From At-Risk to At-Promise: Changing How We Describe, Teach & Reach Our Children

By Johni Cruse Craig, Ed.D.

The ability to obtain a quality education is the great equalizer; a quality education remains the civil rights issue of our generation. While our public school systems are becoming re-segregated and more diverse, many of today’s public school students face steep odds to thriving and achieving in school, especially those schools in underserved and low-income communities. Often, students that are a part of this community are students of color – Latino and African American. Conversely, at an early age, they are often saddled with the label of being “at risk” for academic and social-emotional failure.

The Delta Teacher Efficacy Campaign (DTEC) is proposing a paradigm shift in how our students are both perceived and taught, a change in language to help lead the movement for better educational outcomes for these students. We want to replace the term “at-risk” with “at-promise,” for that is what these students represent—the promise of brighter futures, improved outcomes, raised expectations, and odds-beating lives that happen when we improve the quality of their education.

DTEC is an innovative collaboration between the Delta Research and Educational Foundation (DREF) and the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. (DST) to enhance teacher effectiveness that promotes learning and achievement for all children along with uniting educators and community stakeholders as active change agents for education. We have received generous funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to support this imperative.

Our quest is nothing less than to change our children’s lives and futures. And to do that, we must focus more on their potential for achievement and progress than on the risks they face for falling through the cracks. Dr. Paulette C. Walker, president of DST, is an acclaimed multicultural education expert who has written about the need to upgrade our terminology from “at-risk” to “at-promise.”

“Far too often, children of color are viewed through dark-tainted glasses that see them as children at risk. In order for them to be viewed as children at promise, we must alter the lenses or change the glasses,” Dr. Walker stated in an article co-written with Martha S. Lue Stewart for Florida Educational Leaders.

Dr. Walker explains that these students face challenges related to the impact of high-stakes testing, the effects of demographic change, family poverty, a lack of culturally-responsive teachers, a lack of cultural-community connection, and issues related to access to technology.

DTEC was created to address the issues related to culturally-responsive teachers and the vital connection between a student’s culture and classroom dynamics. This past spring, DTEC offered free professional development training to 180 certified Pre- K through 6th grade teachers in urban school communities, aiming to give other teachers an opportunity to strengthen and improve their effectiveness.

Beginning in August and extending through October 2015, DTEC is partnering with local organizations in 40 communities nationwide to convene “Call to Action” Town Hall meetings. The goal is to substantially increase awareness among education supporters and expand the ranks of educational change agents in each target community.

We’re working to raise awareness of teacher efficacy, which increases teacher confidence and competency for successfully reaching and engaging with all students, particularly those who are at-promise, to help them achieve and succeed academically.

By doing this work through DTEC, we are creating a vibrant and impactful community of collaboration that leads to educational change and progress for our students. Teachers who have experienced our training share how it helps them become more aware of and sensitive to their students’ cultures, aptitudes, and potential and has given them tools that help them teach various subjects more effectively. They talk about how they can better relate to their students and the students’ parents and what a positive impact this is having.

Research shows that teachers confident in their own and their students’ abilities to achieve produce the strongest students able to achieve the best academic results. Teacher efficacy is about building confidence and awareness—of the teachers in themselves and their abilities to meet the many daunting challenges of teaching, and of the teachers in the students’ abilities to achieve and succeed. This translates into the students having more confidence in themselves—and everybody wins.

We believe that any student can be motivated and educated to achieve academic success. As Dr. Walker says, we must all shift our perspectives and become change agents to move our children from at-risk to at-promise.

Photo: Shutterstock

Dr. Johni Cruse Craig is project director for DTEC. For more information about DTEC, the upcoming community town halls, and the work of the Delta Research and Educational Foundation, visit Dr. Craig also encourages everyone to follow the Congressional Black Congress' Education Day events on September 16th.

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