Recasting the “At-Risk” Student

When I first read this item from Education Week, I immediately thought of a former colleague, an urban principal, who had the same idea a few years earlier: he identified the most “at-risk” boys and girls in our high school, and then invited them to monthly meetings (the “Boys Leadership Team” and the “Girls Leadership Team”). The idea was to see if imagining students in a different context (and if getting them to see themselves in a different context) could lead to a transformation.

I love this idea, and I’m constantly thinking about variations on this theme.

Another urban school where I’ve worked surveyed students at the beginning of the year. As a result of these questionnaires, we learned details some students tend not to reveal face-to-face: those with incarcerated parents, with murdered family members, or with adults in their lives who struggle with addiction; students who serve as primary caretakers for younger siblings, or nieces and nephews, or even neighbors; families always on the move, staying with friends and relatives, or struggling with homelessness.

It can sometimes be too easy to stereotype at-risk students, blaming their under-performance on some flawed character trait, as opposed to fostering a deeper understanding of their daily lives. But what if that sophomore who never turns in her homework (because her mom works two jobs and she has three younger siblings to take care of) got labeled a “leader,” as someone who can work with other kids who also struggle with too many adult responsibilities? Could a simple change of context have an impact?

Ever since I first learned about John Hattie’s Visible Learning, I frequently check this website when I want to know something’s “effect size.” (Hattie conducted a meta-analysis of educational research, and found that the average “effect size” of various interventions was 0.40. Therefore, anything with an effect size greater than 0.40 has an above average impact on students.)

Things outside our control appear on the list above the 0.40 mark – such as “Home Environment” (0.57), “Socioeconomic Status” (0.57), and “Pre-Term Birth Weight” (0.54). The good news is that plenty of things are within our control, and several appear to relate to this idea of recasting “at-risk” students as leaders – such as “Peer Influences” (0.53), “Expectations” (0.43), and “Self-Concept” (0.43).

If you’re curious, the highest effect size comes with “Self-Reporting Grades” (1.44). I also found it noteworthy how, near the bottom, comes “Retention” (-0.16) – behind only “Television” (-0.18) and “Mobility” (-0.34).

Years ago, during my second year in teaching, I met a student named “Laisha.” She was a quiet girl. I hardly ever heard her voice. But she was smart, and one heck of a creative writer. During her senior year, she had trouble getting to school on time, and this led to a surprising downward spiral into the school’s discipline system. At one point, I heard a guidance counselor actually complain that she had seen Laisha standing on the corner with “some drug dealer in dreadlocks.” However, due to a poem she had written in her creative writing class that my friend, another teacher at the school, had shared with me, we knew the truth: the guy with dreadlocks was no “drug dealer”; instead, he was a man named “Laish” – a long-time friend of her mother’s, who had served as a father figure and as a mentor to Laisha (for whom she was named!).

At the time, I was too new to teaching and to the school to know how to say anything about all this. I hated seeing Laisha being treated that unfairly. (Her memory haunts me to this day.) Now, all these years later, I see the issue as relating to this notion of “context.” That guidance counselor had written off Laisha because of an impression. What if, therefore, we were able to more actively mold the impressions of our most “at-risk” students to one more people can believe in?

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