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State School Chiefs Focus on Needs of 'At Risk' Youths

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WASHINGTON--Although the education-reform movement initially gave "little consideration or concern'' to the needs of students most likely to fail academically, a new national commitment to such students is emerging, William F. Pierce, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said last week.

Speaking here at a council-sponsored meeting of equity specialists from state departments of education, Mr. Pierce said policymakers now understand that it is "economically essential'' to help "at risk'' youngsters.

Such students, he noted, represent a growing proportion of the school-age population and will make up much of the nation's future workforce.

"For the first time in a very long time,'' Mr. Pierce said, "it seems to me that help is on the way.''

During the two-day meeting, participants shared information about a range of state initiatives designed to help students at risk of school failure, including programs for teen-age parents, efforts to prevent dropouts, and attempts to enroll more women and minority students in vocational-education courses.

In addition, a panel of Congressional staff members summarized proposed legislation that would provide federal funding for dropout-prevention efforts and for remedial education at the high-school level.

Terry Hartle, chief education counsel for the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee, predicted that the 100th Congress would focus, in particular, on the needs of high-school students who have not mastered basic academic skills.

Chiefs' Initiative

When the chiefs gather in November for their annual meeting, they are expected to endorse recommendations that will result from their own yearlong initiative to better serve students who are at risk.

As part of that effort, a council task force is developing a definition of the "at-risk child,'' along with model state and federal legislation for serving such youngsters.

In addition, results from a 50-state survey will provide information on how states are serving those youths and the barriers to doing so. Each state has also been asked to provide information about three successful programs for aiding such students.

'Self-Fulfilling Prophecy'

Participants noted that one problem in designing effective intervention programs is determining how to identify at-risk students.

The council survey, for example, lists 67 characteristics that could place students at risk. Other studies have identified as many as 20 interrelated factors that might result in a student's dropping out of school.

Deanna Banks Beane, the education director for the National Urban Coalition, cautioned that labeling children as "at risk'' based on certain background characteristics--such as economic status--might result in a "self-fulfilling prophecy'' in which less is expected of such students.

But panelists at the conference agreed that poor, black, and Hispanic students, as well as girls and those with learning disabilities, are frequently served poorly by their school systems.

Among the statistics they cited:

  • Students in the lower half of the socioeconomic spectrum are three to four times more likely to drop out of school than those from more affluent families.
  • As many as half of all Hispanic students and 35 percent of all black students fail to graduate.
  • Although girls drop out of school at lower rates than boys do, they are less likely to receive the type of education needed to ensure high-paying jobs after graduation.

Ms. Beane said twice as many boys as girls take advanced mathematics, three times as many take advanced science, and three to four times as many know computer languages.

On the basis of dropout data, she added, "we must conclude that our schools best serve white students from middle and high economic backgrounds, and students in academic programs.''

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