Efforts to recruit and retain effective teachers of color have spread into the field of special education. However, scant research examining the experiences of teachers of color enrolled in special education teacher preparation inclusion programs exists. In the current study, a phenomenological investigation of 10 preservice Black students at predominately White higher education institutes in special education teacher programs designed to train teachers for inclusive classrooms was conducted to understand their experiences and identify effective recruitment and retention strategies. Based on the findings, students reported five themes: (a) feeling alienated in their programs, (b) feeling that they need effective mentoring from faculty of color, (c) better relationships with other peers of color, (d) deliberate mission of the institute and program, and (e) better need for financial support. The implications for recruiting and retaining Black teachers in special education and directions for future research were discussed.
Recruitment and retention strategies to increase the number of Black special education teachers in preparation programs are an important area of focus in education. A number of researchers and government entities within the United States have expressed concerns about the lack of diversity in the teacher workforce and highlighted the importance of understanding recruitment and retention strategies of minority teachers as one means of addressing this crisis (Bireda & Chait, 2011; Evans & Leonard, 2013; Ingersoll & May, 2011). Given that effective recruitment and retention strategies can offer a valuable foundation for growing the diversity in the teacher workforce and increasing student achievement (Bireda & Chait, 2011), it is necessary to understand whether strategies that are being recommended by researchers and other entities show any promise for minority students entering colleges and universities. For example, Black teacher candidates, a group underrepresented in the teaching workforce, only account for approximately 10% of candidates enrolled in teacher preparation programs (Higher Education Act Title II Reporting System, 2015). Completion rates for Blacks who are majoring in education are lower than for Whites (U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development, Policy and Program Studies Service [USDOE], 2016). When statistics are combined with overall high attrition rates both for special education teachers (Emery & Vandenburg, 2010) and for teachers of color (USDOE, 2016), the increased attention for recruiting and retaining Black special education teachers in preparation programs is expected. With the disproportionate number of Black children in K-12 special education programs (Zhang, Katsiyannis, Ju, & Roberts, 2014), and studies showing the positive influence Black teachers can have on Black children (Dee, 2004; Henfield, 2013), giving considerable thought to recruiting and retaining more Black teachers in special education preparation programs is critically important.
Researchers in the Education Strand of the National Goals Conference for People With Intellectual Disabilities encouraged individuals in the field to recruit and retain Black special education teachers (Thoma, Cain, & Walther-Thomas, 2015) and identified recruitment and retention of more Black special education teachers as a research goal after broad discussion about the disproportionate number of Black children identified with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD; Cartledge & Duke, 2009; Goode, Jones, & Jackson, 2011) and cultural and linguistic diversity issues among students with IDD (Thoma et al., 2016). Despite having recommendations from researchers and government entities for retaining Black students in teacher preparation programs (Achinstein, Ogawa, Sexton, & Freitas, 2010; Bireda & Chait, 2011; Evans & Leonard, 2013; Ingersoll & May, 2011; USDOE, 2016), scant research exists regarding recruitment and retention strategies for Black special education teachers. Even further, there is limited research about how any recommended strategies are experienced by the students (e.g., Black students) they were meant to support, particularly for Black special education teachers. A majority of the existing examination on the topic has been from research on Black teachers or special education teachers; less is known about attracting and keeping Black teachers in special education programs once the variables are aggregated. Therefore, the purpose for the current study was to add to the literature by interviewing Black students enrolled at predominately White universities in special education teacher programs designed to train teachers for inclusive classrooms, and add their perspectives about what attracted them to, and kept them in, their degree preparation programs.
Importance of Recruiting and Retaining Black Teachers
To understand the significance of recruiting and retaining Black special education teachers, one must first understand the influence a Black teacher can have on children. Pitts (2007) investigated the link between race and academic performance and found that youth of color performed better on high school graduation exams in school districts that had a closer ratio of teacher and students of the same race. Similarly, Egalite and Kisida (2017) found that, when teacher/student race and gender was congruent, youth self-reported positive academic perceptions and attitudes, particularly for Black female children assigned to Black female teachers and Black male children assigned to Black male teachers. Subsequently, Black children and youth academic achievement was influenced positively when the likelihood of being exposed to a teacher of the same race existed.
