California's Democratic lawmakers are giving themselves an A+ after successfully swapping out the phrase "at-risk youth" with "at-promise youth" in the state's education and penal codes as part of an effort to level the playing field between the haves and the have-nots.
Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the legislation that went into effect last month. The push was first championed by Los Angeles Assemblyman Reginald Jones Sawyer, who describes himself as a fierce proponent for "fairness."
"I learned that words matter -- and once they were called 'at-risk,' they almost were in the school-to-prison pipeline automatically," he told CBS13.
Sawyer believes that the new change will erase negative connotations associated with the phrase "at-risk" and students will be able to perform better academically and become productive members of society.
"I learned that words matter -and once they were called 'at-risk,' they almost were in the school-to-prison pipeline automatically."
"Children can hear the term 'at-risk' used in reference to them and can misinterpret and internalize its meaning -- this can have a weighting affect rather than uplifting the potential they each have in working towards a brighter future through persistence in the classroom," he said in a statement. "At-risk has been used for years to describe predominantly students of color and their plight with social and economic difficulties. The term also promotes the stereotype of a student unable to achieve academic success because of where they live or the minimal amount of resources available."
He added that it was the state's duty to make sure students deemed disadvantaged economically or with special needs be able to count on California for a "free quality education that supports them every step of the way and into either a career of their choosing or onto higher learning without labeling that follows them like a scarlet letter."
While the terms "at promise" and "at potential" are gaining popularity across the country, neither is used universally.
Critics argue the move might backfire and believe getting rid of the phrase "at-risk" could cut off federal funding streams and access to training programs and scholarships set up for disadvantaged students.
Elizabeth Swadener, a professor of justice studies at the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University, was among the first academics to call out the term "at risk" as problematic in the 1990s. She told Inside Higher Ed, an online publication, that while she didn't advocate a relabeling with 'at-promise,' "it is an important step in seeing the promise in all children, including those with numerous challenges."
Student Alejandro Galicia Cervantes agrees and told CBS13 that the term "at-risk" has always stung.
He said he was in high school the first time he was referred to as "at-risk."
"I just felt like, damn, I'm like really at-risk? That's the path I'm heading towards? It felt like there was no empowerment in it."
Cervantes joined a youth program called Improve Your Tomorrow, which helped him get into college.