Education, above all things, should be a humane process – focusing on the one and taking into account individual circumstances.

For students labeled “at-risk” academically, this is especially true.  

Last Wednesday a panel of innovators talked about addressing at-risk academic factors like truancy, suspensions, cultural differences, lack of access to STEM, and ineffective coordination of resources. In the end, each of their innovations was less about a behavior change than it was a transformative shift in how education leaders think about students.

Andrew Coy, panelist and founder of Digital Harbor Foundation – a nonprofit organization dedicated to giving inner city students access to technology – said that the common thread among panelists is an effort to push against a “deficit model,” the status quo culture in too many schools.

The deficit model approaches school issues like truancy, disruptive behavior, or cultural differences by focusing on what students lack or what they’re doing wrong. An “asset model” first seeks to understand the student and asks what positive traits the individual brings.

José Enriquez, panelist and founder of Latinos in Action (LIA), explained that courses offered for Latino students generally focus on remediation. Instead of emphasizing what some Latino students lack – e.g., perfect English language fluency – he wanted to emphasize their assets –  e.g., access to two languages. LIA is aimed at empowering Latino and other students in their communities through service learning, leadership, and college and career readiness. The class, which functions like a student council, offers students opportunities to tutor young kids, visit assisted living homes, hold leadership positions, and apply for scholarships. LIA students have a 95 percent graduation rate, and 85 percent of them matriculate on to college.

Paul Meyers, superintendent of Standard School District in Bakersfield, Calif., worked with Blue Water Educational Consulting to implement in his schools restorative justice practices and alternatives to suspensions – disciplinary approaches that give students tools to repair past wrongs rather than simply kicking them out of school. For nearly three decades schools have employed zero-tolerance policies – rules that punish minor infractions as a way to enforce general compliance. But after years of this approach, some wonder if the zero-tolerance approach contributes to the school-to-prison pipeline. Utah Rep. Sandra Hollins (D-Salt Lake) opened a bill file this year for a resolution, urging restorative justice practices in the state.

Meyers said the change in his California schools has dramatically reduced suspensions, expulsions and recidivism. It also prompted one of his former problematic students to say, “Now we know you care about us.”

Scott Rogers, superintendent of Tooele School District, implemented a new philosophy for dealing with truant students based on ideas in the documentary “Paper Tigers.” Starting last year, Tooele School District went from employing “truancy officers” that wrote tickets to “attendance specialists” that made home visits to find the root cause of the student’s chronic absenteeism. Rogers’ background in psychology has prompted him to look at Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) – seeking to understand and address trauma in children rather than just punishing behavior.  While the truancy policy is relatively new, he said the district has already seen improvement in attendance.

Innovation is more than a particular policy. It’s challenging the status quo. It’s rethinking our assumptions. And when it comes to education, innovation can even be a shift in how we view our students: at-risk statistics or individuals with limitless potential.

Christine Cooke, J.D., a former public school teacher, is education policy director at Sutherland Institute, which sponsored the at-risk education panel.