At-Risk Students at Traditional and Academic Alternative School Settings: Differences in Math and English Performance Indicators

By Beken, Jo Ann; Williams, John et al. | Florida Journal of Educational Administration and Policy, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

At-Risk Students at Traditional and Academic Alternative School Settings: Differences in Math and English Performance Indicators


Beken, Jo Ann, Williams, John, Combs, Julie P., Slate, John R., Florida Journal of Educational Administration and Policy


The term at-risk has become a catchall phrase to describe students who experience or who are predicted to experience failure during their schooling years. This term has been used traditionally by society as an arbitrary label for students who are likely to drop out of school because of undesirable educational experiences such as low academic achievement, poor school attendance, or grade retention (Johnson, 1997). Consequently, in theory, the term at-risk indicates a permanent psychoeducational condition that can be defined in unconditional terms (Ayers & Ford, 1996; Clayton, 1996). Researchers, however, have provided evidence that, in practice, the term is unclear and reflects a lack of consensus about its meaning and criteria (Donmoyer & Kos, 1993; Richardson, Casanova, Placier, & Guilfoyle, 1989). Based upon empirical work, a variety of environmental, social, and cultural factors have been identified as being correlated with students being at-risk: (a) being a minority member or having an ethnic group identity; (b) living in a low socioeconomic household; (c) living in a single-parent family; (d) having a poorly educated mother; (e) having a non-English language background; (f) living in an impoverished neighborhood or community; and (g) living in a violent neighborhood or community (Lind, 1997; McDill, Natriello, & Pallas, 1985; Presseisen, 1988). As such, many of these attributes, in addition to others, are included in the various definitions used by state departments and schools in the United States to identify and to provide assistance to students identified as being at-risk.

One of the characteristic behaviors of students who are at-risk is dropping out of school prior to graduation. To address the problems of students leaving the traditional school system before completing high school, educators have developed many interventions to address the needs of at-risk students. One such intervention is the creation of academic alternative schools, based partly on the belief that when students are in nurturing and supportive environments, they are able to thrive academically (Frediana, 2002). Over the past 50 years, concerns among the public, educators, and policymakers about violent behavior, weapons, and drugs on school campuses, balanced with concern about sending troublesome and potentially dangerous students into the public as a result of expulsion, has precipitated an increased interest in alternative schools (U.S. Department of Education, 1996). Many students who have not had success in regular public schools have been sent to alternative placements. In general, students referred to alternative schools and programs are at-risk of educational failure as indicated by poor grades, truancy, disruptive behavior, suspension, pregnancy, or similar factors associated with early departure from school (Paglin & Fager, 1997).

During the 2000-2001 school year, 39% of U.S. public school districts administered at least one alternative school or program for at-risk students (NCES, 2002). In 2002, 11,000 alternative high schools served approximately 280,000 students who were at-risk of failing or dropping out of regular high school or who had been expelled from school (Escobar-Chaves, Tortolero, Kelder, & Kapadia, 2002; National Center for Education Statistics [NCES], 2003). Although disciplinary alternative schools are most common, alternative schools can be grouped in three categories based upon their proposed purposes: (a) magnet schools and schools of choice with programmatic themes and varied methods of instructional delivery; (b) schools with less emphasis on academics and more emphasis on behavior modifications; and (c) schools for students who need social or academic remediation programs (Lange, 1998; Raywid, 1999).

The phrase alternative school has often held a negative implication. In recent years, however, the phrase has suggested the opportunity for a second chance (McGee, 2001). …

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