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Where Everyone Knows Your Name:
Special Programs Target At-Risk Students


From time to time, Education World updates and reposts a previously published article that we think might be of interest to administrators. We hope you find this recently updated article to be of value.

Education World takes a look at some special programs that target at-risk students in grades five and up. In this overview, we examine school programs for students with problems, programs for "average" kids who've gotten lost in the shuffle, and a controversial preventative program. What makes these special programs successful? Can anything be learned from these programs that might be adapted by "mainstream" schools? Included: Additional resources for educators interested in learning about or developing programs that target at-risk students across the grades!

"All the teachers were glad to have me. They make [me] feel important -- as a person. It blew my mind. I loved it from the first day. Everybody is really welcoming." --- John, a tenth-grade dropout from a large high school

"There were too many kids there. I sat in the back and raised my hand, but I never got any help Here, everyone is very accepting. I know I'm going to graduate." --- Anna, failed her freshman year in a big high school

Many students at risk of dropping out of school stay to finish when they are assigned to smaller programs, programs -- to borrow a line from the theme song of the TV show Cheers -- "where everybody knows your name"!

John and Anna have found success -- success they never dreamed imaginable in their former schools -- in the 150-student Meridian Academy, in suburban Boise, Idaho. Meridian was one of the subjects of a recent report, Alternative Schools: Caring for Kids on the Edge, produced by the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory (NWREL).

Students from many different backgrounds and with many different needs end up at Meridian. All are good kids, science teacher Larry Ford told NWREL. They're good kids who've dropped out or nearly dropped out. Many of them are "invisible" children, lost in the shuffle of larger schools. But at Meridian Academy students are offered a new chance for success. They attend small classes -- with 15 students in the average class -- where teachers greet them by name each day; where teachers strive to draw every student into every lesson, engaging them, making them feel "visible;" and where small "family group" sessions offer students an opportunity to air problems and receive support on a regular basis.

The curriculum at Meridian is hands-on and student-centered. "I have students get involved with what they're learning -- build it or make it or do it -- instead of reading out of a book and answering the questions at the back," PE/health teacher Audra Urie told NWREL. Many special hands-on programs have found their way into Meridian's curriculum:

  • The school's health and adult-living class includes a special program, Baby Think It Over, where students learn what it's like to care for "simulator babies" around the clock. (See an Education World story about this program.)
  • Meridian students teach local fourth-graders lessons in botany, biology, ecology, and geology as they explore together the nearby Boise River greenbelt.
  • A $15,000 grant from U.S. West funds the Science Circus program, where Meridian students create science teaching packets for elementary teachers. The packets include materials the Meridian students have created to perform science demonstrations they have researched.

Meridian's staff recognizes that many at-risk students fall behind because they can't keep up with the homework assigned in regular schools. Many come from home situations that aren't conducive to doing homework, have after-school jobs or parenting responsibilities, or go to vocational school at night. Therefore, Meridian has a "no homework" policy. To compensate, class time is extended and Friday afternoons are dedicated to finishing or making up work. As an added incentive to staying on top of work, students who are all caught up get to leave early on Fridays!

But don't be fooled by the "no homework" policy, Marilyn Reynolds, principal of the eight-year-old school, told NWREL. Expectations for students are very high. They must achieve a 70 percent record in each class. Each year, about a quarter of Meridian students leave before completing the school year; but that 75 percent retention rate, notes Reynolds, is remarkable for a population 100 percent of whom were expected to drop out of their former schools.


Discipline isn't much of a problem at Meridian Academy. The staff, and even the students, recognize that structure is key to their success. Afterall, a lack of structure at home and in school is one of the main causes for the students' previous school problems. Just as good parents have clear rules and consistent consequences, so does Meridian. And each student must read and sign the schools's Student Behavior Policy each semester. It's a policy the students have a hand in forming and it spells out the rules and the consequences. After three discipline referrals, students must appear before a Student Court. There, evidence is presented, advocates and prosecutors speak, and students and their parents have an opportunity to make their pleas. Staff members then vote to give the students another chance or to dismiss them.

