Supporting At-Risk Students in the Online Environment

John* failed to log-in 8 days in a row after he’d enrolled in my online, 10th grade, English course. I watched my Performance Dashboard, waiting for it to report that John wasn’t, in fact, a disengaged student. On the 8th day, I picked up my phone and dialed the number of his mentor. After a short run around at the front desk, I was transferred to Paul*, who reported to me that he hadn’t seen John in over a week and all he knew was that the boy had made a court appearance sometime back and he hadn’t seen him since.

I didn’t stop there. Next, I dialed John’s home number. I shuffled my approach from proactive-searcher-of-answers to supportive-inviting-mentor. His mother answered the phone and I made the mistake of calling her by John’s last name. She corrected me, to which I apologized and addressed her correctly. I told her I was John’s new online teacher and just wanted to introduce myself. I left my name and number and thanked John’s mom for her time.She said with interest that she'd tell John I'd called. I wished her a good day.

The next day, when I saw that John had logged in and had attempted a few assignments, regardless of the fact that the grades were too low to mention, I emailed him right away, to both his personal and Blackboard email. I told him I was happy to “see” him and commended his efforts at attempting some of the quizzes. I asked him a few open-ended questions and sat back to wait.

There are a multitude of characteristics that contribute to a student’s risk of dropping out of school. Among them, low socioeconomic status, living with a single-parent, belonging to a minority group, having disabilities, psychosocial factors, family problems, drug addictions, and teen pregnancies (Tompkins & Deloney, 2009). Many of these students live with multiple factors (Hammond, Linton, Smink, & Drew, 2007, p.2).

Teachers are in a unique position to provide support that helps the at-risk student gain confidence and ultimately help that student gain a high school education. When a student experiences complex difficulties that are chronic, a teacher’s emotional support can make all the difference (Cronginger & Lee, 2001).

As a former at-risk youth, I understand the complexities that may be keeping John out of the online classroom. Writing a Compare & Contrast paper hardly stands a chance against standing before a juvenile court judge. I’ll watch John. I’ll email John. I’ll call his mentor. And when warranted, I will call his mom. Maybe the difference I will make will be small. Maybe not. I’ll take the chance that my efforts will get through to him and I’ll be one of the pieces that helps John gain confidence and ultimately a high school education.

*names have been changed

Cronginger, R. G., & Lee, V. E. (2001). Social capital and dropping out of school: Benefits to at-risk students of teachers’ support and guidance. Teachers College Record, 103(4), 548-581.

Hammond, C., Linton, D., Smink, J., & Drew, S. (2007). Dropout risk factors and exemplary
programs: A technical report. Clemson, SC: National Dropout Prevention Center Network
and Communities in Schools, Inc. Retrieved from Harms, C. M., Niederhauser, D. S., Davis,
N. E.,

Tompkins, R., & Deloney, P. (1994). Rural students at risk in Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico,
Oklahoma and Texas. Austin, TX: Southwest Educational Development Laboratory. Retrieved from

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