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Coalition of Educators Urges Wider Efforts for At Risk Youths

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WASHINGTON--State and federal policymakers should provide a legislative "guarantee'' of services to students in danger of failing or dropping out of school, a coalition of education leaders advocated last week.

As many as one-third of America's 40 million public-school students are "at risk'' of school failure as a result of such factors as race, poverty, single-parent families, or limited English proficiency, the leaders of 11 education groups warned.

Unless steps are taken to help these students graduate from high school, many will not find jobs--a situation that could permanently cripple the U.S. economy, cautioned the coalition, known as the Forum of Educational Organization Leaders.

In a press conference here, the forum called on the federal government--and Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, in particular--to make the needs of at-risk students a national priority.

According to Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the National Education Association, "We will not successfully address or resolve this issue until it becomes a national concern.''

"People have not seen it as a major priority,'' she noted. "They are not allocating resources for it.''

Richard D. Miller, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said the forum's statement "ought to be a direct invitation to the Secretary that this must become a national priority on his part.''

Mr. Bennett was unavailable for comment last week, according to a spokesman for the Secretary.

Ignored by Reform

In their joint four-page statement, the 11 organizations criticized the school-reform movement for ignoring the needs of at-risk children.

Traditionally, the public schools have not served at-risk youngsters well, they said. Without additional services, they cautioned, the current drive to raise academic standards could worsen the plight of such students.

The joint statement is one of only a few that the forum has issued since it began meeting in 1974.

Harold L. Hodgkinson, moderator of the coalition and a senior fellow with the American Council of Education, said the statement was designed to provide a sense of "national urgency'' about the needs of at-risk youths.

In the past, individual forum members have sounded warnings about the problems of school dropouts.

But members said last week that a growing body of research--and a burgeoning at-risk population--prompted them to take a unified stand.

According to Ms. Futrell, at least 1 million students drop out of school each year, and an additional 300,000 are chronically truant.

Moreover, at-risk youngsters are rapidly becoming the bulk of the school-age population, according to the forum.

As evidence of a "radical change'' in the child population, it noted that:
Nearly one-fourth of American children live in poverty.
Almost 60 percent of all 4-year-olds will live with only one parent before they reach age 18.

Of these, 90 percent will live in female-headed households, and the majority will live in families with incomes of less than $10,000.
Nearly 40 percent of all public-school students are members of minority groups. They come to school speaking more than 100 languages and dialects.
The teen-age birth rate in the United States is twice that of any other Western nation.
Delinquency rates among children ages 10 to 17 have increased 130 percent since 1960.
Drug use among teen-agers in the United States is the highest for any industrialized country.

Legislative Guarantee

In the past, the forum noted, services to help at-risk youngsters have been hampered by yearly fluctuations in federal and state funding.

It advocated that lawmakers "guarantee'' to each at-risk youngster the educational services needed to help them graduate from high school.

Among its proposals, the coalition suggested that schools establish programs to improve parental involvement, offer more preschool classes, develop better measures of student learning, pair students at risk of school failure with "mentors,'' and cooperate more with community agencies in providing services to at-risk youths.

In particular, the forum challenged lawmakers to design policies that would:

  • Provide a "functional'' definition of children at risk of school failure.
  • Create a procedure for identifying at-risk students and their needs.
  • Ensure the provision of services as early as possible, including better ties with the students' families.
  • Establish a monitoring and enforcement system to prevent at-risk youths from falling "between the cracks.''
  • Guarantee each high-school graduate who met certain criteria the opportunity for either an initial job or postsecondary education.

"Never before has such a broad guarantee of educational services been made to individual children as an investment in the nation's future,'' the forum stated.

Although it acknowledged the high cost of such services, it argued that "to make the recommended commitment is our best investment in a secure and economically competitive nation.''

Members of the forum are the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, the American Association of School Administrators, the American Federation of Teachers, the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Education Commission of the States, the National Association of State Boards of Education, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the National School Boards Association, the National Congress of Parents and Teachers, and the National Education Association.

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