Today, the most startling phenomenon in public education is the growing number of at-risk youth. The establishment of schools focused on serving this population of students represents an effective approach to addressing the needs of these students by helping them to remain in school, improve academically, and achieve higher standards. In fact, such an approach has been identified by the National Dropout Center as one of the three most effective ways to keep at-risk students in school, improve their self-esteem, and keep them learning effectively.
Schools serving at-risk students have also been shown to be successful in helping students who have not done well in traditional school settings. The United States Department of Education defined such a school as a “public elementary/secondary school that addresses the needs of students that typically cannot be met in a regular school, provides nontraditional education, serves as an adjunct to a regular school, or falls outside the categories for regular, special education or vocational education.”
Schools serving at-risk students have been developed by states in response to students’ use of violence, drugs, and weapons on school campuses (U.S. Department of Education, 1996). Students are generally referred to these programs if they are at risk of poor grades, truancy, disruptive behavior, suspension, pregnancy, or similar issues associated with dropping out of school (Kleiner, Porch, & Farris, 2002). In most school districts across the country, students are placed in these learning environments as an alternative to or following a suspension or expulsion. However, in many states, as in M-DCPS, students may choose to attend such a school via approval from the District.
In addition to serving students who have been deemed “at-risk, “as well as potentially disruptive students, some schools have also been developed to serve students with high aptitudes or special interests that simply want a change from schools that have often become large, impersonal urban educational settings. This proposed school will be a Type III for students who are presumed to be in need of remediation, rehabilitation—academic, behavior, or both. The assumption is that students attending the school can be prepared to return to mainstream programs as they enter ninth grade. Most researchers agree that such schools are typically designed for youth with challenging behavior and are designed to assist students in achieving the goals of the curriculum in a manner that is consistent, yet unique to their learning styles and needs.
With the advent of education-based reforms such as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), Florida’s A+ Plan, and strengthened safe schools legislation, an increased need, demand, and opportunity to improve, restructure, and create new and viable educational options for students emerged. The delivery of highly effective and coherent programs in the form of Phoenix Academy of Excellence in Miami-Dade County will help at-risk students in grades 6-8 realize academic achievement and personal success and help overcome their most debilitating challenges in school and in life.
Children who are not educated more likely lack adequate skills to secure employment and become self-sufficient. In 1993, approximately 63 percent of high school dropouts were unemployed. As the national dropout rate has increased over the past decade, so has its adverse impact on society: higher unemployment, increase in crime, increase in welfare, and reduced earnings which ultimately affect the local and national economy.
Additionally, at-risk students, whose issues go unchecked and for whom effective interventions are not provided, pose a threat to not only their own well-being, but the safety and educational well-being of other students in their disruption to the education process and potential negative impact on society. Research has demonstrated that youth who are not in school or in the labor force are placed at an increased risk for delinquency and crime and are placed on a pathway to prison (Snyder and Sickmund, 1995). Rates of arrests of young offenders have increased since the 1990’s, especially for violence related to weapons (Butts & Snyder, 1997). Violence perpetuated by very young offenders continues to be unusually high, which does not bode well for the future absent appropriate, well-funded intervention programs (Declining Violence, 1998). Concerns about the human and financial costs of incarceration of juveniles has led many to the conclusion that schools and other community agencies must increase efforts to develop, enhance, and maintain effective alternative education programs (Dryfoos, 1997).
A study conducted by the Justice Policy Institute further illustrated the relationship between low educational attainment and heightened risk of incarceration, a risk and impact that have been most concentrated in communities of color, specifically, the African American community. Such research and related data concludes that despite the costs associated with at-risk students and those with special needs, society ultimately pays a high and long-impacting price for children’s failure in school. Alternbaugh, Engel and Martin (1995) posited that successful alternative education programs would benefit both society and students at risk. They contended that the benefits of dropout prevention through alternative education schools and programs, over time, would exceed the costs by a ratio of nine to one.
Studies also show that most students who drop out begin thinking of leaving school early in their scholastic careers. Dropping out of school is not the result of an abrupt, unconsidered decision but an overt response to the impact of circumstances related to one or more factors over a student’s lifetime.
Yet most efforts to identify potential dropouts and implement initiatives to address their needs occur at the high school level. Instead of waiting until the end of the educational process to help students at risk, educators at each grade level should look for, and address, all dropout indicators. The state and districts should create opportunities for elementary, middle, and high school educators to share dropout prevention strategies, initiatives, and programs. Educators at all levels should also learn what factors and indicators are typical of students at risk.
Research indicates that early predictors of dropouts include general deviance, deviant affiliation, improper school socialization, poor family socialization, and structural strains. These predictors manifest themselves in deviant behaviors, including sexual involvement, bonding with antisocial peers, low school bonding, low parental educational expectations, and low socioeconomic status.