Abandoning the term “At-Risk” for “At-Promise”: Turning the Meaning into Action.

Beverly Brown holds a doctorate in Educational Leadership from Oakland University, a Master’s in Administration from Central Michigan University, and a Bachelor’s in Business Administration from Western Michigan University.  A native of Detroit, she now lives in Flint and currently works in Lansing as the Early Middle College Manager for the Michigan Department of Education.

I recently did a Google search for the terms “at risk” combined with “at promise.”  In less than a second, the search engine identified 172,000,000 results. One article written in 2006 (Whiting, Vanderbilt University) asserted that the term “at-promise” conveyed a scholarly identity early on in a student’s educational journey. Another article published in The Washington Post (Mathews, 2009) suggested that the term “at promise” was merely “feel good language” that had no real meaning. In 2012, Ferris State University (Fulmer & Wildfong) offered a deeper understanding of the term. They suggested that the phrase focused on one’s natural gifts and potential for good.

While scholars continue to write about the pros and cons of the term “at-promise,” I want to point to a school here in Michigan that has not only given meaning to the term, but they also put it into action every day. I have closely observed the founder, leaders, and teachers at Mott Middle College in Flint for the past five years. Since 1991, they have intentionally welcomed students who are labeled what dominate society refers to as “at-risk.”  From the very beginning, they adopted and embraced the following motto: A fresh start toward a successful future.  In so doing, they applied a strategic formula, including robust wrap-around services, to transform students into young scholars.  These young people, many of whom are economically disadvantaged and African American, walk away knowing that they are “at-promise.”

The founder and former principal of Mott Middle College, Dr. Chery Wagonlander, created a purposeful culture of academic confidence among students. The first step, however, was to create a scholarly culture among teachers. In other words, scholars cultivating scholars became the theory that she put into action. What Dr. Wagonlander did more than two decades ago, was to enact what Carol S. Dweck wrote about in her 2006 book, Mindset. Both women challenged the traditional narrative of “at-risk” by declaring that all human beings can develop purposeful, positive academic, technical and social outcomes—no matter what background, age or race.

This “at-promise” framework has yielded an average GPA of 3.0 for its 13th year and dual enrollment graduates, many of whom earn more than one Associate Degree upon exiting Mott Middle College. The Early Middle College movement in Michigan is predicated on this “at-promise” philosophy. It is a particularly relevant framework for those students who are regarded as economically disadvantaged, underserved, underperforming and underrepresented. First generation college students also benefit greatly from the “at-promise” mantra at Early Middle Colleges across the state.

To learn more about becoming a state-approved Early Middle College, register your team of teachers, counselors, administrators, pupil accounting clerks and postsecondary partners for the Feb. 22, 2019 Getting Started Workshop at Mott Community College in Flint at the following link before February 8: Early Middle College Getting Started Workshop.

Author: Beverly Brown Ph.D., Early Middle College Manager, Michigan Department of Education.
Posted: January 22, 2019


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