Why Language Matters in Education Policy: “At-Promise” Youth

pastedImageI have always accepted that the school that I founded, New Dawn Charter High School, would be a “fringe” school – not really accepted, but tolerated. New Dawn is an alternative high school, meaning that we focus our work on students that are at risk of dropping out. Most often, these are students who have been held back multiple times so they are aging out of high school without the credits they need to graduate. Thus, New Dawn eagerly takes in the bottom 10% of high school students from all over New York City. Being a charter school adds to our “fringe” element. You would think that in our times education choice would be celebrated, but when you aren’t part of the “club”, you really are just a red herring.

This is why I was absolutely ecstatic at having the opportunity to attend and present at the  Alternative Accountability Policy Forum in San Diego, California. I was surrounded by like-minded people from all types of school models. You can imagine my satisfaction at looking at performance data for alternative education students that mirrored New Dawn’s four year adjusted graduation rate, the data point that will perpetually keep schools like mine in a bucket of “failure.” Most over-aged, under-credited students enter alternative schools beyond their fourth year of high school, often needing between 4 and 7 years to complete their high school requirements, making 4-year graduation rates a poor measure for an “alternative” setting.

Here’s where I started thinking about language. We use a variety of terms to describe our students – the “alternative” students, the “at-risk” student, and, more recently from RAPSA, the “at-promise” student. When we think about labels, they have a funny way of sticking to you. RAPSA, or the Reaching At-Promise Student Association, believes that by referring to the over-aged and under-credited as “at-promise” students, we can begin to shift the current negative connotation of their abilities to one of positive outcomes. However, if we are going to change how we refer to “at-promise” students, then we must change the name of the schools that they attend. “Alternative education” and “transfer schools” all connote the same thing: I failed and now I’m stuck with this last chance.

“Alternative education” and “transfer schools” all connote the same thing: I failed and now I’m stuck with this last chance.

When we think of the last chance for anything, we don’t think of quality. We think of items that didn’t get sold during the first go-round. We think of a surplus that needs to go away. Often, we think of anything that is attached with “alternative” as “maybe not as good as the original.” We demean our own mission and children when we attach them to a label that may connote those meanings.

What I heard throughout the San Diego convening of like-minded, passionate educators was a call for reform to give us more opportunity and room to serve our students. This is vital to the long-term livelihood of our schools. ESSA regulations like §200.14(c), where each state must ensure that each indicator “is calculated in the same way for all schools across the State, except that the measure or measures…may vary by each grade span,” would undo the progress we have made with our state education departments in designing meaningful accountability measures for the youth we serve.

We must stop thinking about alternative education as a pariah that should be hidden away from public view. Our students have persisted in their education journeys despite insurmountable odds, only to be labeled by our state and federal authorizers as “alternative.” The opportunity we have right now is to come together and stand up for our at-promise youth. The education they receive in our schools is not “alternative.” It’s innovative. Let’s face it – the traditional model didn’t work for these students for a variety of reasons. But OUR model IS working with them. That’s not alternative; that’s their right fit. And they are our right fit.

ESSA legislation will determine the future of our youth and how schools serve them over the next decade. So-called alternative education schools like New Dawn and countless others across the nation serve hundreds of thousands of students like mine, and they are taking risks and punches from state and federal accountability measures to help these students complete their high school education and be set up for post-secondary life. If we aim to change the labels, perhaps we can change policy around these students, for they don’t deserve alternatives. They deserve innovation. And they get that from the schools that courageously fight for better measures in order to provide those opportunities for our kids.

So let’s start thinking about how we serve and label in education beyond special education and language acquisition. Learning and the labels associated with how students learn are just as powerful. Students become empowered when they attend schools of innovation. They are dejected when they have to settle for alternatives. And I can tell you the people I met and learned from at this conference are far from alternatives. As keynote speaker Delaine Eastin charged, they are the “voices of tomorrow.”

(c) Lisa DiGaudio

Lisa DiGaudio is the Founding Principal at New Dawn Charter School in Brooklyn, New York, and holds a PhD in Leadership, Policy and Change from Walden University. Lisa was a New York Educator Voice Fellow with America Achieves for 2015 and a Policy Fellow for 2016-2017 and blogs for the Network of Independent Charter Schools and several other educational forums.


One comment

  1. Interesting article, Lisa! “If we aim to change the labels, perhaps we can change policy around these students, for they don’t deserve alternatives. They deserve innovation.” – So true. Proud of you and the work you and your team do everyday in Brooklyn!


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