Dee (2004) reanalyzed math and reading test scores of children who were randomly assigned to teachers and found a positive correlation between Black children's achievement scores when they were paired with Black teachers. In general, Black teachers have been linked to Black children's increased academic achievement (Clewell, Puma, & McKay, 2005; Evans, 1992; Klopfenstein, 2005), and serve as positive role models and positive examples for children of color (Johnson, 2008; Lynn, 2006; Ochoa, 2007). Further, Black teachers have been shown to have higher expectations for Black children's academic success (Dee, 2005; Figlio, 2005), have the ability to deal with unbiased identification and referral to special education (Ford, 2012; Jones-Goods & Grant, 2016), and the goal to serve as advocates for children of color (Irvine, 1990). With an overrepresentation of Black children in K-12 special education programs (Sample, 2010), it is critically important that an adequate number of Black teachers are retained in college programs to become special education teachers.
Recruiting and Retention Practices
As indicated earlier, researchers of several research studies (e.g., Ahmad & Boser, 2014; Evans & Leonard, 2013; Sleeter, Neal, & Kumashiro, 2015) have noted the importance of recruiting and retaining Black teachers and have contributed strategies for recruitment and retention. Strategies have been created because reports showed that Black college students experience more difficulties adjusting to college, particularly at predominately White institutions (PWIs), than other racial groups (Feagin, Vera, & Imani, 1996; Fries-Britt & Turner, 2002). Black college students who were enrolled in PWIs experienced challenges with: (a) being underrepresented at the college and in programs (Davis & Bauman, 2008; Harper, 2013); (b) connecting with the curricula (Guiffrida, 2005); (c) creating meaningful and supporting social relationships with White faculty and White peers (Schwitzer, Griffin, Ancis, & Thomas, 1999; Watkins, Green, Goodson, Guidry, & Stanley, 2007); and (d) feeling prepared academically (Chavous, Harris, Rivas, Helaire, & Green, 2004). In response to these challenges, leaders of some teacher training programs at PWIs have attempted to generate strategies to recruit and retain Black college students, such as creating financial incentives for enrolling in teacher training programs, creating teacher programs that target minority candidates, and reducing the cost to become a teacher (Bireda & Chait, 2011).
Additionally, researchers have suggested strategies for recruiting and retaining Black special education teachers in teacher training programs (Scott, 2017; Scott & Alexander, 2017). However, the perspectives and experiences of participants within the programs that contributed to the reasons Black students pursue and stay in programs were noticeably missing from the research (Scott, 2017; Scott & Alexander, 2017). Recruiting and retaining Black students in special education teacher preparation programs is incredibly important considering the disparity of Black students who enroll and who actually complete teaching programs (USDOE, 2016). As teacher preparation programs have a major role in preparing the next generation of teachers, including special education teachers, it is important to hear the voices of the participants to understand their experiences.
For example, Brown (2014) examined preservice teachers of color in a teacher preparation program and described how the teachers often felt isolated and marginalized. Jackson (2015) investigated teachers of color's experiences at a PWI, and noted the participants felt both disengaged from the program and that faculty members were afraid to build relationships. Finally, Scott and Alexander (2017) interviewed Black special education teachers regarding factors that influenced their recruitment and retention in special education college programs. Scott and Alexander (2017) recommended several strategies, including: (a) mentoring from Black faculty, (b) increasing tuition support that specifically targets Black students interested in teaching in special education, and (c) creating systems of support (e.g., peer support groups) for Black teachers enrolled in special education teacher preparation programs. However, Scott and Alexander (2017) limited their study to men and did not ask salient questions about the experiences of the students while in their respective programs. Therefore, the specific focus of this study was to understand the experiences of the Black students in special education teacher preparation programs at PWIs, who were training to become teachers in inclusive classrooms where students with disabilities were taught, in order to assist experts in the field with managing ways to effectively recruit and retain Black special education teachers. The research question was:
1. How do Black college students enrolled in predominately White institutions describe their experiences that led to their decision to enroll and stay in their special education teacher preparation program?
