[This is a copy of an article I wrote for Silhouettes, the e-journal of NAREN...the National At-Risk Education Network. It was published in this month's edition.]
Here at the Shannon Learning Center, every student who seeks to enroll is required to fill out an application, sign a contract, and have a personal interview. After eleven years of holding these interviews, I have noticed a very significant and consistent trend in the characteristics of highly at-risk students.
I believe there are four characteristics which highly at-risk students manifest. I refer to these characteristics as:
· Unresolved Security Issues;
· Feelings of Insignificance;
· Academic Frustrations; and
· Situational Unawareness.
My observation is that at-risk students have difficulties in at least one, and more often, a combination of these characteristics. Most traditional At-Risk Programs are familiar with, and have interventions that help students address issues of security, significance, and competence. The first three of these characteristics are the most common and are components of almost all at-risk programs.
1. Security. These are students who may be homeless, victims of some type of abuse, or any number of other circumstances that create issues of insecurity in their lives. Of course they have a hard time focusing on school work when they don’t know where their next meal is coming from or if they will have a place to sleep tonight.
2. Significance. Everyone needs to feel accepted, loved, or important to someone. We all know at-risk students who lack feelings of significance.
3. Competence. These are the at-risk students who are academically frustrated. They have fallen behind academically for any number of reasons ranging from absences to intellectual ability. If they perceive themselves as academically inferior, they are at-risk.
But it has also been my observation that there is another characteristic which is common to all at-risk students and yet is often over-looked. This final characteristic can be referred to as Situational Unawareness.
My argument is that most At-Risk students cannot identify their starting point or enough mile markers to adequately track their journey toward a degree.
When someone calls you and asks for directions to your office, what's the first thing you typically need to know?
"Where will you be coming from?"
Before anyone can be given meaningful directions to any destination, it is important to know where their starting point is. I define and apply the term Situational Unawareness to students who are unable to answer basic questions about their current status in school. I am convinced that the starting point for recovering at-risk stop-outs is for them to develop an awareness of where they are at any point on their journey toward their diploma.
You begin to grasp the significance of this when talking to at-risk students who typically classify themselves in whatever grade their age or number of years in school equals. That is, I ask Sue or John what grade level they think they're in. John's been in high school three years, so he says he's a junior. Sue's been in high school two years, so she answers that she's a sophomore. Of course it comes as a shock when I explain that since they both have only 5 credits, they are both still freshmen. I have had both students and parents sit and argue with me when I explain this.
"My son cannot still be a freshman, he's 17 years old and has been in high school 3 years!"
Within the first few minutes of the interview, the student's unawareness of his/her status as far as credits and class standing become apparent. However, it is the next level of questions and what they reveal that is also of significance. At-Risk students consistently lack awareness of past and current testing status. In Texas, all students must pass EXIT exams in order to receive their diplomas. If they fail any one or more of the tests on the first administration, there are numerous re-test opportunities. As critical as these tests are, virtually every at-risk student I interview for initial entrance into Shannon does not know which, if any, of the tests they have passed or failed. And even if they acknowledge they have failed any test, they most certainly cannot identify the areas in which they need remediation.
They lack any real sense of where to start in their renewed efforts to obtain their diploma.
In more practical matters, as the interview progresses and I discuss other issues with the students, it quickly becomes apparent that at-risk students are equally unaware of how many times they were absent or tardy to school and classes. Likewise, they tend to "forget" if they had many referrals to the office for discipline.
And it is not just credits and test results that students are unaware of. There are the day to day details that can hurt you the most if you lose track of them. Namely: grades, absences, assignment due dates, and deadlines for make-up work.
We began years ago the process of calling students in and discussing their attendance. They were genuinely surprised by the numbers – and consistently unable to accurately state how many days they had missed. When asked if they knew how many days they missed, they consistently “guessed” low.
As I sat and visited with students in the lunchroom, or in the hallways, or just out and about in the school or community I would consistently find myself asking basic questions which I would expect any junior or senior in high school to be able to answer. Here are the TOP FIVE QUESTION GROUPS that every high school student should be able to answer in order to establish and maintain Situational Awareness:
1) GRADUATION: When will you graduate? What month and year?
2) CREDITS: Which graduation plan are you on? How many credits do you need to graduate? How many do you have now and how many more do you need to graduate?
3) TESTING: Have you passed all sections of the TAKS Exit [Appropriate State-Required] exams? If not, what sections do you still need to pass?
4) ATTENDANCE: How many days can you miss and still earn credit in a term? How many days have you missed this term? How much time do you have to make-up?
5) GRADES: Are you passing your classes? Do you owe any teachers any assignments?
So here’s our situation: the most common of the four observed characteristics of at-risk students who apply to Shannon is what I refer to a Situational Unawareness. Highly At-Risk students, for whatever reasons, truly lack awareness of where they are in the system. They typically cannot tell you what grade level they are in, how many credits they have, what critical (i.e. required) tests they have passed/failed, or what type of attendance or discipline records they have. Aside from programs which address the other three characteristics, a critical need within any drop-out prevention program must be a mechanism that helps highly at-risk students remain current and aware of their status in school at all times.
We have a program here at Shannon called the Personal Improvement Process (PIP) Period. PIP is held during a 15 minutes period just before lunch every day. Over time, students track their grades, absences, discipline referrals, test results, and graduation plans. Students keep folders which contain copies of critical information, graphs of their attendance and Action Plans to address areas of concern. We encourage our students to become situationally aware – that is, able to tell - when asked - what their current status is. We help them track their status on a daily basis. This tracking process inevitably builds competence that strengthens their view of significance in a secure environment.
In a recent survey taken on-campus, students were asked to rate the statement:
“PIP period has been very helpful in keeping me informed and up-to-date with my progress at school.” 65% of the students agreed. 22.5% of the students disagreed.
Keeping a calendar, tracking absences and grades, writing action plans, monitoring their graduation plans, and tracking test results are not activities that at-risk students necessarily enjoy. However, anecdotal observations and personal interviews convince me that the majority do participate and over time eventually understand the purpose and appreciate the results.
I believe the most successful programs for at-risk students are those that deliberately address the basic needs of security, significance, and competence of each individual. I am increasingly convinced that the eventual success of any program will also be affected by how well it helps students remain aware of where they stand regarding their progress.