‘At-risk’ students: Could changing the label change the narrative?

Seeking to shift the way educators refer to students facing social or economic issues, California Governor Gavin Newsom recently approved a bill that amends the state Penal and Education Code to replace the term “at-risk youth” with “at-promise youth.” 

Assemblymember Reginald Byron Jones-Sawyer, the lead author of the bill, hopes the change will help stakeholders move away from a deficit mind-set, according to Inside Higher Ed. “For far too long, the stigmatizing label of ‘at risk’ has been used to describe youth living in difficult situations,” Jones-Sawyer said when speaking to the California State Assembly. “This is a perception issue. By using this term, we are creating expectations of failure for our most vulnerable students.”

A decades-long push to abandon ‘at-risk’

The effort to replace the term “at-risk” extends well beyond California. Critics of the term for decades have said the label is problematic. It is “implicitly, if not explicitly, racist, classist, and problematic as children and their parents are very much aware that they are seen as at risk for failure,” says Elizabeth Swadener, a professor at Arizona State University who was one of the first to come forward against the term in the 90s. “While I didn’t advocate a relabeling with ‘at promise,’ [the California bill] is an important step in seeing the promise in all children, including those with numerous challenges,” she told Inside Higher Ed.

Rather than leading with students’ potential to fail, “if we start the conversation about their promise, it changes the starting point from which we can work to identify what is pushing them off the path to graduation,” says Matthew LaPlante, a board member with the Reaching At-Promise Students Association, a nonprofit that fought for the bill. 

LaPlante acknowledges, however, that this simple change won’t fix the myriad problems low-income students face. “We’re not pretending for a moment that changing words really changes anything—this has to be followed by a lot of action,” he said. “This is a starting point.” The association’s executive director, Ernie Silva, is similarly hopeful. “Language drives action,” he said. “If you can talk about things differently, you can accomplish different things.”

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