Empowering At-Risk Students to Succeed - ASCD
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November 1, 1994

Empowering At-Risk Students to Succeed

One school's recipe for student success combines effective social skills—learned in a six-week “boot camp”—with the dignity and trust that come from personal empowerment.

A student with a broad scowl entered my office and took a seat. Her body language told me that she was barely in control. I could not visit with her; I was already late for a meeting.

“That teacher is such a pain in the butt,” she complained bitterly as her ire spilled into words. “I hate her.... She doesn't understand me. She's got such a problem.”

Pressed for time, I continued to shuffle papers into my briefcase, then tapped my finger on the table for emphasis. “The purpose of school is to learn,” I preached, “and your presence in my office demonstrates your lack of commitment. It's time to focus on fixing your problem.”

My words hung in the air. An uncomfortable pause preceded her calm, clear words. “Bill, can we hold this conversation at a different time?”

“Why?” I asked.

“Well,” she continued, “it's obvious that I am in my angry child mode, you are in the critical parent mode, and neither of us is using our adult skills. We won't get anything solved this way.”

I was brought back to the reality of our school vision with surprise and pleasure. This 16-year-old had demonstrated her ability to assess the situation, disengage from old behavior patterns, and have the courage to call me on my part of it. Sitting down, I acknowledged her words with an apology. Gently, I reminded her that she still had a problem and asked how she planned to handle it. She requested permission to take a short walk, select an appropriate time to talk with the teacher, and fix the problem herself. I agreed with her approach, feeling some chagrin. In the fast-paced survival mode of the school setting, it is easy to forget that there is a better way of doing business. My student reminded me that we are still working together to catch the vision of success.

A New Way of Doing Business

Three years ago Centennial High School was in danger of being closed due to its high per-pupil expenditure and questionable effectiveness. As an alternative high school, we had provided a safety net for the school district, but the holes in the net were so large that we could maintain only a 75 percent attendance rate while apologizing for a 44 percent dropout rate.

Today, Centennial has captured the attention and imagination of students, parents, staff, and the local community. Within six weeks of initial enrollment, most students have developed a positive mental attitude, begun demonstrating success, and made future plans that lead either to college or a place in the work force. They have begun to catch the vision of earning a high school diploma. Of the approximately 300 students we work with every year, we can now boast of a 94 percent attendance rate and less than a 10 percent dropout rate; those who do leave do so for medical problems, child-care needs, or financial reasons. Over 42 percent reach the 3.2 or better honor roll.

How did we motivate students to succeed? The school climate began to change when all our staff members became committed to our mission: create an intimate, nurturing environment in which students can achieve personal, academic, and vocational success. The bottom line, success, required us to do business in a different way. Our approach to this mission took four forms: teaching students the pro-social skills necessary to cope with any authoritative system; creating a culture in which positive relationships, noncoercion, and cooperation govern all interactions; establishing a flexible approach to scheduling; and empowering students to direct their own successes.

The Discovery Program

  • develop a strong sense of community and establish a support system for incoming students;

  • teach, practice, and provide ongoing feedback for specific life skills; and

  • reinforce the culture of Centennial High by ensuring that all students realize what is expected of them and what they can expect from others in the school.

Because almost all students who apply for admission have dropped out of a comprehensive school, they exhibit a typical profile of the high-risk student. In general, they are systems toxic. They demonstrate a poisonous response to all forms of authority. They may be disconnected from society in general. Most have learned to manipulate the educational and legal systems, their parents, and the community. They use drugs and alcohol to gain attention or to dull the pain of disenfranchisement. They act out dangerous behaviors to punish others who neglect or reject them. For the most part, their personal tool bag of social skills contains only a large hammer used for angry responses.

The Discovery Program validates students' self-worth and helps them add positive social skills to their sparse tool bag. For example, the curriculum teaches students to be effective group members, use Transactional Analysis communications skills, learn to resolve conflicts and manage anger, acquire assertiveness skills, acquire a problem-solving model, and develop other valuable skills.