Within any learning experience, individuals want to feel a sense of belonging. One of the challenges for Black students has been feeling integrated contextually into their university with positive academic and social interactions (Hurtado & Carter, 1997). The literature on attrition of students of color at colleges has been directly correlated with the group members feeling isolated and unintegrated both academically and socially (Strayhorn, 2008). A considerable portion of the literature on college student attrition has been derived from Tinto's (1987) model on student retention, in which Tinto claimed that student dropout from universities was tied to students fitting into the college environment in the following areas: (a) student characteristics (e.g., race); (b) the degree to which they are integrated socially (e.g., interactions with peers, interactions with faculty); and (c) academic integration (e.g., curricula, grades; Hurtado & Carter, 1997; Strayhorn, 2008; 2012). Additionally, Tinto's (1987) model on student dropout has been tied to more recent research on the sense of belonging theory (Strayhorn, 2012) that was used to explain a student's lack of connectedness that can lead to poor academic performance and dropout (Strayhorn, 2012; Walton & Cohen, 2011). For students of color, who experience marginalization and a lowered sense of belonging as compared to White students at PWIs (Locks, Hurtado, Bowman, & Oseguera, 2008; Strayhorn, 2012), it is necessary to examine whether Tinto's theory and the sense of belonging theory are involved with recruitment and retention of Black students in special education teacher preparation programs. Although a growing body of research exists on the sense of belonging of students of color (Locks et al., 2008; Strayhorn, 2012), scant knowledge is available regarding teachers of color from subgroups (special education) within the teaching field. Therefore, Tinto's and Strayhorn's theories were useful when exploring the experiences of the Black teachers enrolled in the special education programs at their respective PWIs.
A qualitative investigation into the lived experiences of Black students enrolled at predominately White universities in special education teacher preparation programs designed to train teachers for inclusive special education classrooms was used to conduct the current study. Specifically, a descriptive phenomenological research design was used because the purpose of the current study was to show the shared essence of the students' experiences, allowing experiential descriptions that were gathered through interviews with participants to understand the phenomenon (Creswell, 2003; Hatch, 2002). This research design was chosen because it provided the most effective way to identify the students' common interactions and experiences to identify recruitment and retention strategies, as understood by the group (Creswell, 2007).
Associated with methods used to collect data for phenomenological research, semistructured interviews with individual students were conducted (Hatch, 2002). Students were asked to respond directly to questions regarding their interactions and experiences in their program that would lead to recommendations for recruitment and retention. Questions included the following:
What attracted you to enroll in your special education teacher preparation program at a PWI?
What are factors that you considered prior to enrolling at the University and/or program?
What are positive and negative experiences that have impacted your success in your program?
As a student of color, what experiences and interactions have you encountered in your program that have been challenging?
What retention strategies have been used to support your ability to complete your program?
Interview questions were derived from similar studies regarding recruitment and retention of Black teachers (Achinstein, Ogawa, Sexton, & Freitas 2010; Scott & Alexander, 2017). Individual interviews were approximately 60 minutes in duration. A voice recording was completed for each interview, and later transcribed by doctoral students.
Characteristics of Participants
The special education students who participated in this current study were all in their final year of completing their Master's degree to become teachers in special education inclusive classrooms. A special education inclusion program was defined by the aim of each student's Master's degree program, which all shared goals to prepare educators in special education to work in general education classrooms where students with high incidence disabilities (e.g., mild/moderate level of intellectual disability, learning disabilities, emotional and behavioral disorders) are taught. Participants were recruited based on purposeful sampling procedures after ensuring they met the following criteria (Creswell, 2003; 2007): (a) Black man or woman, (b) enrolled full or part time in a PWI institute, and (c) enrolled in a special education inclusion licensure program. Special education contacts at four universities located in the southeast region of the United States were asked to contact participants from their respective programs that met the inclusion criteria. The special education contacts sent email messages to a total of 18 potential students that were enrolled at their respective university. A total of 10 participants agreed to participate in the current study, and they were distributed across three universities. There were two participants at the remaining university who did not agree to participate; and six other participants who declined participation. The PWI sites represented programs from across the state that represented rural, urban, and suburban communities. The demographic population across each site varied, but Black students were overwhelmingly underrepresented at each university, and represented no more than 5% of students enrolled in each respective special education program, according to participants' estimations. Each program had several choices available for students interested in pursuing degrees in special education, although only one program at each institution was targeted for the current study based on the program's description of preparing teachers to serve students with disabilities who access the general curriculum. Each of the 10 participants in the current study was slated to teach in an inclusive classroom setting where students with disabilities would access the general curriculum. Table 1 shows participant and university data.
