Young adolescents, we have shown, experience several ‘rites of passage’. They go through puberty; they move from a family orientation to identification with a peer group; they transfer from one school to another and they begin to make personal and educational decisions that will have a long-lasting impact on their lives. This microcosmic world of self-exploration for young adolescents is embedded in the broader macrocosm of a world culture in transition, with national and world economies, social and ethnic makeup and global political structures changing at a dizzying pace. Young adolescents are a mirror image of their society, reflecting all of its problems (for example, learning difficulties, abuse, poverty, racism). They also experience a genuine concern about what the future will have to offer and about their place in it. As they face what is, for them, their first major ‘identity crisis’, young people need clear information, direction and extensive yet low-key support so they can develop a positive self concept, adjust to profound personal changes and acquire the coping skills, independence and critical judgment required to take their place in the larger community.
Providing support for young adolescents is a daunting task. Every school has enormous variability in the needs and requirements of its students according to age, maturity, achievement, family circumstances, interests, ambitions, ethnicity, gender and a whole host of other factors. Schools must serve not only their ‘at-risk’ students but the larger group of ‘mainstream’ students who need support as well. Indeed, we will see that one of the fallacies of secondary schooling and junior high schooling is that these schools can somehow remain indifferent or inhospitable places for the majority of their students who appear to be getting by, while mounting special, bolted-on programs for ‘at-risk’ students who don’t appear to fit. Supporting and caring well for students who are at risk means having schools organized and structured to support and care well for all students. One of the most compelling reasons for school restructuring is to create schools that are more welcoming, inclusive and caring communities for all their students—mainstream and at-risk alike—and not just ones that cruise along in the slipstream of their high academic achievers (Stoll and Fink, 1996).