WHAT ARE THE CHARACTERISTICS OF AT-RISK STUDENTS?
At-risk students are students who are not experiencing success in school and are potential dropouts. They are usually low academic achievers who exhibit low self-esteem. Disproportionate numbers of them are males and minorities. Generally they are from low socioeconomic status families. Students who are both low income and minority status are at higher risk; their parents may have low educational backgrounds and may not have high educational expectations for their children.
At-risk students tend not to participate in school activities and have a minimal identification with the school. They have disciplinary and truancy problems that lead to credit problems. They exhibit impulsive behavior and their peer relationships are problematic. Family problems, drug addictions, pregnancies, and other problems prevent them from participating successfully in school. As they experience failure and fall behind their peers, school becomes a negative environment that reinforces their low self-esteem.
HOW CAN THEY BE IDENTIFIED AND AT WHICH AGE?
Some evaluation instruments that have been used in identifying potential dropouts include the Elementary School Pupil Adjustment Scale (ESPAS) for identifying poorly adjusted students in grades K-3, the Dropout Alert Scale (DAS) for grades 4-12, and the Student Sensitivity Index (SSI) for grades 7-12 (see Cage and others 1984).
At-risk students need to be identified as early as possible and regularly reevaluated because their family status and living situations can change. Some researchers believe that the roots of at-risk behavior begin in the elementary grades with low achievement patterns, high absenteeism, and low self-esteem. Programs identifying and working with at-risk students are needed at every grade level. Teachers should be well trained and alert to the symptoms of at-risk student behavior, and administrative staff should be responsive to their needs. It is especially important that teachers dealing with minority students have training in language and cultural differences. Schools need to be a model for equal opportunity and a place where the individual's needs for achievement and positive experiences can be met. The needs of minority students, low income students, and students with special problems must be addressed.
WHAT KINDS OF PROGRAMS ARE EFFECTIVE IN HELPING AT-RISK STUDENTS?
Successful programs often separate at-risk students from other students, they relate work to education, are small, have low student-to-teacher ratios, and provide counseling and supportive services. Most programs emphasize flexibility, tailoring curriculum to the learning needs of the individual students. They are often innovative, providing alternatives to traditional promotion policies, structuring curriculum in nontraditional ways, offering early childhood education programs, and including vocational education in alternative settings.
Effective programs are involved in a broad range of special services to help at-risk students improve their low self-esteem while providing a supportive system in which they can begin to have positive experiences. These include remediation programs, tutoring, child care services, medical care, substance abuse awareness programs, bilingual instruction, employment training, and close followup procedures on truancy and absenteeism.
Finally, successful programs are service-intensive; they provide students personal contact with a qualified, caring staff. Schools often work with the community to identify at-risk students and to instruct parents on how to help their at-risk children.
The New Haven Schools Project (CT) is an innovative nineteen-year-old project in the New Haven elementary schools. Administrators, parents, teachers, and support staff work collaboratively to provide at-risk students a climate in which they are able to become successful. Achievement levels have been raised while attendance and behavior problems have been lowered. One school originally ranking thirty-third citywide now ranks third in achievement. The New Haven Schools Project has successfully motivated at-risk students to achieve at a higher level academically and socially (Comer 1987).
HOW DOES THE CURRENT PUSH FOR EXCELLENCE AFFECT AT-RISK STUDENTS?
Federal financial support for education fell 11 percent between 1980-87 while the numbers of disadvantaged students grew nationwde by 20 percent. During the same period the educational reform movement has diverted funds from elementary and middle schools to high school reform programs. Many more students are currently at-risk than ever before, while educational standards are being raised nationwide.
Stricter standards for high school graduation in Florida have produced the largest percentage of dropouts (38 percent) in a state nationwide. When the graduation requirement of a 1.5 gradepoint takes effect in 1987 the dropout rate is expected to rise even higher.
Recognizing that higher standards impose a "forbidding barrier" rather than a challenge for at-risk students, the Governor's Task Force on Readiness has prepared a national "action agenda" for states to follow to help at-risk students meet higher educational standards. Among other initiatives, the task force recommended "establishing a mechanism for state intervention when school districts fail to make progress with low-achieving students," and developing incentives for "effective school and classroom procedures and practices" (quoted by Riley 1986).
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Bondi, Joseph; and Jon Wiles. "School Reform in Florida--Implications for the Middle School." EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP 44 (1986): 44-46.
Cage, Bob N., and others. DROPOUT PREVENTION. Jackson: University of Mississippi, June 1984. ED 260 321.
Comer, James P. "New Haven's School-Community Connection." EDUCATIONAL LEADERSHIP 44 (1987): 13-16.
Druian, Greg. "Effective Schooling and At-Risk Youth: What the Research Shows." Portland, OR: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory, Goal Based Education Program, September, 1986. ED 275 926.
Green, Brenda Z. "Lower the Risk for 'At-Risk' Students." Alexandria, VA: National School Boards Association, Educational Policies Service. Updating School Board Policies, 17, 8, September, 1986.
"Identifying At-Risk Students." Eugene: ERIC Clearinghouse on Educational Management, University of Oregon. The Best of ERIC on Educational Management, November, 1986. ED 275 053.
O'Connor, Patrick. "Dropout Prevention Programs That Work." Eugene, OR: Oregon School Study Council, December, 1985. OSSC Bulletin Series. ED 275 065.
Riley, Richard W. "Can We Reduce the Risk of Failure?" PHI DELTA KAPPAN 68 (1986): 214-219.
Strother, Deborah Burnett. "Dropping Out." PHI DELTA KAPPAN 68 (1986): 325-328.
Weber, James M. "The Role of Vocational Education in Decreasing Dropout Rate." Ohio State University, Columbus, OH: Center for Research in Vocational Education, 1986. ED 264 444.