How the hope and potential of ‘at-promise’ moves mainstream

'At-risk' connotation has gnawed at educators wanting to de-stigmatize the terminology for years
By: | April 14, 2021

The idea was simple: Change an adjective and change the culture. The thinking was to replace the conversational and written label for the student referred to as “at-risk,” and offer up the more positively framed “at-promise.” Strong work for an adjective.

The at-risk connotation has gnawed at educators wanting to de-stigmatize the terminology for years. Minorities grumbled privately until they found their voice.

The movement gained traction in mid-2019 as Californians pressed their state assembly to put action into law.

A leading advocate for change was the nonprofit Reaching At-Promise Students Association. The group held webinars, hosted hearings, and printed literature, said Ernie Silva, the organization’s executive director. He said the group reached out to 9,000 supporters.

Others soon championed the call

“The term ‘at risk’ negatively labels children and families and is a harmful label that locates blame for future failure in the individual child or family,” said Flora Farago, PhD, assistant professor with the School of Human Sciences at Stephen F. Austin State University in Texas.

“For decades, this term has been used for increasing categories of vulnerable and marginalized children,” Farago added, noting her specialty has been researching the impact of negative stereotyping on children.

On Jan. 1, 2020, “at-promise” became law in California. It was adopted into the State’s Department of Education and Penal Code AB 413.

Has it delivered?

“We’re hoping that states will adopt at-promise as official language. What I didn’t predict was the global pandemic following California’s adoption of at-promise in its education and penal codes,” said Silva.

“Nevertheless, education leaders across the country have begun both using the ‘at-promise’ term as well as at-promise practices [such as] personalized learning, alternative accountability measures, and a focus on re-engaging both disengaged and out-of-school learners,” he added.

Silva recalled that shortly after “at-promise” became California law that he attended a local graduation where he heard an at-promise student share her slam poetry. He said her poetry was about being seen as at-risk all her life but her “reengagement allowed her promise to shine through.”

One of the early activists at RAPSA was Matthew LaPlante, a journalism professor from Utah State University, who fifteen years ago founded the Graduation Alliance, an organization “to better provide for students who were falling between the cracks.”

When asked about at-promise progress, he replied, “The first thing I should say is that we never expected this to change the world. But the last years has given us a great challenge in the semantical sense, so that what little effect we expected got put on hold,” he said.

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“Now that we’re beginning to come out of this pandemic, we have a renewed opportunity to see that semantical change garners wider adoption,” LaPlante continued. “And then we can see how it works.”

According to Silva, the at-promise movement had its most visible outcome in California’s legislation and then emphasized that its roots are national in education and with community leaders who see the possibility of reaching disengaged students and helping them demonstrate their promise of success.

“During this past year of [COVID-19], schools of all kinds are seeing the importance of reaching students who would have coasted through in normal times but now are drowning in a sea of neglect and distance,” he stressed. “Reengagement matters in 2021 more than ever.”

LaPlante added to this observation. “I think this is a starting place for conversation in order to convince legislative leaders that something like this takes time. It’s fine replacing a state law, and it’s a very inexpensive thing we can do to better embrace the underserved student.”

Roland Little covers Title I issues for LRP Publications.