The participants in the study ranged in ages from 21–36 years of age. Two participants were male and 8 were female. All participants had an interest in working in general education classrooms where students with disabilities will be served. Of the 10 participants, three attended undergraduate programs at a historically black college or university (HBCU) prior to enrolling in their graduate degree programs at their respective PWI. Four participants were interested in teaching at the secondary level (middle or high school), four were interested in teaching in elementary programs, and two were interested in both elementary and secondary levels. Of the 10 participants, five teachers were teaching with a provisional license while pursuing their degrees. Pseudonyms were used in the participant description and within the study.
Naturalistic equivalents techniques were utilized to establish trustworthiness within the qualitative inquiry (Creswell, 2007). Lincoln and Guba (1985) and Miles and Huberman (1994) proposed naturalistic approaches to address the importance of validity within qualitative research. However, rather than using the term “validation,” which is often used in quantitative research, the term “credibility” was used, and specific credibility methods were employed to reconceptualize forms of validity (Creswell, 2007, p. 202).
Credibility for the current study was established using multiple methods, including: (a) peer debriefing, (b) member checking, and (c) an external audit. First, two doctoral students served as peer debriefers to establish a level of consensus with data findings. Lincoln and Guba (1985) described the peer debriefer as a peer of the researcher who assists in interpreting and making meaning of the qualitative process, which can produce more transparent and meaningful findings. Second, member-checking methods were used by soliciting feedback directly from the participants regarding the findings and interpretation of the data (Creswell, 2007). Lincoln and Guba (1985) rendered member checks as “the most critical technique for establishing credibility” (p. 314), as the process of hearing directly from the participants can help to corroborate accounts.
Participants received copies of their interview transcripts and early findings and they were asked to provide input. Each participant authenticated the transcript and early analyses of the data. Finally, an external auditor examined the qualitative process and conclusions of the study (Creswell, 2007). The external auditor was a doctoral student who had no connections to the current study, but was an individual who was able to ask important questions pertaining to the logic of the findings and experiences of the participants.
Every attempt was made to remain unbiased in conducting the current study by considering the author's personal view and position on the topic (Foote & Bartell, 2011). An effort was made to reflect on having gone through the process of selecting and remaining in a Master's degree program at a PWI. As a Black man, former special education inclusion teacher, and current assistant professor of special education at a PWI who aims to recruit and retain more Black special education teachers, the author understood the importance of acknowledging his values and beliefs during the research process, and reflected on potential biases. Reflexivity strategies were used to remain conscious of biases and experiences that could influence the current study. As discussed earlier, triangulation techniques were employed by using two doctoral students, a White female and White male, as peer debriefers to help add a different perspective during the analysis process. Additionally, a Black female doctoral student who had experience in a degree program at a PWI was used as the external evaluator to ensure trustworthiness in how the data was represented.
An inductive analysis process was used to search for patterns to make meaning of the students' interview data (Hatch, 2002). First, the transcripts were read several times to make sense of the information collected. Second, categories were created that represented how some data formed relationships within and across the transcripts. Creating categories were used to help narrow down the data that would be salient for the current study and provided support for domain and code names (Hatch 2002). For example, domains with only one or two terms were scrutinized and eliminated if they were considered outliers and not able to connect with other data. Data were reread, advice from peer debriefers was taken into account, and deductive reasoning strategies were used, which included reexamining the sufficiency of the data at the point where data saturation was reached. Finally, codes were grouped that helped to support the final themes, and direct quotes were chosen that described the experiences of the participants (Hatch, 2002).
Five major themes emerged from the investigation into the experiences of the Black students enrolled in the special education teacher preparation programs: (a) feelings of isolation, (b) effective mentoring from faculty members of color, (c) support from other Black peers, (d) deliberate mission of the PWI and program, and (e) adequate financial support. The themes expressed the student experiences, and direct statements from students were offered to support each theme.
