Providing at-risk students with adequate support has been one of the nation’s biggest and most unyielding educational challenges. Every year, one in five high school students drop out before graduating, and for students of color and students from low-income backgrounds, the numbers are even higher.

There is little controversy about the value of intervening with at-risk students. A wealth of research has shown that students who are at-risk of failing academically or who are otherwise struggling benefit greatly from a variety of extra supports, from one-on-one tutoring, to emotional counseling services, to small group advisories.

Schools seem to have heeded this message about the value of intervention. GreatSchools’ 2018 College Success Award survey found that award-winning and non-award winning schools were equally likely to identify and intervene with at-risk students. But there are varying perspectives about how and when schools should intervene. Recent evidence has found that 9th grade is a crucial year in identifying youth who are at-risk of dropping out. The survey found that the great majority of both winning and non-winning schools identify and intervene with at-risk students in ninth grade.

The key difference was that award winners were more likely to reach out to at-risk students not just in ninth grade, but in grades 10 through 12 as well. This distinction was particularly evident at Denver School of Science and Technology: Stapleton, a charter school based in Denver, Co that serves a mostly low-income community. Although DSST Stapleton is renown for its rigor, it’s also known for continually tracking students carefully to identify those who seem to be struggling. Students who are identified as needing extra support receive tutoring and may be encouraged to retake classes, all with the idea that they may just need extra time and help to reach college readiness. There’s never a point at which a student is considered too far along to get them back on track academically. Some students take five or even six years to graduate, and then go on to college and even graduate school.

But what does ongoing intervention at all grade levels entail?

Robert Canady, a professor emeritus at the University of Virginia’s Curry School of Education and a high school dropout prevention consultant, advocates for intervention strategies that emphasize both formal instruction and personalized academic support.

“You’ve got to build in more structured support during the school day,” he says. For instance, a class period might be devoted to intervention. Or, teachers of core academic courses might emphasize personalized learning so that at-risk students have the extra time to master the course material.

Too often, Canady says, students are graduated from courses without learning much at all, which leaves them to fall further and further behind each year. Creating a system in which students’ progress and performance is monitored consistently in core classes can help teachers identify — and more importantly, support — struggling students.

The importance of an individualized approach

For many at-risk students, the challenges and obstacles to success are very personal. When schools intervene, taking time to identify and address individual barriers can be transformative.

“At-risk kids need to know there’s at least one adult in the building who cares about them,” Canady says. According to research, connecting with a trusted adult who serves as a mentor and champion can substantially impact students’ success by helping them feel supported. Prioritizing those deeper connections also allows schools to understand the roots of students’ challenges and better meet their needs.

When helping at-risk students plan for college or careers, individual attention also has a crucial role. “A ‘one size fits all’ approach is not appropriate,” says Laura Perna, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. “Recognizing the importance of personalized support is critical, given differences in students’ preferences and interests, as well as differences in academic readiness.” In other words, to help at-risk students succeed, schools need to see them in the context of their whole lives.

GreatSchools’ College Success Award honors public high schools in 25 states that are doing a great job of preparing students for postsecondary success. Learn more about the award, see the list of winners, and read about more award winners here.

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