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The Struggle of the At-Risk Student: Creating a Plan for Academically At-Risk Students

Updated: Feb 5, 2019

Derek Wright

Keywords: administration, at-risk students, remediation, community, doing school

Introduction and Context

Working in my sixth year of education, I have  worked in administration for a year, taught in 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th grade, and now lead a department of 22 English and Special Education English teachers while teaching 12th team-taught literature and 10th honors literature. The high school where this program occurred is in a large Atlanta suburban district. There are 2,033 students enrolled in the school and 51% are deemed minority with the largest percentages being 18% Asian, 18% African American, and 10% hispanic. The school is ranked in the top 7 according to the 2017 US News rankings system. The following will discuss the implementation, success, and failures of creating an academically at-risk focus group in a two-day a week program for 50 minutes per period.

During my year in administration, an assistant principal and I saw that a subgroup of our 9th grade students were at-risk of failing multiple courses and not being promoted to 10th grade on-track to graduate. These students were mostly our minority students that come from low-income families. We created an at-risk group with a teacher from each core subject, National Honors Society tutors, Math Honors Society tutors, a Huntington Learning Center tutor, and a community volunteer. The goal was to create an environment to get these students back on track.

This case study will examine the benefits of teaching at-risk students how to navigate the traditional school culture.

Events, Actions, Outcomes

Sitting in my neighboring assistant principal’s office, we looked at the failures of the 9th grade students from the previous semester. We noticed that 29 9th grade students failed three or more core courses during their first semester meaning that they would not be on-track to graduate. As we lamented over the failures trying to figure out what to do when an idea struck. What if we could provide an environment where these students had the opportunity to obtain as much help as they needed from each of the content classes. At this time, our school was getting ready to begin our enrichment and remediation period that is called Anchor Time. We identified 27 students that failed three or more courses their first semester, and as a group, they only earned 38 credits out of a possible 81 total credits. We gathered all of these students in the media center and began working with them on their academics, behaviors, and organization.

At the beginning of each period, we would tell the students where to go based on their current grades which we would pull every Tuesday and Thursday to get help from content-area teachers and student mentors. As we pulled grades, we asked teachers for work and quickly ran into a blockade: either the teachers were not on-board with allowing these students to turn in late work or the teachers were unresponsive to both the assistant principal and me. As we recruited the entire administrative staff to get involved, we did not have any more luck. Some students saw this opportunity as a way to get back on track, work hard, and get help. Other students did not see the point of this opportunity and no matter how hard we tried to work with them they did not want to work, get help from the teachers/tutors, or complete the assignments. There are a variety of potentials reasons for this none of which I have quantitative data to support. While we did have issues, tribulations, and obstacles, there were some gains -- by the end of the semester the students earns an over all 50.5 credits for their second semester courses which is 18.5 more credits than they earned first semester.

Fast forward to the next year with a new assistant principal in charge of the program, and I am now back in the classroom not able to give my full amount of time to it. We begin in the first semester under the same guidelines as before. The previous assistant principal and I were more laid back and willing to talk with the students if there were issues. The new assistant principal in charge of the program was more of a discipline-based administrator and the culture changed. The results were not nearly as successful this second time around. Since we began this during the first semester, the 9th grade students were picked from those deemed at-risk in the middle school (failed the end of grade assessment or core course).  The same obstacles occurred as the previous year, but we were not getting as much success. It was hard to find volunteers, and teachers were becoming less and less engaged with the students due to retaliatory behaviors from the students.

As a result of this, it made a few changes within the school and the administration. We quickly saw that students did not know the intricacies of doing school. They did not know where to go if they needed help with technology; they did not know where to go if they needed access to their home gradebooks; their parents did not know how to contact their teachers or where to find their websites; they did not receive positive reinforcement ever in their life; they did not realize the opportunity that they head. These ideas were not really realized within the context of our school. An assumption that was made is that every student knew how to do these “simple” school activities, but our assumption was wrong. Moving forward an effort needs to be made to try to get these parents and students taught on how to do these school-related concepts .


Going into a 9th grade classroom, most teachers believe that students understand how to navigate the school curriculum. Through two years of implementing this at-risk program, it was clear that students who fall into sub-demographics (low-SES, African American, Hispanic) are normally not adept at “doing school” (Gee, 2004) like their other academic counterparts. Teachers and administrators need to  “learn about and build on [their] students’ knowledge and expertise” (Beach, Thein, & Webb, 2012, p.7) in order to not only find the deficit areas in academics but to also find deficits in the ability to do school related tasks that are often overlooked once students get into 9th grade.


Gee, J. (2004). Situated Language and Learning: A Critique of Traditional Schooling. New

York, NY: Routledge

Beach, R., Thein, A and Webb, A. (2012). Teaching to Exceed the English Language Arts

Common Core State Standards: A Literacy Practices Approach for 6-12 Classrooms.

New York, NY: Routledge.

U.S. News. (2017). “Best High Schools in Georgia”. Retrieved from

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