Thursday, November 19, 2009

Students At Risk

Yesterday I presented at a conference for school personnel who work with students at risk (counselors, administrators, teachers, social workers, school safety officers).  I was co-presenting with Tony Pierantozzi, Superintendent of the Somerville Public School System and Wadson Michel, a gifted counselor who works in Somerville's alternative school.  The conference was hosted and sponsored by the Middlesex Partnerships for Youth, Inc., an arm of the Middlesex District Attorney's Office that focuses on prevention issues in order to keep young people from interacting with the DA's office for other reasons.

I am always impressed with the level of dedication and commitment of the people who work with the most challenging students in our school systems. I am convinced that these men and women are, quite literally, saving lives. Though the impact is dramatic, their work is much quieter than that, taking place mostly unseen in offices or hallways, at a cafeteria table or even on a street corner.  I learned a lot from the participants and from my co-presenters.

If you know QISA's work, you will not be surprised to learn that we took as a working definition of "At Risk" an Anti-Aspiration approach.  Tony shortened QISA's definition of Aspirations into "Having goals and a plan" which meant students at high risk were those who had no goals and no plan. The contrast in the data between those who have aspirations and those who do not was startling even to those of us who were expecting to see some difference.  We plan to write up what we learned from doing this conference in an upcoming Aspirations Brief. 

For now, try this exercise we used in the workshop yourself:  Pretend you want to open a school that deliberately puts students at risk.  You have no control over their home life (a significant factor in at risk behavior) but you can control their experience of school.  What conditions would you put in place if you wanted students to drop out or otherwise engage in acting out behaviors?  Once you have a list, check out the 8 Conditions and see if your list is a set of antonyms to these Conditions.  What we know is that most students are not at risk because they are intellectually or academically incapable of the work.  They are at risk because they have little or no self-worth, are not at all engaged in the learning environment, and have no sense of purpose in their lives.  At Risk = No Aspirations.

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