Borrowing from Goldstein's The Prepare Curriculum (1988), Harris' I'm O.K., You're O.K. (1963), Glasser's The Quality School (1990), and other sources, the instructor and an aide work with students in a hands-on, action format. Each day students and staff engage in a grounding activity. For example, at the beginning of the period, the teacher may ask each student to respond quickly to the question: “On a scale of 1–5 (1 = in the dumps, and 5 = feeling great), how are things going for you today? You may share any concerns you have with the class if you choose to do so.”

Grounding activities foster a personal connection between students and teachers and between students and students before the academic aspects of the class begin. If students feel they are in a safe, supportive environment, learning is much easier.

In their interactions, students practice the skills introduced the previous days and weeks. As the day progresses, the instructor and aide continue to reinforce previous learned behaviors and teach new approaches for students to emulate. Later, in cooperative groups, they role-play new skills in front of their peers and receive appropriate feedback.

Thus, we establish a supportive community for students in their first six weeks. Because the entire Centennial staff has been trained in the Discovery structure, new students make an easier transition to the regular program. Emphasizing key phrases taught in Discovery, staff members help students remain in the adult mode, focus on positive attending skills, and use effective problem solving to resolve issues as they occur in the classroom. This consistency of approach promotes the notion that every student can succeed. The environment is one of noncoercive collaboration rather than of behavior control.

A Family Atmosphere

The school's commitment to creating a nurturing learning environment has influenced the relationship of staff and students in three significant ways.

First, to eliminate one artificial barrier that establishes authority, we interact on a first-name basis. Staff members also address students' affective needs early on through grounding activities. In addition to the grounding activity noted earlier, teachers may ask students to respond in their daily logs to questions such as, “Have you had any concerns with learning, classmates, or the school environment today or in the past week?” Each teacher seeks to create a classroom environment in which all participants respect one another and work toward established expectations.

Second, because students and staff complete learning style inventories, all students have personal knowledge of their own learning strengths, as well as an awareness of the learning/teaching styles of their instructors. Such information empowers each person to know what is needed to succeed. Staff members also engage students in creating classroom norms, timelines for earning credits, and alternative ways to demonstrate achievement based on learning style needs.

Third, we promote community through bimonthly staff meetings designed to share information about students' needs in a positive way. Staff members use the principles of triage in attending to students' problems, based on their perceptions of students' behavioral, academic, or social and emotional needs.

If students have behavior/attendance problems, teachers refer them to me for encouragement, discussion, or the development of a success contract. A success contract is a written agreement in which the student defines (1) the problem; (2) his or her responsibilities in resolving it; (3) how others— teacher, principal, or parent—can help the student reach the goal; and (4) the consequences of not fulfilling the contract. This process is designed to put students in charge of their destiny.

Students with social/emotional problems meet with building counselors or other staff members who have had a positive relationship with them. To provide academic support to students, staff members identify specific strategies that work in a variety of instructional settings.

Alternative Scheduling

The commitment to stay focused from September to January or from January to June may be overwhelming to the high-risk student. To develop a pattern of short-term, immediate success, Centennial High School divided our academic calendar into six-week “hexters,” in which students earn partial credits and grades, which are immediately entered into their permanent record.

In addition, each week students attend 70-minute classes, Monday through Thursday. On Friday, the schedule includes a “zero period” from 8:00 to 9:00 a.m., when students can meet with teachers to receive individual help, make up missed work, retake tests, or earn additional credits on self-paced programs. On a typical Friday morning, approximately 39 percent of our students will be seeking individual help from staff members. For the remainder of the day, class periods are 45 minutes. Because zero period is optional, students who are on target or ahead of the game earn the privilege of sleeping late and not coming to school until 9:00 a.m.

This alternative approach to scheduling, which enables our high-risk population to succeed on a week-by-week basis, has resulted in increased achievement. In the first year, we were able to reduce the failure rate from 150 Fs earned by 100 students to 17 Fs earned by 10 students. By the end of each hexter, high-risk students have avoided self-inflicted acts of educational sabotage. In addition, they have learned patterns of success that can be transferred to other settings.

