Skip over navigation
Visit the NCREL Home Page

Critical Issue: Providing Effective Schooling for Students at Risk

Pathways Home

ISSUE: Students who are placed at risk due to poverty, race, ethnicity, language, or other factors are rarely well served by their schools (Hilliard, 1989; Letgers, McDill, & McPartland, 1993). They often attend schools where they are tracked into substandard courses and programs holding low expectations for learning (Oakes, 1985; Wheelock, 1992). If schools are to achieve the desired goal of success for all students, they must hold high expectations for all, especially this growing segment of learners. They must view these students as having strengths, not "deficits," and adopt programs and practices that help all students to achieve their true potential.

OVERVIEW: The question of what it means to be "at risk" is controversial. When children do not succeed in school, educators and others disagree about who or what is to blame. Because learning is a process that takes place both inside and outside school, an ecological approach offers a working description of the term at risk. In this view, inadequacies in any arena of life--the school, the home, or the community--can contribute to academic failure when not compensated for in another arena. Why is there a need to focus especially on at-risk students? The personal, economic, and social costs of academic underachievement are high and growing. Each year, increasing numbers of students enter school with circumstances in their lives that schools are ill prepared to accommodate. Yet from this academically and culturally diverse population must come the next generation of scientists, engineers, and other skilled professionals.

Traditionally, schools have responded to student diversity and poor academic performance with approaches such as ability grouping, grade retention, special education, and pull-out programs--in which students are removed from their regular classrooms and offered remedial instruction in particular subjects (Letgers, McDill, & McPartland, 1993). After 30 years of practice, however, researchers and educators (e.g., Slavin, 1988; Oakes, 1985) now believe these approaches may actually reduce student engagement and learning opportunities while stigmatizing students. (For a summary of the research, see Compensatory Education: Traditional Responses and Current Tensions.") Instead, the most promising alternative approaches focus on student assets (including their backgrounds and prior experiences), varied teaching strategies, and meaningful learning in collaborative settings. Also of critical importance to each child's success is the school's emphasis on high expectations for all students (Benard, 1995).

Today, schools are encouraging the development of thinking skills in remedial programs. They also are embracing schoolwide restructuring programs and heterogenous grouping as alternatives to pull-out programs. Many of these new programs and practices have proven themselves in the classroom (Levin, 1988; Slavin et al., 1989). Schools also are exploring new ways to involve parents and families in their children's education. Research indicates that parent involvement makes an enormous impact on students' attitudes, attendance, and academic achievement. This Pathways issue illustrates what schools are doing to successfully teach and support at-risk students.


ACTION OPTIONS: Educators can take the following actions to provide effective schooling for students:


Educators and community members may fail to specify the problems afflicting their school and instead search for someone to blame.

In an effort to improve, schools may adopt programs and practices that conflict with the school culture or the participants' vision for the school.

School and community members may underestimate the human and fiscal costs of effectively implementing an improvement plan, especially the time needed for staff development and training. (Refer to the Critical Issues " Realizing New Learning for All Students Through Professional Development" and " Finding Time for Professional Development."

Teachers, administrators, or parents may fear that focusing efforts on at-risk students will divert attention and resources from the needs of high-achieving students.

Teachers may feel inadequately prepared to use effective strategies and approaches with students at risk (Licklider, 1991-92).


Some educators believe that students must master basic skills before they can engage in complex thinking or challenging, authentic tasks.

Some educators believe that tracking is the most effective way to meet the needs of a diversity of students.


Resilience: The Minneapolis Approach

Cooperative learning at Joliet West High School, Joliet, Illinois

Dr. Martin Luther King African-American Immersion Elementary School, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Kanoon Magnet School, Chicago, Illinois

Key Elementary School and Key Renaissance School, Indianapolis, Indiana

Phillips High School, Chicago, Illinois

Middletown Mentoring Program, Middletown, Connecticut

Working Together to Succeed in School, Chicago, Illinois, a community-based parent and student training program

Upward Bound program in Connecticut

Renaissance 2000 at Roosevelt High School, Portland, Oregon

Sites and Schools Using the Success for All Program

Juarez-Lincoln Accelerated Elementary School, Chula Vista, California

Reading Recovery in Upper Arlington City School District, Upper Arlington, Ohio

Noble High School, Berwick, Maine

Walden III High School, Racine, Wisconsin

Minnesota New Country School, LeSueur, Minnesota


Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk (CRESPAR)
Johns Hopkins University/Howard University
Center for the Social Organization of Schools
3505 N. Charles St.
Baltimore, MD 21218
(410) 516-8800; fax (410) 516-8890
Contact: John Hollifield, Associate Director

Coalition of Essential Schools
Box 1969
Brown University
Providence, RI 02912
(401) 863-3384

Education Commission of the States
707 17th St., Suite 2700
Denver, CO 80202-3427
(303) 299-3600; fax: (303) 296-8332

Expeditionary Learning Outward Bound
122 Mount Auburn St.
Cambridge, MA 02138
(617) 576-1260, ext.10; fax (617) 576-1340

National Center for Research on Cultural Diversity and Second Language Learning
Center for Applied Linguistics
1118 22nd St. NW
Washington, DC 20037
(202) 429-9292

National Center on Education in the Inner Cities (CEIC)
Temple University
933 Ritter Hall Annex
13th and Cecil B. Moore Ave.
Philadelphia, PA 19122
(215) 204-3001
Contact: Margaret Wang

National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented
University of Connecticut
362 Fairfield Road U-7
Storrs, CT 06269-2007
(203) 486-4626; fax (203) 486-2900
Contact: Siamak Vahidi

Organizations offering information on multicultural education

School Development Program
47 College St., Suite 212
New Haven, CT 06520
(203) 737-1020; fax (203) 737-1023
Contact: Cynthia Savo

Success for All/Roots & Wings
Johns Hopkins University
3505 N. Charles St.
Baltimore, MD 21218
(800) 548-4998 or (410) 516-8896; fax (410) 516-8890


This Critical Issue was researched and written by Mary Ann Costello, a free-lance writer, based on an outline and comments submitted by John H. Hollifield, associate director of the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed At Risk (CRESPAR), and Lynn Stinnette, director of Center for School and Community Development at the North Central Regional Educational Laboratory.

Date posted: 1996
Copyright © North Central Regional Educational Laboratory. All rights reserved.
Disclaimer and copyright information.