Vol. 8, No. 1 November 2003
to Help At-Risk Students Survive Middle School
studies assignment required students to make a timeline of the most
important years in their lives. The eighth grader was hanging back from
lunch, holding up his sagging pants in one hand, the timeline in the
other. He proceeded to point out the two most important years in his
life. He whispered, This is the year my father died, and this
is the year my mother died. I asked about his current living arrangements;
he lived with his aunt. His brother was serving five years in prison.
was stark: Do the parts of speech or the causes of the Civil War really
matter to this young man? Not at all. Is a quality education important
to his future? Absolutelyin some ways, perhaps more so than for
those living in stable situations. The question for those who work with
at-risk children is how to make education a focus for them when they
are concerned primarily with survival.
their at-risk situation is caused by family upheaval, transience, abuse,
poverty, or other factors, the challenge for these students is the same.
A set of strategies must be in place so these students can focus more
on education and less on personal survival. The middle school years
are criticaloften making or breaking students. By following a
few simple steps, you can improve an at-risk students chances
for success through these trying years.
a point person. Contact the educator who has the most positive rapport
with this student, and let that person know immediately of the challenges
facing the child. Ask this educator for help in working through any
rough spots. If one teacher on the team is sold on this students
potential, she can spread the word to the whole team and suggest positive
strategies when he is having a tough day. Secondary school teachers
may have as many as 150 students. Its critical to get this student
on their radar immediately.
a dialogue with the guidance department. Ask about programs and
services such as anger management. Notify the students counselor
of any upcoming changes so her teachers remain informed. One of our
students did quite well until her drug-addicted mother would make a
periodic visit. The student would start coming to school wearing heavy
makeup and telling everyone she was moving away with her mom.
a clear game plan on attendance. Nothing sinks students faster than
a high absentee rate. Students have to get into the pattern of attending
school every day. Obviously, if they are absent, they have missed the
teachers lesson plans for the day. At-risk students become frustrated
at being behind and then face a mountain of makeup work. Many students
simply give up. Work with your point person to find a solution. Can
the student have an extension? Can he do some of the work during lunch
or before school? Is all of the work essential? Work out a viable solution.
in-school suspension for discipline whenever possible. Most schools
use primarily in-school and out-of-school suspension for discipline.
Sometimes, in-school suspension will not work, such as cases involving
fighting or drugs. For lesser infringements, however, push hard for
the student to remain in the classroom. Would an apology to a teacher
be feasible? How about silent lunch? Success occurs when students are
in the classroom participating in learning. Removing these students
from their academic routine often leads to frustration and failure.
a daily agenda book for assignments and communication. Agendas are
useful for building a positive school routine. Consistency is critical
to maintaining academic focus. Get into a routine of checking the students
agenda for homework. If necessary, ask the teachers to double-check
and initial the agenda to be certain the necessary information is there.
In addition to bolstering grades, this daily exercise in organization
gives students a sense of control over the academic process and helps
build confidence. Agendas are also a great communication tool between
home and school, since concerns can be quickly addressed through short
an organizational system that works. An agenda book is inconsequential
if its buried in a 50-pound backpack. In my experience, the best
system for students with weak organizational skills is a colored folder
system. A red folder for science is easily found in the bottom of a
locker. A black folder can be for their most dreaded class. Make it
simple and memorable. Often, a students entire day is ruined because
she cannot find an assignment she worked hard to complete. If the pattern
is repeated, students begin to shut down in class, believing the situation
is now hopeless.
success is so important for at-risk students, but they frequently lack
the skills to do well. Confidence rises when they are able to accomplish
what is expected of them. The middle school years are tough on most
students, but they are especially difficult for students who are just
barely surviving on many levels. These strategies and others provide
tools for academic successthey do not address the other pressures
in their lives. But academic success often equals hope for the future,
something many at-risk students can definitely use.
Pepper, MA, is a teacher in Mableton, Georgia.
(c) 2001 by Child Welfare League of America. From Childrens Voice,
July/August 2003. Reprinted by special permission of CWLA. Subscriptions
to Childrens Voice are $25/year and can be ordered online at www.cwla.org/pubs,
by calling toll-free 800/407-6273, by faxing 770/280-4160, or by e-mailing