When area school administrators visit Meridian to follow-up on students they've referred there, they often express astonishment at the changes they see in students they knew to be sullen or surly. "They can't believe the demeanor of the kids," Reynolds told NWREL. "Their body language has changed. Their whole persona is different"

"They start to experience success," adds Ford. "It only takes a few weeks, and you notice they raise their heads up. Next, they start looking you in the eye, and their shoulders are back. Pretty soon, they start thinking about vocational school or technical school or college -- the last thing they ever thought about in their lives."


In many states, education officials agree that "connectedness" between the state education department and local school districts can be the key to success. Bringing statewide attention to the issue of at-risk students, for example, helps focus local districts on developing alternative programs to help students stay in school. And state financial incentives often provide an additional nudge to school districts.

Such is the case in New Jersey, where last June the state approved $62 million for the School Accountability Fund for Excellence (SAFE) program, which is designed to improve academic performance for at-risk students.

New Jersey is already the site of many successful programs for at-risk students. For example:

  • At the Felician Alternative School, small classes are helping to focus the attention of overage middle school students who are at risk of dropping out. This school of 32 students is staffed by two full-time teachers. Ten faculty members and about 30 students at Lodi College, where the program is housed, also instruct and tutor students who are selected based on their potential for success. Many of FAS's students had scored well on standardized tests but weren't doing well in the classroom. Being held back had added to the students' frustrations.
  • At the Class Academy in Long Branch, 60 high school students are taught by five teachers and one counselor. All of the students were considered "failures" in their previous schools. Some had been expelled for bullying or disruptive behaviors. Others were unwilling to do any schoolwork. Teachers at Class Academy rely on creative teaching techniques, one-on-one tutoring, and letting students work cooperatively on assignments. While a counselor in many high schools might be responsible for hundreds of students, Class Academy's counselor, Susan Gansman, talks to most of her students every day.


In Ohio, administrators from six Franklin County school districts are calling a program there -- the Magellen program -- a success.

At her regular school, sixth-grader Brandy Brubaker had a history of confrontations and was not completing schoolwork. She was getting D's and F's. At the Magellan program, the 12-year-old is getting more attention from teachers and counselors, and is earning A's, B's, and C's.

"She has finally gained some self-confidence," Nancy Aiello, a counselor who helped refer Brandy to the program, told the Columbus Dispatch in May.

Some parents worried about a school that would bring together 45 "troubled" kids. But all the one-on-one attention the kids at Magellan get has made those parents believe in the program -- which is funded by the state, grants, and tuitions paid by participating school districts. Generally, students will attend Magellan for one or two semesters. The staff of three classroom teachers decide with seven counselors (who are graduate students at Ohio State University) which students will return to their home districts' schools.

Many students are making progress, Magellan director Jan Wilson told the Dispatch, "But it's because of the setting. It's not yet so ingrained in them that they have that confidence built up that they can return [to their former schools] and carry that through."

"One of the absolute keys has been the collaborations with OSU counselors," Wilson added. Students get an hour of individual counseling and an hour of group counseling, and additional counseling as crises arise. Special programs teach anger management and get kids talking about staying out of trouble. A session for parents, "Are Your Kids Driving You Crazy?," got a good response too.


A handful of NFL football teams support local programs that provide skilled teachers and tutors, small classes, and ample resources to students at risk of dropping out. Such is the case in Seattle with Seahawks Academy, which aims to help "high risk" middle school students get back on track. Initiated by the Communities in Schools program, a national nonprofit program that helps "young people successfully learn, stay in school, and prepare for life," Seahawks Academy enrolls 145 seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-graders. Two thirds of its students are boys, and 85 percent are minorities.

"It's small enough that the kids can't fall through the cracks," Doug Danner, director of special programs for the district, told the Times. Each class has 20 to 25 students and two adults, a teacher and a tutor. The school has a zero-tolerance policy for fighting, skipping classes, and class disruption.

"The kids know, if you don't behave, you're out," adds Danner. Last year, six students were expelled from the program.

Student scores on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills are up an average of 33 percent in math, 17 percent in reading, and 7 percent in writing compared with their scores before attending the academy, principal Julie Zarelli told the Times. Dropout, suspension, and expulsion rates are down.

The Seattle Seahawks help fund the school, to the tune of $85,000 a year. Other supporters include Costco, Boeing, and United Airlines. Gatorade donates 75 tickets for each Seahawks home game. The tickets are given to students (and their families) as a reward for completing homework.