Alienation in Programming
The first theme, alienation in programming, signified student experiences of not feeling connected to their programs based on lack of infrastructure and resources for the students at the PWI and in the program. Alienation in programming was the most prominent theme, as almost all students (n = 9) anticipated more support from their respective schools and programs with navigating issues that they faced during their program enrollment. Frequently, students mentioned that they felt like an outsider “within” their schools of education and programs, and constantly spoke about limited opportunities for special education students to engage with the larger body of faculty and students in the school. One participant, Felicia, shared, “I couldn't believe that as a special education inclusion teacher that it was all coursework and no opportunity to get out of the class and work with other people…I had to learn to work in isolation.”
Another participant, Melvin, commented:
Like, when I enrolled in the program [special education inclusion program] I thought I would learn how to work with other teachers [general and special education teachers]. I was surprised that we [students in the special education preparation program] never got to work with other teachers and never got to talk to or learn from other faculty in the building. I hated this because there were other Black students in the school of education and since there was [sic] no Black networks that were in the school, I felt alone. So, I just came to the school and would leave right after my classes. Dude, I get so tired of this stuff that it's crossed my mind to quit [sic] [the program].
Students in the program often spoke critically about resources for Black students to connect with the larger university and within their schools. Commenting on the lack of programs to support Black students, Candace stated, “I was surprise that there were no attempt [sic] by the school to support Black students … I didn't know who to go to for support sometimes, and this made me feel like I was by myself a lot of times.”
Another participant, Alisa, noted:
I am always stressed out [in her program] because most of my classes require me to collaborate on assignments, but most of the students [young White females] in my class knew each other already, so lots of times they don't want to work with the older Black lady, and when I would say something to my instructor, she would say it is my responsibility to find a group to work with. Uhh, clearly she didn't realize I was crying out for help and couldn't do this [find connections with the other younger White students] by myself. And my God, I can't turn to anyone in the school or program because they don't have anything in place to go to complain or find support. So, I just deal with this a lot by myself. I still do—and it is so annoying. This [perception of not having support in the school or program] is enough at times to make me quit. But I'm hanging in there, by myself, [laugh] alone.
The examples showed the direct feelings of the students that often lead to experiences of feeling alienated and isolated in their respective programs.
Effective Mentoring From Faculty of Color
For the participants, effective mentoring from faculty members of color had an irreplaceable and significant role in their experiences, helping them decide on enrolling and staying in their programs. For the majority (n = 8), the faculty members of color created a safe space to engage in dialogue about issues related to why they wanted to become inclusion teachers. However, their experiences were not always positive, as some participants (n = 3) indicated that, because they did not have access to faculty members of color, it created some questions about whether they wanted to enroll in and stay in the program. According to Melvin, he came from a HBCU where having a Black mentor was common. Melvin stated:
I didn't give it [having access to Black faculty] a second thought because I thought it was the norm …. it wasn't until I really payed [sic] attention to the faculty in the department that I noticed that there was no one there that could understand my needs … I immediately felt uncomfortable … like, why am I here?
Alisa's comment aligned with Melvin. She noted:
I only had one Black professor in my program … and he was incredibly busy … I really needed him because I knew his background working in urban schools as a collab [collaborative] SPED [special education inclusion] teacher and that's what I wanted to do … but I thought about leaving the program more than once because I didn't have access to him … he was really the reason that I really was interested in joining the program.
Contrasting some of the undesirable experiences, some participants noted how having access to faculty members of color had a role in them having a positive experience in the program. Nyla said:
I don't know if I would still be in this program if it was not for Dr. Kim [pseudonym] … because he got it [what I needed out of the program] whereas the others [non-faculty of color] didn't. I could go to his class and have conversations about the nuances of Black families, Black communities, you know … Black SPED kids and not feel judged by the professor. It may be that some of the students were judging me, but in his class I didn't care because I knew he created a safe space for me to talk about race and culture in a way that wasn't stereotypical. I really wish I felt like I could do this in my other classes in the program. But, if Mr. Kim was not supporting me, I really don't think I [sic] would be making [making progress] in this program.
