A catch-all category, students at-risk are those who struggle academically and/or socially in school. At-risk students are often caught in an education no-man’s land; they are neither eligible for extra services through special education (unless they have a disability), nor are they well served by regular education. There is no standard definition of at-risk, but the term is generally used to indicate students who, for a variety of reasons, are likely to drop out, or fail out, of school. The Minnesota Department of Education describes at-risk students as those meeting at least one of the following criteria:41
At least two years below performance on achievement tests;
At least one year below grade level;
Are pregnant or a parent;
Are chemically dependent;
Have been physically or sexually abused;
Have mental illness;
Have been homeless in the past six months;
Have been expelled from school;
Have been referred by the school district.
Compared to special-education legislation, public policies for at-risk students are less formalized and regulated. Local education administrators generally have broad authority over how and if students exhibiting at-risk behaviors are served outside the regular classroom. Some school districts have created elaborate programs in-house to serve at-risk youth; others do nothing beyond providing at-risk youth with the same education as other students. Many school districts contract with a nonpublic school or program to provide education and other services. Parents and guardians of at-risk youth who find the public-school programs inadequate or inappropriate for their children often bypass the system altogether, choosing to enroll them in a private, tuition-based school or program.
Services for at-risk youth can include tutoring, full-time instruction, vocational education, drug treatment, counseling, child care, and residential care. Alternative education may range from independent study allowing the student to hold a full-time job while working toward a GED, to highly structured, secure, residential programs incorporating behavior modification and therapy.