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A decades-long effort to change how educators talk about students facing economic or social challenges has been backed by California lawmakers.

A bill to remove references to “at-risk youth” and replace the term with “at-promise youth” in California’s Education Code and Penal Code was approved by California governor Gavin Newsom in mid-October. The California Education Code is a collection of laws primarily applying to public K-12 schools. The bill does not change the definition of "at risk," it merely replaces it with "at promise."

“For far too long, the stigmatizing label of ‘at risk’ has been used to describe youth living in difficult situations,” said Assemblymember Reginald Byron Jones-Sawyer Sr., lead author of the bill, in an address to the California State Assembly earlier this year.

“This is a perception issue,” said Jones-Sawyer. “By using this term, we are creating expectations of failure for our most vulnerable students.”

Describing vulnerable young people as “at risk” has become ubiquitous in schools, colleges and universities in the U.S. over the past 30 years. There are numerous federal funding streams, conferences, training programs and ed-tech companies dedicated to identifying and supporting students deemed statistically most likely to struggle and, possibly, fail. Some educators argue that these efforts, though well intentioned and intended to help students, can have a negative impact because of their deficit-based approach.

Elizabeth Swadener, a professor of justice studies at the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University, was among one of the first academics to argue in the early 1990s that labeling children and young people as “at risk” was problematic.

In the 1960s, children from low-income and minority ethnic families were widely thought to possess “cultural deficits” that prevented them from doing well academically. Swadener has long argued the “at-risk” label is just a newer version of the cultural deficit mind-set. The label 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,” she said.

Removing the “at-risk” label in California is a positive first step to changing the way educators address and think about children and young people in the state, said Swadener. “While I didn’t advocate a relabeling with 'at promise,' it is an important step in seeing the promise in all children, including those with numerous challenges,” she said.

Many college student affairs employees are starting to recognize that viewing students through the lens of their potential failures can be detrimental, said David Arnold, assistant vice president for health, safety and well-being initiatives at NASPA, an association for student affairs administrators in higher education.

While terms such as “at promise” and “at potential” are gaining popularity, Arnold said neither is used universally. “Changing the culture of how we think about students and their strengths is ultimately more important than what we call it,” he said. “But perhaps ‘at promise’ will end up being how we talk about these issues.”

Victor Rios, a sociology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is a fan of the “at-promise” terminology. Rios, a former high school dropout and juvenile delinquent, has given speeches, written books and starred in a documentary about how being labeled “at risk” as a young person contributed to him feeling pushed out of the education system.

“I was labeled as a risk, and so I was treated as a risk,” said Rios. “It was a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Inspired by local teachers in the mid-'90s who started a grassroots effort to help students in low-income areas succeed in school, Rios decided to give education another shot. “The only reason I wanted to go back to school was to serve the interests of kids like me who had been pushed out of school and change the way we perceive them,” he said.

At UC Santa Barbara, Rios said, he is often disappointed by how his colleagues address first-generation students, who account for over 40 percent of the student population. He described attending a recent training session on how to work with “unfamiliar students” and starting a conversation about why the term “unfamiliar” had been chosen.

“There’s so much baggage tied to that word,” he said. “It suggests that we’re not seeing them as part of the UC Santa Barbara family. Or perhaps that we think of them as foreign or alien. Why do we have to put that kind of label on them?”

Matthew LaPlante, associate professor of journalism and communication at Utah State University, is a member of the board of Reaching At-Promise Students Association, a nonprofit professional development and networking membership organization that pushed for the legislative change in California.

“I believe very strongly that words have great power,” said LaPlante. “We have known for a very long time that this group of students doesn’t like to be referred to as failures, as dropouts, as at risk. 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.”

A word change alone isn’t going to help students, said LaPlante, and he recognizes there may be criticism of simply exchanging one set of words for another.

“We’re not pretending for a moment that changing words really changes anything -- this has to be followed by a lot of action,” said LaPlante. “This is a starting point.”

Ernie Silva, executive director of the at-promise student association, echoed LaPlante’s comments. RAPSA members will convene at an annual education policy conference in San Diego later this month to discuss next steps and encourage new practices.

“Language drives action. If you can talk about things differently, you can accomplish different things,” said Silva.

Switching “at risk” to “at promise” doesn’t mean that educators won’t acknowledge students' disadvantages -- that is still necessary, said Silva. But he hopes it will encourage educators to start viewing students as more than the challenges they face.

“We want everyone to view these young people as assets.”

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