Several additional participants pointed out that their program had only one Black faculty member and, whether intentional or unintentional, the faculty member was assigned as the participant's adviser. Larry stated:
I don't know if it was intentional, but like, now that I think about it, he [the Black faculty adviser] was the only Black professor in the department and he was advising me. I was happy because he made time to ask me questions like: How are you doing? Do you need any support? He made me schedule a meeting with him once a month during my first year. So, he stayed engaged with me all the way through my first year. I didn't know that I needed that, but it felt good to me and the fact that we were able to talk about issues in the program with other peers and faculty was great. I don't think I could have been as candid about the issues I was facing with a White professor. I can probably say that I would probably have dropped out of this program if it wasn't for his consistent support.
Relationships With Other Peers of Color
Roughly one-third (n = 6) of the participants reported that their experiences of engaging with other Black peers in their programs increased their intentions to enroll and stay in their programs. Candace stated that she went through a very intensive selection process for her program and indicated that she was one of eight other Black students competing to become a student in her special education residency (inclusion) program. She explained that former students from the residency program were on her interview panel and many of the students were Black. For Candace, the experiences heightened her interest to be in the program and stay in the program. Candace stated, “When I saw that other Black students were going to be in the program, it took a lot of pressure off … I knew I would have a support group.” Kimberly also agreed that she “felt better knowing that other Black students were in my program.” The statements by both Candace and Kimberly are accentuated and have a lot to do with why Jamika remained committed to her program. Jamika noted:
I knew another Black student in the program when I submitted my application. I knew that while she was ahead of me, that I wouldn't be alone. I came from a [sic] undergraduate program where, in many of my classes, I was the only Black student. I switched majors once because I was the only Black student. It was important to me to do my homework and know that I would not be the only Black student. It is a lonely situation, and I didn't want that anymore. Having other Black students in my classes and program creates a sense of safety and, uh, we can [have a] sense of family that you can't always get from others [non-Black peers]. I also had another Black girl that I knew was going to be in my cohort if I enrolled. This was so cool to me. This girl had a brother who was intellectually disabled. I knew she was the real deal and that we could work together because she had family with a disability. And she wanted to be a collaborative teacher [inclusion teacher] in the same school division that I wanted. I wanted to stay close to her.
Nyla noted that she did not have a problem getting to know the White students in her cohort; however, she felt a sense of ease and belongingness when there were other Black students in her classes. Nyla explained that, for her, it is “easier to work on class projects and advocate for issues that are important to me when there are other Blacks in the class or in my group … I feel less intimidated.” During discussion about having other students of color in class, Kimberly stated:
I hate being the token Black person in class, so having other Black students in my class takes the pressure off of me to always have to answer for issues that White people think are only associated with Black children, like poverty or underachievement. Because I have other Black students in my class, we can talk about these things prior to class or after class and even during class without feeling like it's, like, the duty to speak, is like, only on one of us.
Deliberate Mission of the Program and Institute
Some participants (n = 4) commented about their interest in social justice and noted how Black students with disabilities, including students with IDD, face tremendous barriers with respect to being in self-contained special education classes. Thus, participants believed that it was important to become inclusive or collaborative special education teachers, with a particular interest in serving underrepresented and high-needs schools. For the students, special education programs and universities whose mission statements aligned with their interests were of particular significance, and because their programs remained committed to that mission, it made it easier to stay. Felicia stated:
I wanted to become a special education teacher after serving in general education. I saw the issue that was going on in my school for Black boys in special education. It was horrid. I wanted to train to be a special education teacher and advocate for these students. I teach in a high-needs school and I wanted and needed training that was focused on these issues. In my Bachelor's degree program we did not even talk about the needs of students by race, community … you know. I made it a point to look at the mission statement of the program before I applied because if these issues were missed, then I knew the program was not for me.
Additionally, Jennifer described her work as a former teaching assistant in a self-contained special education classroom, and how it contributed to her seeking programs that served underrepresented students. Jennifer noted, “I wanted to teach students with learning disabilities, but those in high poverty areas because that's kind of where I grew up … I wanted to attend a special education program that talked about these issues in its program description.”
