policies and policing.
  • While teachers need training on cultural humility and mentoring, schools should also consider providing youth-initiated mentorships, where youths choose their non-parental mentors.

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Youth are more likely to succeed when they feel safe at school and have access to caring relationships with adults. Systemic racism interrupts access to these assets. Within schools, racially/ethnically minoritized youth encounter policies rooted in racism, leading to decreased perceptions of school safety. Having a teacher mentor may mitigate some of the harmful effects of systemic racism and discriminatory practices. Yet, teacher mentors may not be accessible to all students. In this study, the authors tested a putative explanatory hypothesis for differences between Black and white children’s access to teacher mentors. Data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health were used. Linear regression models were used to predict access to teacher mentors, and a mediational analysis was conducted to determine the effect of school safety on the relationship between race and teacher mentor access. Results indicate that students from higher SES backgrounds and those with parents who have greater educational attainment are more likely to have a teacher mentor. Furthermore, Black students are less likely than white students to have a teacher mentor, and school safety mediates that relationship. The implications of this study suggest that challenging institutional racism and structures may improve perceptions of school safety and teacher mentor accessibility.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

If schools are characterized by oppressive structures, we would expect students to have fewer relationships and feel less safe in schools. The results of the current study support this hypothesis. However, teacher mentors are not distributed evenly among youth, and it appears that structural forces influence access to teacher mentors. In this study, we hypothesized that disparities would be present between Black and white children regarding access to a teacher mentor. We used the national Add Health data set to determine if and why these disparities exist. The current analysis yielded two critical findings. The first important finding is that white children are more likely to report having a teacher mentor than Black children. This is an important finding because children with access to a teacher mentor generally have higher educational attainment, income, and civic engagement (Hagler & Rhodes, 2018).

Putnam (2016) argues that the disparity in access to mentors leads to a “savvy gap” in which more privileged children, in terms of race and SES, have access to dense networks of informal mentors such as teachers that enable them to understand broader institutions and opportunities. Schools perpetuate inequities through hidden norms and curriculum where less privileged children are left feeling confused about school practices, unaware of financial opportunities (i.e., scholarships and loans) and occupational opportunities (Delgado, 2020). This makes it difficult to advocate for oneself in institutions not designed to support Black and Brown children. Thus family members such as older siblings are often responsible for helping bridge these gaps and offer guidance (Delgado, 2020). Teacher mentors have sufficient knowledge to illuminate hidden norms and curriculum for students and are positioned to alleviate some of this burden on family members.

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