"I'm glad to be part of this," Seahawk quarterback Warren Moon, who visits the school about once a month, told the Times. "This gives kids an extra boost. It lets them know there are other people outside the classroom thinking about them. It's helping to take some kids who normally get into trouble and [putting] them in an environment where they at least have a chance to be successful."


At Terry Heights Elementary School in Huntsville, Alabama, special education teacher Janice Summerhill worries about her students. Many of the school's predominantly black students are being raised by single mothers, and they attend a school where the teaching staff is predominantly female. In 1996, Summerhill cornered Army Sgt. Maj. Theodore Tyson before an Alabama A&M football game. She dared Tyson, who works in the university's ROTC program, to help her address the problem she saw in her school.

Up to the challenge, Tyson started an ROTC-like program at Terry Heights. He and volunteer cadets from Alabama A&M drill eighteen students for an hour each week. The students, clad in camouflage, march right, then left, then right, on orders from their leaders. The program has received a lot of positive press, and some negative feedback as well.

The group teaches nothing more warlike than what students might learn in a marching band, its supporters say. (The program is totally volunteer; the ROTC does not support the program financially, as Junior ROTC chapter funds are provided only for programs for students in grades 8 and above.)

The goal of the program is to instill confidence and discipline that will help students achieve in middle school, says Tyson. "They will never see a weapon," Tyson told Teacher Magazine (see Small Soldiers). "We will never teach them military tactics. We're using military techniques to teach them discipline."


Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory
Among the resources available on NWREL's Web site is the special report highlighted in this article, Alternative Schools: Caring for Kids on the Edge. Also on the site, you'll find a 1997 "By Request" report, Alternative Schools: Approaches for Students at Risk -- Rural or urban, rich or poor, culturally diverse or homogeneous, all public schools and districts face the challenge of trying to educate students who for one reason or another don't thrive in the usual school environment. School psychologists or counselors may be called in to evaluate the situation, conferences with the parents sought, behavior management contracts drawn up, all to no avail -- the student is at risk of failing. With many other options exhausted, this is a common scenario under which the school, parents, or students themselves may seek placement in an alternative school. This report examines the approaches used in a variety of so-called "alternative schools."

Tools for Schools
Twenty-seven school reform models supported by the National Institute on Education of At-Risk Students are the subject of this April 1998 report on the U.S Department of Education's Web site. Tools for Schools is designed to help practitioners and policy makers who want to improve the performance of schools with significant at-risk student populations. The description of each model tells: What is the model? Why did it get started? How does it work? What are the costs? How is the model implemented in a school? What is the evidence that the model is successful? Where can I see it? Whom do I contact? Also, information about the research base is included.

Youth Development and Research Fund
YDRF/TeamYouth's powerful message to at-risk youth is about the importance of getting an education, obtaining work experience, and developing options beyond the streets. Too many urban young adults marginalize themselves by engaging in activities that do nothing but limit life and economic opportunity. YDRF/TeamYouth members are helping young adults achieve success in the world of work and school.

New Visions: Staten Island Grapples with At-Risk Program
Although an alternative program designed for students at risk of dropping out has been hailed as highly successful in other parts of New York City, Staten Island educators have yet to endorse the New Visions program for their schools, according to this May 1998 story from the Staten Island Advance. The New Visions program breaks the "cookie-cutter approach to education" by enrolling at-risk students in small, innovative schools that rely less on rote learning and more on an integrated, hands-on curriculum, notes the paper. About 50,000 of the city's 1 million public school students in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Manhattan and Queens currently are enrolled in 140 of these "scaled-down" schools, with about one-third of the programs created in the last five years by New Visions for Public Education, a not-for-profit education group.

Critical Issue: Using Technology to Enhance Engaged Learning for At-Risk Students
An increasing number of educators are calling for high standards and challenging learning activities for at-risk students. New technologies can provide meaningful learning experiences for all children, especially those at risk of educational failure. Schools that capitalize on the relationship between technology and education reform will help students to develop higher order skills and to function effectively in the world beyond the classroom.

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World®
Copyright © 2010 Education World

Originally published 02/01/1999
Last updated 06/01/2010