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The Whiter the School District, the Higher the Risk?

The “at-risk student” is a construct conjuring imagery of low test scores, spotty school attendance, and concerning home lives. For the racist among us, the term “at-risk student” is likely connected to phenotypical characteristics. For the xenophobic, perhaps the term is attached to tongues that are developing — but not yet fluent in — the dominant language. Further still, perhaps the term “at risk” is informed by limited understandings of, and appreciation for, religious freedom and diversity. (I am reminded of a Muslim student who, a little over a year ago, invented a clock to impress his teacher and was rewarded with handcuffs and a trip to the local precinct.)

Dr. Christina BerchiniDr. Christina Berchini

The term at risk is often based on the notion of failure. Mainstream language of at risk inspires thoughts of students incapable of (or not likely to) transition into functioning, self-sufficient adults. This is, after all, the first definition of the at-risk student offered up on a Google search, provided by Wikipedia: at-risk students, sometimes referred to as at-risk youth, are also adolescents who are less likely to transition successfully into adulthood and achieve economic self-sufficiency.

Older educational scholarship and current policy seem to glom onto this definition.

Indeed, when language of “a nation at risk” was manufactured in 1983 in the spurious and misguided pursuit of narrow notions of educational excellence, schools were tasked with predicting and then remedying at-risk students. As long ago as 1988, it has been argued (and decided) that academic failure predicted those most likely at risk, by way of reading and math test scores, grades and other numbers that lend themselves to easy measurability. In sum, our nation’s markers of educational success are predicated on a student’s ability to recall forgettable facts, and this is true across subject areas. Those who cannot recall facts in the 30-or-so minutes they are given to complete a single section of a daylong exam are considered at risk.

Of course, there are myriad researchers and educators who oppose this limiting and harmful conception of those considered at risk. There are others still who challenge the use of the term altogether as it has been employed to describe and, ultimately, hurt children.

For instance, urban education teacher and scholar Gloria Ladson-Billings has long argued that “we cannot saddle these babies at kindergarten with this label and expect them to proudly wear it for the next 13 years, and think, ‘Well, gee, I don’t know why they aren’t doing good.’ So if anybody gets it, I know that writing project people know language matters. What you call something matters.”

I agree with Ladson-Billings, while begrudgingly acknowledging that the term at risk is not likely to go away any time soon.

However, the recent presidential election outcome has inspired me to think about what it means to be labeled an at-risk student, as historically defined and currently executed. It seems that being at risk has nothing to do with the economic frame-works I outlined above. Instead, a student deemed at risk might be a student who evidences a deficit — a void — of heart, soul, and sense of humanity and social justice.

This notion of at risk cannot be measured, but if the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has taught us anything about the postelection aftermath, it can certainly be observed.

In the days following the election, the SPLC recorded hundreds of reports of hate incidents in schools, between user-submissions and media accounts. While I cannot pretend to have read through all of them, I can say with confidence that the perpetrators, in many cases, have been identified.

Take, for example, the case of Michigan, a state with the highest number of postelection hate-based incidents in the Midwest: On November 11, students enrolled at predominantly White Royal Oak Middle School in Royal Oak, Michigan, were re-corded chanting “Build a wall!” in the school cafeteria; nine days later, a student enrolled at this same school was removed for displaying a noose in the boys’ bathroom.

In dissecting the school district’s report card, they have been given a 7 out of 10 — a score based on test results. Indeed, Royal Oak students writ-large have been classified as academic “overachievers.” Twenty percent were enrolled in the district’s free and reduced lunch program, which is 26 percent-age points below Michigan’s state average.

The district’s high school has been awarded a silver medal from U.S. News & World Report, based on the premise that “the best schools must serve all students well and must produce measurable academic out-comes that support this mission.” So, we might surmise that the district is home to quality schools, based on its test scores, Advanced Placement enrollment, graduation rates, and other measurable outcomes — all of which, by the way, are higher than the national average.

Now, let’s compare the Royal Oak School District to one of its neighbors, Detroit Public Schools — a district that has long been on the receiving end of punitive sanctions and statewide failure to provide equitable education for the city’s terrifically diverse student population.

Approximately 80 percent of its students are enrolled in free and reduced lunch, and the media have made a spectacle of the district’s reading and math test scores — some of the lowest in the state. Notwithstanding the city’s massive contributions to innovation, the arts, environmental sustain-ability, women’s empowerment, and yes, educational initiatives, shortsighted lawmakers prefer to grapple with whether Detroit’s students have a fundamental right to literacy.

Dr. Christina Berchini is an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

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