Presented at The Annual Meeting of the American Educational Research Association: Chicago, IL, April 21, 2003. 36 Pages. http://www.aera.net.
NOTE: At the time of publication, the author George Petersen was not yet affiliated with Cal Poly.
One of the most salient problems in our nation's schools has been to educate the students who experience academic difficulties and eventually drop out of school before mastering the skills and knowledge required for successful participation in society. Research literature focused on at-risk/dropout prevention programs indicates that potential dropouts can be identified in elementary school. Yet, the literature is scant with regard to the impact of programs designed for at-risk elementary students. Synthesizing research of effective at-risk/dropout prevention programs and the learning theory articulated in the American Psychological Association's Leamer-Centered Principles, this study examined the essential components present in an exemplary at-risk/dropout prevention program for kindergarten through sixth grade students. Specifically, we investigated the perceptions of building administrators, at-risk coordinators, at-risk teachers, regular classroom teachers, and parents of at-risk students regarding the program's ability to reduce at-risk behaviors. Findings of this qualitative case study suggest three major themes were essential to the effectiveness of the at-risk program: (I) shared assumptions about mission; (2) student centered focus; and (3) commitment to creation of a nurturing environment. The findings further suggest that eleven subthemes supported the major themes. Analysis of the findings revealed that features within each of the three broad areas clearly reflected the four domains of the APA Learner-Centered Psychological Principles; however, not every subtheme incorporated the concepts of all four domains. Through in-depth, phenomenological interviews, the participants indicated that their at-risk/dropout program effectively reduced three major at-risk behaviors: (I) improved attendance; (2) improved academics; and (3) improved self-esteem. Not all of the participants regarded the program's effectiveness in reducing at-risk behaviors in each of the major themes. Parents of the at-risk students described impressive changes in the area of improved self-esteem exclusively, while the remaining respondents identified changes in all three major areas.