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.

At-risk students are often caught in an education no-man's land; they are neither eligible for extra services through special education, nor are they well served by regular education.

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.

Sector Snapshot

The market for private at-risk education is highly fragmented and often overlaps with special education and corrections education. At-risk is a broadly defined category which can include dropouts, homeless youth, teen parents, abused or neglected children, students with substance abuse problems, emotionally troubled youth, or it can denote an otherwise average student who has simply fallen behind in his or her studies. Private providers include nonprofit and for-profit organizations; many providers are small businesses providing remedial education.

Major Providers

Boys Town USA, Boys Town, Nebraska
Children’s Comprehensive Services, Inc.
Ombudsman Educational Services, Libertyville, IL
Richard M. Milburn High School, Woodbridge, VA


(Source: The Reason Foundation)

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