Financial Support of Program
Finally, the investigation showed several responses (n = 6) that related to participant declarations that programs offering opportunities for scholarships or tuition support made it easier to choose to enroll and stay. Additionally, some of the participants noted that, although they were not in a position financially to return to school, their passion and drive to support students with disabilities overshadowed the cost involved to become a licensed special education teacher. For example, Jennifer noted:
I am so thankful that I am receiving this full scholarship in this program … it was certainly a [sic] attraction [to the program] …but you know what, the way I feel about these students [special education students] I probably would have taken out student loans if it was the last resort.
As supported by participant comments, some participants explained how challenging it would be to continue in their program if they did not have financial assistance. Larry noted that he “would not have been able to return to school without financial support from the program.” Additionally, Nyla explained that she perceived that some of her White peers enrolled in her program come from wealthier backgrounds than she does and her peers are unaware of how much the financial support means to her. Nyla stated:
As a Black woman with two kids, I look different from some of the other students in my program. These girls are younger than me, come from parents that have means [monetary means] and sometimes I think they take their parents' money for granted. Some of the girls miss class and I hear them talking about their parents paying for their loans and tuition. I don't have that type of support. The only reason … and I mean the only reason I was interested in this program [sic] because I saw that there was a chance that I could have my tuition paid for … otherwise I couldn't afford this program, and I know for sure that, let's say, the money goes away, then I would have to go away too … it's just the facts!
Previous research has indicated that postsecondary student experiences differed according to characteristics, such as race (Barker, 2012; Jackson, 2015). The assessment aligned with the theoretical model developed by Tinto (1987) and the theory addressed by Strayhorn (2012) that indicated concerns about race and its positive relationship to student sense of belonging and retention at the university. According to participants in the current study, programs whose leaders had a deliberate mission that aligned with the student interests, financial support available, opportunity to receive effective mentoring from faculty members of color, and opportunity to engage with other Black peers were important constructs for recruitment and retention in their special education inclusion programs.
In alignment with the principles of Tinto's (1987) model on student retention, participants in the current study identified race (student characteristics), academic integration (identifying with their program of study), and social integration (relationship with faculty members and peers) as experiences that influenced them. Likewise, the experiences influenced students' abilities to feel a sense of belonging in their programs. Black students' sense of belonging at PWIs can affect their connectedness to their academics within their programs and social involvement with others, often influencing their retention and persistence to stay at the PWI and in their programs that are preparing them for their careers (Strayhorn, 2012). The participants in the current study often felt alienated in their schools and preparation programs and, although the students identified their career goals of becoming Black teachers in inclusive special education classrooms, they identified common struggles of alienation that influenced their sense of belonging in their programs. Although consistent with literature about the feeling of isolation that Black college students experience (Feagin et al., 1996), the current study findings are significant because the participants also discussed specific issues of alienation brought forth by the program. For example, Larry's feeling of isolation occurred because he perceived that the field of special education naturally appreciated collaboration, although he did not have opportunity to share suitable collaboration with others within or outside of his program. One participant stated, “I needed to feel connected, and I wanted the program to force this issue … if these experiences were common for us [Black students in teacher preparation programs] then more of us would apply and stay in special education.”
Effective mentoring has been considered an encouraging intervention for Black college students attending PWIs (Brooks, Jones, & Burt), as has the availability of supportive social networks (Feagin et al., 1996), such as other Black peers within their programs to engage students academically and socially. Participants in the current study raised the issues as experiences that were positive or painstakingly necessary to learning and adjusting in their respective programs. The distinctive feature of the experiences for participants was that many noted the role that Black faculty members had in their success, or how not having Black faculty members had an adverse role in faculty-student relations. The effects of the limited exposure to Black faculty members and peers correlated to participants' sense of belonging in their special education programs. Overall, in the current study, participants who had Black faculty members or peers in their programs and were able to form greater mentor and mentee bonds and/or peer-to-peer relationships shared how that influenced their academic and social success.
