Dr. Tammy Mann, Executive Director of the Frederick D. Patterson Research Institute at the United Negro College Fund, leads the Institute’s efforts to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for African American children from preschool through college.  While many of the Institute’s programs are gender neutral, she is acutely aware of the need to focus on boys. “On UNCF campuses women outnumber men 2 to 1 on average.   UNCF is very concerned about this imbalance,” she notes.

One of the Institute’s current projects, which provides performance-based scholarships to low-income African American males, hopes to improve these statistics.  The Institute teamed up with MDRC, a social policy research organization, to offer scholarships tied to academic and attendance benchmarks to African American male college students with averages lower than traditional scholarship programs.  “The goals of this program go far beyond just providing additional money to these young men”, Dr. Mann explains. “The program is designed to change their mindset.  When they receive this scholarship money, they know that someone else is focused on them doing better than they are currently doing.  The expectations are being raised, which, in turn, helps these young men raise their expectations of themselves”.

Raising expectations is an important component of several Institute programs, including another aimed at increasing college matriculation and completion rates of low-income minority youth. In the Partnership for College Completion initiative, the Institute, the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) network and the Corporation for Enterprise Development  provide groups of 6th and 11th grade students and their families with a mix of financial incentives, financial education, college readiness skills and peer networking skills. Dr. Mann explains, “This program seeks to prepare entire families for the mindset of college. It is especially important for the children to know that their family is preparing for them to go to college, so that they can begin to see themselves as college students.”

While the Institute’s research and initiatives are primarily designed to provide support to those with limited means, the importance of raising students’ expectations cuts across economic lines.  “In fact, I would say that the values of working hard and staying focused could be even more difficult to impart to children when the parents have the ability to provide more things” she suggests.  “Parents can be so focused on what they are providing for their children, they may make the assumption that if children are given what they need (or what we think they need), the children will understand our expectations, establish their own, and the right trajectory will just evolve.  This is not always the case.  It is important for parents to think more specifically about what messages their children are getting from them.”  So how can parents make sure their children are getting the right message?  “We can help children appreciate the choices and sacrifices we are making for them and the importance of making those choices by having deliberate conversations with them in non-confrontational moments” she offers.  “This can help create the framework for our children to understand the importance of having and meeting expectations.”

With an 18 year old son and an 11 year old daughter, Dr. Mann has the perspective on these issues of a mother as well as a researcher.  Her son is a freshman at Morehouse with plans to pursue a dual degree in applied physics and aerospace engineering.  While he always had a strong academic focus, she worked hard to ensure that he understood his parents’ expectations and that he continued to raise his own.  When he became interested in science and math, she enrolled him in math and science enrichment summer programs.  She researched the merits of the International Baccalaureate Diploma program his high school offered, and supported his completion of this program.  Even with a willing pupil, it wasn’t easy.  “It takes a lot of work—you have to look around to see what is out there and make sure that your children are able to take advantage of whatever opportunities exist.  Knowing your children, and being tuned in and attentive to what will spark their imaginations are key.  It can be so tough for parents because regardless of how much work you put in there are no guarantees of success.”   Equally important for parents, especially moms, is managing their own expectations, in order to get to the point where they can feel as if they have done enough.  “The balance between trying to do all you can to support your sons and knowing when you have done enough is very difficult to find”.

Raising our sons’ expectations, managing our own—we need all the help we can find to be up to the task.  The research that Dr. Mann and her team are conducting identifies issues and offers approaches that should be of interest to us all.  More information about the work that they are doing can be found at www.uncf.org/fdpri/.