The Power of Empowerment

In The Quality School, William Glasser emphasized the human need to feel self-empowered. Student empowerment has become the centerpiece of our vision.

One way we express that vision is through symbolism. The banner over the front door of our building simply says “Catch the Vision.” I frequently hear students asking one another, “Do you have the vision?” The answer is always a confident “yes.” I often carry a blank copy of a diploma, the symbol of the school's vision, around Centennial with me. Students stop to tell me that they can see their name on it.

  • maintain 95 percent daily attendance;

  • stay clean and sober on campus and come to school drug and alcohol free;

  • resolve conflicts in a responsible manner;

  • apply the five Ps (Polite, Prepared, Prompt, Participate, and Positive mental attitude) to all they do;

  • support the norms of the school; and

  • be prepared for, participate, and achieve in every class.

These expectations have become the social contract between staff and students. When a student is referred to me for counseling, I pull out his or her pledge card and identify the area of concern. Without anger or disappointment, I invite students to develop a plan to align behaviors with these earlier promises. Students appreciate having control over their own destiny. They leave my office with a sense of personal dignity.

One of the most challenging pledges on the card relates to conflict resolution. Contending that safety is the most important value in our learning environment, Centennial students promoted and endorsed the “no fighting” and “no intimidation” rules on campus. Violation of either rule may be grounds for dismissal. When conflicts do occur, students turn to the Student Peer Mediation Team. A disputant fills out the peer mediation form, a mediator is selected, then involved individuals retire to the mediation room to work out the problem. Because all students know the mediation process and have been taught conflict resolution skills, issues rarely go unresolved.

The empowerment of students to solve their own conflicts has had phenomenal results. Since September 1993, I have dealt with only six behavior problems in my office. Peer mediators tell me they have resolved 140 incidents, all without any negative repercussions. In addition, we are the only school in the community with a declining number of police visits.

The confidence gained from self-empowerment has had additional benefits for the school, our students, and the community. For example, 21 students—trained in facilitating small-group discussions—help plan and lead diversity workshops every six weeks. (With a 23 percent minority population, Centennial is committed to celebrating our diversity.) Members of the Student Advisory Council participate in activities that range from providing wake-up calls and transportation for students, to planning student events or recommending changes in school policy. Still other students volunteer for the monthly Parent Advisory Board, which works to improve the overall building program. In addition, several students have formed a Centennial Speakers Bureau to promote our school's program. Community projects are yet another area in which these once indifferent students have contributed: more than 4,000 hours of service.

Our Recipe for Success

The Discovery Program has taught students a set of pro-social skills, which they practice daily in a nurturing school environment. Old, ineffective patterns of behavior have given way to more positive, appropriate ones. As a result, our students surpass all learning and behavioral expectations. Students at Centennial High School catch the vision for success and live it every day—as seen in the conclusion of my exchange with the scowling 16-year-old.

Later that day, as I attacked a pile of neglected paperwork, a smiling face appeared at my door.

“Do we have any unfinished business?” she asked.

“Did you solve the problem?” I queried.

“Oh, yes. It was just a matter of bad communication and some misunderstanding. We've worked out a new way to talk to each other.”

“Thanks for handling the issue so promptly,” I responded. I smiled and told her how proud of her I was.

“I'm proud of me, too!” she exclaimed with a grin as she turned and headed to her next class.

For me, the paperwork seemed much easier to tackle that afternoon.


Glasser, W. (1990). The Quality School: Managing Students Without Coercion. New York: Harper and Row.

Goldstein, A. P. (1988). The Prepare Curriculum: Teaching Prosocial Competencies. Champaign, Ill.: Research Press.

Harris, T. A. (1963). I'm O.K., You're O.K.: A Practical Guide to Transactional Analysis. New York: Harper and Row.

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