Long before research, teaching and thoughts of tenure filled Paul C. Harris’ workdays, he was an eighth-grade boy who loved baseball and basketball. But after falling short of the honor roll that same year, his father took away the privilege of playing baseball in the spring.
Now, twenty-plus years later, the University of Virginia professor is focusing his research on the academic performance of African American male student athletes, and he's conducting the second phase of a study at Charlottesville High School.
“My own academic self-efficacy wasn’t where it [could have been],” the Curry School of Education professor says, noting that it was his dad's tough love that marked a turning point in his own academic career. “Had I not missed the honor roll, who knows what my high school years might have been like?”
This fall, Harris will be working with CHS staff and 8-10 student-athletes as part of a fifteen-week group counseling model aimed at encouraging academic self-efficacy, ethnic identity and what Harris calls “college knowledge,” a primer in how universities function and the expectations on students from the application process through eventual graduation.
“I’m interested in how African-American males are so disproportionately drawn to sports in such a way that many don’t even see other avenues as possibilities,” Harris says, recalling his own youthful belief that sports scholarships might be his ticket to college, even though he grew up in a culture that emphasized education over athletic prowess.
To pilot his research, Harris interviewed 2013 CHS graduate Rashard Davis, a student-athlete with a bright academic outlook, to identify what life factors contributed to his academic success. In many ways, James Madison University-bound Davis' experiences mirrored Harris' own in that he describes being surrounded by role models— parents, teachers, and his football coach— all of whom emphasized academics over sports.
“You know that they want to help you strive and succeed; they want you to get a good education,” Davis says, adding that if other students can find similar role models, "I think that will help students make better choices and not get caught up in bad decisions.”
And Davis thinks that Professor Harris has a better chance than others at connecting with the students participating in the study.
“I think if they see someone that comes from a similar background that they are from, they will be more influenced than if they just hear someone old who is preaching to them about staying out of jail,” Davis says. “They’ll see that it isn’t so far-fetched to succeed, that it isn’t that hard to move forward or it isn’t that bad.”
According to the Virginia Department of Education, 46 percent of African-American students in CHS’ 2012 class enrolled in institutions of higher education, as compared to 74 percent of white students and 69 percent of Asian students. Harris is hoping to identify the factors that contribute to that low enrollment rate— and find ways to narrow the gap.
While Harris and his team are still hammering out the project’s particulars, he says the group will focus on identifying and capitalizing on already existing academic strengths of each student.
That strength might be "researching or writing or something that’s not so reinforced on a day-to-day basis,” Harris adds, noting that students in the group will also produce a short film documenting the history of sports in the lives of black males.
CHS counselor Carol Easterlin, who will be teaming up with Harris, says that the support the student-athletes receive won’t only come from adults.
“The peer group influence is particularly strong in adolescence,” Easterlin says, noting that students "learn from and are encouraged by each other.”
And while much of the emphasis of this group counseling model is on the present, it’s the student-athletes’ futures that Easterlin says is the focus.
“Students [will] have a better understanding of and be better prepared for post-secondary education options,” she says. “We would love to see students' imaginations expand regarding their futures.”