STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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Should all black students be labeled "at-risk" based solely on their ethnicity?

Young boy doing homework
Eric Cuthbert / Flickr CC / HTTP://J.MP/1SPGCL0

School districts get a certain amount of money from the state based on the number at-risk students they have.

The money goes towards resources that help schools meet the greater challenges of educating these students. Things like professional development for teachers, improving curriculum, enhancing parental involvement, and providing other activities tied to raising student achievement.

In Michigan, a student is labeled "at-risk" if they meet any of a number of factors including:

  • victims of abuse or neglect;
  • teenage parents;
  • eligible for free or reduced-priced breakfast, lunch, or milk;
  • absent more than 10 school days;
  • homeless;
  • English language learners;
  • immigrants or migrants;
  • a family history of school failure, incarceration, or substance abuse;
  • not achieving proficiency in English language arts, math, science, or social studies; or
  • are at risk of not meeting the district's core academic objectives in English language arts or math.

But according to Ypsilanti Community Schools Superintendent Ben Edmondson, all black students should automatically be considered at-risk, simply because that they are black.

According to The Ann Arbor News, Edmondson says the achievement gap between white students and black students makes the case for including race in the discussion of what puts students at risk. He said:

The fact that you're a person of color in the state of Michigan should be on there. My children are African-American. Yes, I'm in a higher tax bracket and highly educated, but the simple fact that you're born into this country as a person of color puts you at-risk.... Some state needs to be bold enough to say yes, that is a factor.

With additional state funding directed at at-risk black students, Edmondson says he would provide additional supports specifically for black female students, provide more preschool interventions, and get parents more involved in their children's education. And he says more state funding could provide for after-school enrichment activities and additional training for teachers on understanding African-American culture.

Researchershave looked at whether labeling a student as at-risk can lead to self-fulfilling prophecies, and create additional challenges. In 2010, retired Washington State Sen. Rosa Franklin sponsored a bill to replace references to low-income children like "disadvantaged," and "at-risk," with the term "at hope." Franklin told the Associated Press:

We really put too many negatives on our kids. We need to come up with positive terms. Positive labeling is more than a gimmick or political correctness.

But Edmondson disagrees with shying away from the term. Hesays:

If we put it out there, we'll find solutions. But as long as it's hidden, you're never going to have that conversation that this is an at-risk factor.

Black students are suspended and expelled from school at disproportionately high rates. They lag behind their white peers on standardized tests. And research has shown that white teachers are more likely to expect their black students to fail.

But these factors don't apply to every black student. So should we make generalizations about them? The Michigan Department of Education doesn't think so. Spokesperson Bill DiSessa said in a statement to The Ann Arbor News:

While our largest achievement gaps are with African-American males, we cannot broadly say that all African-American students are low-income, just as we can't say that all low-income students are African-American. We need to focus targeted resources to assist all low-income at-risk students, whether they are in our urban communities or in our rural communities.

What do you think about considering all black students "at-risk"?

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