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Articles: At-Risk

After years of controversy, court battles, and a disbanded cultural studies program, the Tucson (Ariz.) Unified School District is turning to a new program to raise the achievement of Hispanic students.

For generations, teachers in the early elementary years have urged their young pupils to use their brains. They’re still offering the same encouragement, but nowadays they can know even more about what they’re talking about.

Recent advances in neuroscience—from detailed scans of the brain to ongoing research on teaching methods that increase cognitive development—have ushered in a new era of “brain-based” education.

America’s dropout crisis is so severe that one in four students does not finish high school. Unless graduation rates increase, nearly 12 million students will likely drop out over the next decade, with an estimated national loss of $1.5 trillion in lost wages and increased social costs due to crime and health care, according to a 2012 report “Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic.”

The Whittier Union High School District administrators who organized the Whatever It Takes campaign.

In 1969, a concern with the deep inequity of students’ experiences and opportunities in traditional school systems first drove social studies teacher Rick DuFour to begin advocating for the kind of reforms that would jell into his transformative model, Professional Learning Communities at Work, some 16 years later. The core belief of the PLC at Work model—that all students should have access to the most rigorous curriculum and that all students should learn, was counter to common practices in the era when DuFour taught.

Mooresville (N.C.) Graded School District

Scott Smith once led efforts for North Carolina’s technology educators, when he served as president of the N.C. Technology in Education Society (NCTIES), the state’s affiliate of the International Society for Technology in Education. Now, he is chief technology officer for the Mooresville (N.C.) Graded School District—a suburban town located 20 miles north of Charlotte. It’s one of the only public school districts in the country to issue laptops to every student in grades 3-12.

Kids collaborate on an assignment in an after-school program.

Effective after-school and expanded learning programs can play a vital role in student success. In fact, when researchers at the Harvard Family Research Project analyzed a decade of research and evaluation studies a few years ago, they concluded that “children and youth who participate in after-school programs can reap a host of positive benefits in a number of interrelated outcome areas—academic, social/emotional, prevention, and health and wellness” (Little, Wimer, & Weiss, 2008).

We at DA keep our ears to the ground and our noses to the grindstone always looking for new stuff to keep you, our readers, well informed. Much of what we’re hearing these days points toward the growing use of predictive analysis—looking at student data and seeing where kids are going, rather than looking at where they’ve been, as is used with data-driven decision making. Sophisticated modeling software is beginning to move from the corporate world and higher education admissions to K12, and the potential is huge.

No Excuses University

Two-thirds of the Amarillo Independent School District’s 33,000 students enrolled on 53 campuses qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Undaunted by the academic and societal challenges commonly associated with such a statistic, 10 of Amarillo’s lower-income schools have recently joined the No Excuses University (NEU) network. This fast-growing collective of 117 elementary and middle schools scattered across the United States is a brain trust of principals and teachers who promote college readiness from kindergarten up, especially for children living in poverty.

The concept of an open-door policy has deep meaning in the school district serving Mason County, a large pocket of northeastern Kentucky that comprises everything from rural farms to low-income housing projects in Maysville, the county seat. Each of Mason County School District’s 2,900 K12 students can expect an informal visit at home, every summer, from their teacher, or “advocate,” for the upcoming year.

In 2009, a year after joining Illinois School District U-46 from his previous post as regional superintendent for Chicago Public Schools’ Area 14, Jose M. Torres made unprecedented cuts to his district’s budget and personnel.


Typical public school revenue streams such as state money and property taxes were decimated by the recession nationwide, and districts across Chicago faced deficits worse than U-46’s anticipated $60 million hole in the coming years. It wasn’t a surprise that cuts in U-46 were necessary, but Torres’ tactics were.

It's a familiar refrain in American education: African-American children score lower on standardized tests, graduate high school at lower rates, and are considerably more likely to be suspended or expelled than the general population.

"In our district, every four years we lose 45 percent of our students, Mr. Chairman," Western Heights (Okla.) Public Schools superintendent Joe Kitchens testified in April before a U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor hearing entitled "How Data Can Be Used to Inform Educational Outcomes." "We have to do something about this. We have to retool America's schools to deal with this issue of mobility," he urged the committee. Over the past five years, Kitchens and the administration of Western Heights have done just that.

Due to heightened vigilance regarding minority achievement, districts across the country are under scrutiny. One of these is the Wake County (N.C.) Public School System. Recently the Wake County school board decided to change the way it handles student assignments and busing between schools. Board members voted 5-4 on March 23 to end forced busing, a method initiated in the 1970s to promote diversity in public schools.

The best place to raise a child in Arkansas, according to Bloomberg Businessweek, is Springdale, a bustling community with a strong agrarian heritage in the northwest corner of the state. The headquarters of massive corporations such as Tyson Foods, Wal-Mart and J.B. Hunt Transport are based in or near town, fueling a recent economic boom that has brought the region new schools, recreational facilities and housing. Last year, the Springdale School District became the second largest in Arkansas, with more than 18,000 students—double its size in 1995.

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