“I Want To Be a Soccer Player or a Mathematician”: Fifth-Grade Black Boys’ Aspirations at a “Neoliberal” Single-Sex School

By Joseph Derrick NelsonDisplaying Nelson Image.png


For over a decade, amid widespread neoliberal education reform in the United States, single-sex schools for boys of color have increased in popularity among urban school districts. The growing interest in this school model is generally due to its ability, as perceived by school professionals and policy makers, to ameliorate challenges associated with the socio-emotional development and school success of Black and Latino boys, particularly boys living neighborhoods with concentrated poverty. Rooted in the social and material conditions of urban environments in the U.S., these single-sex learning contexts are more specifically a response to a set of adverse social and academic outcomes associated with boys and men of color (e.g., homicide and incarceration rates, and high school and college retention). In this chapter, I argue that these challenges and outcomes contributed to the onset of a neoliberal education agenda in the United States.

The threat of high social costs tied to urban poverty, specifically for Black and Latino males, has in fact compelled private foundations, community organizations, and school professionals in the U.S. to demand that federal efforts be made to address their distressing school and life outcomes. Fergus, Noguera, and Martin (2014) contend that two neoliberal education policies at the federal level have greatly influenced the expansion of single-sex education for boys of color. First, in 2002, specific amendments to Title IX (i.e., No Child Left Behind Act) were enacted, which explicitly permitted the establishment of single-sex learning contexts (e.g., schools, classrooms, and programs). The second policy, in 2001, was the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which introduced a new academic performance measure entitled Adequately Yearly Progress. This measure, in part, called for public records to document academic performance among distinct subgroups of students (e.g., economically and racially marginalized, students with special needs, and by sex and gender). Together, the data reports associated with these policy changes revealed the high frequency at which boys of color experience academic failure, and struggle socially and emotionally in school.

A seminal longitudinal study of single-sex schools for boys of color in the U.S. (Fergus, et al., 2014) noted that the expressed mission of these institutions was to enhance the educational opportunities for Black and Latino boys, with direct implications for their school performance and life chances. At the root of their mission lies a belief in supporting boys’ understandings of “who they are” or “what they believe” is possible in their lives in contrast to their social and academic outcomes, and oftentimes these particular single-sex schools act on this belief through exploring boys’ school and life aspirations. This chapter therefore examines the aspirations of low-income fifth-grade Black boys at a single-sex middle school for boys of color in New York City—one of the grade levels at which Black boys in the U.S. tend to make personal decisions related to their long-term school engagement. Many Black boys, for example, eventually succumb to the rigid stereotypes of Black males in the U.S. (i.e., hyper-aggression, anti-intellectualism, and hyper-sexuality) that restricts their academic identities, aspirations, and overall worldview.

In doing so, Black boys’ perceptions of their single-sex education and life aspirations were drawn from 45-60 minute interviews with 20, fifth-grade Black boys at the single-sex middle school (4th-8th grade) for Black and Latino boys in New York City. These in-depth interviews were gleaned from a three-year (2013-2016) ethnography of the school site, which is an independent (private) school for academically talented boys of color from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. Iterative analysis of boys’ responses unearthed four distinct categories, ordered by salience: (1) “way of being” or “qualities to possess:” (2) profession or career; (3) desired experiences in life; and (4) high school and university of choice. In the chapter, each category will relay the aspirations mentioned, and make explicit connections to Black boys’ identities and child development.

The goal of this chapter is to showcase boys’ school and life aspirations, and explicate how the U.S. neoliberal education agenda influenced boys’ aspirations within a distinct single-sex environment in a large urban city. More importantly, the chapter intends to contribute to a “reimagining of Black boyhood” (Dumas & Nelson, 2016) that provides a counter-narrative rooted in asking boys, “who they are, what they think, and what they desire in their lives” (27), and in order to foremost inform “pedagogical and policy interventions that create spaces for Black boys to construct and experience robust childhoods” (27), as well as challenge disparaging discourse associated with Black boys (and men) in the United States.

Adapted from:

Alexander, P., (2017) ‘“I Want To Be a Soccer Player or a Mathematician”: Fifth-Grade Black Boys’ Aspirations at a “Neoliberal” Single-Sex School’ In Stahl, G., Nelson, D., & Wallace, D. (Eds.), Masculinity and Aspiration in an Era of Neoliberal Education: International Perspectives. Routledge, New York.



Joseph Derrick Nelson is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Educational Studies at Swarthmore College and University of Pennsylvania.

Categories: Sociology of Education

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