According to previous findings, Black students tend to be less likely to come from backgrounds of extreme wealth, which presents challenges regarding paying for college costs compared to other racial groups challenges (Feagin et al., 1996; Freeman, 2005). Accordingly, student financial support from their programs and their driving interest to enroll at the PWI, in addition to staying in their programs, was significant. However, interestingly, participants contextualized their passion and drive for becoming special education inclusion teachers, even when faced with dire financial circumstances. For example, Nyla explained that, although she continued to have financial challenges in her personal life, and although the tuition support she was receiving from her program was helping, she understood that once she graduated and became a fully licensed special education inclusion teacher, her salary would not be enough to overcome her financial burdens. Nonetheless, more critical for Nyla is her desire for advocacy and the change she desires to bring to her students with disabilities once she becomes a teacher.
The review of the literature showed that HBCUs prepare approximately 50% percent of Black teachers with bachelor's degrees (USDOE, 2016). Although the ability of HBCU leaders to recruit and retain Black teachers has been a consistent trend, unfortunately, it does not answer the teacher shortage concerns faced in the United States (USDOE, 2016). However, examining HBCUs may offer some insight to recruitment and retention of Black teachers, as the leaders of the institutes often highlight a mission and dedication to serving underrepresented groups (Collins, Davis, & Hilton, 2013), which is precisely what participants in the current study identified that the PWIs' leaders did successfully by drawing attention to their respective programs. The finding was notable because it showed that the participants recognize that, when programs are developed to foster missions to support their learning needs, such programs appeal to Black students.
The current phenomenological study contained several limitations. First, the students who volunteered to participate in the current study were from a small number of programs in one geographical location in the United States. The views of the participants were of their respective programs. Therefore, the reader needs to contextualize the students' experiences for transferability. Second, the current study was retrospective by asking students to recall experiences. Therefore, their experiences with faculty members, peers, and in other areas may differ in the future because all participants currently remain in their programs. Third, only a small sample size of students was available to rely on for insight into their experiences. Ultimately, the current study can be used to add to the developing literature on experiences of Black students in teaching fields experiencing a shortage, such as special education. Additionally, other researchers may have a framework for replicating or extending like studies on the current topic.
Implications for Practice
According to participants in the current study, leaders of special education preparation inclusion programs at PWIs must work harder to create positive environments for Black students to succeed. Many of the participants were not satisfied with the connectedness with faculty members and peers in their programs.
A second implication included PWIs and program messaging to prospective Black students. Leaders of schools and programs must be intentional in their mission to recruit and retain Black students in special education programs to serve students in inclusive environments, including students with intellectual disability. Evidence exists that Black students have different needs than White students enrolled in special education programs at PWIs (Scott, 2017; Scott & Alexander, 2017). Black students attending PWIs may struggle with the social and academic factors needed to take advantage of successful expectations of college (Allen, 1992; Strayhorn, 2012).
Essentially, leaders of special education inclusion programs at PWIs can make adjustments for recruiting and retaining Black students by establishing strong mentoring programs that include support from Black faculty members and Black peer network groups. Additionally, leaders of PWIs and programs who establish missions that align with the interests of Black students vying to become special education teachers to children in inclusive classrooms may increase recruitment and retention. Finally, leaders of PWI and program leaders should consider providing tuition assistance for Black students to enroll in their programs.
Implications for Future Research
The current qualitative study was used to provide critical evidence of Black student experiences in special education inclusion programs at PWIs, but a need exists to gather additional data on the experiences of Black special education teachers. Perhaps, it would be valuable to examine the perspectives of minority and nonminority peers in other special education teacher preparation programs at PWIs. It may also be useful to examine the perspectives of faculty members regarding strategies for mentoring Black students in special education programs. To conclude, leaders of PWIs and programs may consider examining schoolwide systems of supports and resources for Black students, particularly those enrolled in teacher preparation programs.
Further research may include longitudinal examinations of Black special education inclusion teachers after they have completed their preparation programs. For example: (a) How successful are the Black special education teachers at staying in their careers?; (b) What impact do the teachers have on their students, including students with IDD?; and (c) How do recruitment and retention at PWIs differ from strategies at HBCUs? The participants in the current research study articulated experiences that provided specific ways to remove barriers to success in special education inclusion programs at PWIs. Future research should be done to examine experiences more closely, implement strategies to ensure positive experiences, and investigate the effectiveness of the strategies to ensure the initiatives work.