Holding At-Risk Students: The Secret Is One-on-One

By Testerman, Janet | Phi Delta Kappan, January 1996 | Go to article overview

Holding At-Risk Students: The Secret Is One-on-One


Testerman, Janet, Phi Delta Kappan


Secondary schools can no longer ignore the affective domain, Ms. Testerman argues. Especially for at-risk students, schools must deal with head and heart. She tells the story of one school's attempt to do so.

FOR SOME adolescents, school is not a warm, friendly place. Some students who are unsuccessful academically and who receive insufficient positive attention from peers and adults start to act as though they were quietly invisible. Others in the same situation will act out until they receive the attention--albeit negative--that they crave.

In either event, unless the youngster is attended to, it will be only a matter of time before he or she drops out of high school. There are many approaches that high school officials can take to address the needs of these marginal students--approaches that require varying investments of personnel and funding and that solve the problem with varying degrees of success. What follows here is a description of one effective and easily administered program designed to keep marginal students in school. The program, which relies on volunteer teacher advisors, is simple in theory: an adult in school who shows individualized concern for an at-risk student can have a significant positive effect on that student's attendance.

Those educators who believe that students readily recognize the affection and concern that teachers have for them may be surprised to find out that student perceptions of teacher attitudes toward students are less than glowing. Gary Whelage and Robert Rutter used data from High School and Beyond, a longitudinal survey of approximately 30,000 sophomores from 1,105 public and private high schools nationwide, to study student alienation and rejection of school.(1) One of the variables in their analysis was teacher interest in students. "When those who eventually became dropouts were asked to rate Teacher Interest in Students on a 4.0 scale, marks of fair to poor were given by 56% of the Hispanics, 50% of the blacks, and 59% of the whites," Whelage and Rutter reported. "Non-college-bound students were not much more positive, in view of the fair-to-poor ratings given by each racial group (Hispanics 49%, blacks 47%, and whites 49%)."(2)

Clearly, improving students' perceptions of the degree of concern that teachers feel for them would positively affect students' attitudes about school and increase the likelihood of their staying on to graduate. And in fact, poor student/teacher relations negatively influence students' self-concept.

Whelage and Rutter looked at the locus of control and self-esteem of students before and after they dropped out and compared these attributes with those of peers who continued on to graduation and beyond.3 They found that dropouts began with slightly higher self-esteem than the non-college-bound who stayed in school and that the dropouts actually increased the differential over time. The overall increase in self-esteem in dropouts matched that of the highest group, the college-bound. For at-risk students, it seems, school can actually inhibit personal growth. Dropping out of school apparently had beneficial effects on the self-images of these students. Almost certainly, such school-related contributors as lack of positive, cooperative relationships involving students, staff, parents, and administrators affect students' school performance and their decision to drop out.

Teachers at Lely High School in Naples, Florida, decided to intervene by creating positive advisor/advisee relationships for a group of at-risk students whose grade-point averages were 1.5 or less on a four-point scale. The degree of involvement between teacher and student varied; some teachers even went so far as to meet with their advisees' other instructors or to contact the advisees' homes when they were absent from school. In order to be considered a member of the experimental group, however, the teacher advisors and their student advisees had to meet for at least 15 minutes each week to converse. …

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