The Role of the Rural Principal in Working with At-Risk Students

By Norman Casavant
SSTA Research Centre Report #03-03: 35 pages, $11

  

TABLE OF CONTENTS

     

Introduction

 

Part I: The Role of the Rural Principal in Working with At-Risk Students: A Review of the Literature

Leadership

Vision, Mission, and Goal Setting

Creating a Positive Environment

Changing the School’s Culture

Developing School Climate

Decision-Making

School-Community Relations

Motivation and the School

Working With At-Risk Students 

Conclusion

Part II: Discussion of the Findings: An Analysis of Five Rural Principals and Five Rural At-Risk Students

Methodology

Instrument 

High Expectations

Interagency/Community Involvement Engagement

Principals With Vision

Individualizing Learning

Parental Involvement

Part III: Recommendations

Suggestions for Further Research

Concluding Remarks

References

 

Back to: Leadership

 


   

The SSTA Research Centre grants permission to reproduce up to three copies of each report for personal use.
Each copy must acknowledge the author and the SSTA Research Centre as the source. A complete and authorized copy of each report is  available from the SSTA Research Centre.
The opinions and recommendations expressed in this report are those of the author and may not be in agreement with SSTA officers or trustees, but are offered as being worthy of consideration by those responsible for making decisions.

  


  

Introduction

  

The rural administrator’s effectiveness is dependent upon the various “quality” parts of the organization.   Recent literature (Chopra, 1994; Leithwood, 1992; Teschke, 1995) on effective schools has strongly and consistently found that the most critical element in gauging the success or failure of a school is the principal and the role he or she plays within the school.   For instance, Lipham (1981) believes that there are scenarios where you may have a poor principal and a strong staff and survive, but the consensus is that effectiveness in such a school is at best rare, and inadequate leadership usually leads to a school’s demise.   A principal’s effectiveness may be judged according to instructional leadership, administrative organization of staff, maintenance of an appropriate school environment through student discipline, and the ability to establish an environment where students and teachers work towards achieving academic success (Teschke, 1995).   Much of the literature currently written states that the rural principalship is anything but a comfortable position.   The communities are often faced with poverty, limited resources and geographic isolation.  Many of Saskatchewan’s rural schools struggle to prepare their students for the challenges of society.     It would certainly be true to state that the rural principalship is in trouble.   Finding quality applicants is becoming a difficult task for school boards.   Renihan’s (1985) study of Saskatchewan rural principals indicated that teachers declined to apply for principalships for two main reasons.   One reason is that there is a perception that rural schools are overwhelmed by the heavy workload.   Also, it was believed that chronic and undue amounts of stress are inherent in the principalship.   The expectations of rural principals as community leaders now transcend the traditional lists of duties given in the Education Act and board policies.  What is the role of the school administrator, and what qualities are seen to be effective in guiding the organization?    To address the lack of personnel wanting to enter into the principalship, one needs to address what the current roles and expectations of the rural principalship are.

Lipham (1981) believes that there are scenarios where you may have a poor principal and a strong staff and survive, but the consensus is that effectiveness in such a school is at best rare, and inadequate leadership usually leads to a school’s demise.

  

Much of the literature currently written states that the rural principalship is anything but a comfortable position.   The communities are often faced with poverty, limited resources and geographic isolation.

  

The expectations of rural principals as community leaders now transcend the traditional lists of duties given in the Education Act and board policies.

    


  

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Part I: The Role of the Rural Principal in Working with At-Risk Students: A Review of the Literature   

 

Leadership

  

Leadership appears to be characterized by one common factor: a vision of what ought to be if the proper changes could be made.    Leadership usually begins with a vision of success, a glimmering intuition that solutions are possible.   A leader, then, is an agent for change.   The leader changes what is to what ought to be (Sergiovanni, 2001)

  

In short, leadership does not just happen.   It is a planned process of interaction in a social setting in which goals that are mutually satisfying to the school organization and the individuals in the school are established and means developed to achieve them.   Drake and Roe (1994) summarize the points necessary for the general exercise of leadership:

1) Clearly articulate one’s vision of excellence and achievement.

2) Develop and maintain an environment of growth for each individual in the school- pupils, staff, and yes, the principal, too.

3) Optimize the environment to satisfy the needs of both the organization and the people.

4) Develop leadership among the staff and pupils so that the school becomes a community of leaders.

5) Look in more than one direction for a leadership base.

6) Share authority and responsibility with those whom one shares responsibility.

7) Accept the limitations of those with whom one shares responsibility.

8) Realize that one of the most effective leadership bases is that of professional competence.   The principal must be able to produce in the area accepted by those who are led and be perceived as a proper source of authority.

9) Be prepared to rock the boat.

   

  

  

  

In short, leadership does not just happen.   It is a planned process of interaction in a social setting in which goals that are mutually satisfying to the school organization and the individuals in the school are established, and means developed to achieve them.

  

  

  

  

  

While there is no certain style that can be used for every school, there are certain qualities that effective principals have in common and that can be acquired by prospective principals.

    


  

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Vision, Mission, and Goal Setting

  

A major role of administrators, according to Blase and Blase (1994), is to have a personal vision of what good educational programs look like.    A strong principal continually tries to keep the school on course towards this vision.   While there is no certain style that can be used for every school, there are certain qualities that effective principals have in common and that can be acquired by prospective principals.    Fullan and Hargreaves (1997) concur that spending quality time at the beginning of the school year to establish goals, and then as a staff, constantly evaluating them to ensure that they are being worked towards, followed by taking the necessary steps to achieve them, are all part of an effective style.

  

Herman and Herman (1998) suggest that schools which focus on kids rather than administration are more likely to attain important objectives; effective schools are preoccupied not with the concerns and needs of the staff and administrators, but with maximizing the academic, social, and personal growth of their students.

  

Participative goal setting is necessary if the goals are to be attained on a school-wide basis.   Similarly, researchers Goldring and Rallis (1993) agree that principals and teachers in effective schools collaboratively develop, discuss, and publicly declare their educational ideals; this promotes general understanding and acceptance of goals.   Classroom behavior, discussion in staff meetings, and attitudes and activities across the school should be focused accordingly.

Herman and Herman (1998) suggest that schools which focus on kids rather than administration are more likely to attain important objectives; effective schools are preoccupied not with the concerns and needs of the staff and administrators, but with maximizing the academic, social, and personal growth of their students.

      


  

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Creating a Positive Environment

  

Schools and school systems deal with many different students, parents, staff, board members, and the public at large on a daily basis.    Leithwood and Montgomery (1986) feel that the extensive human contacts that occur require the utilization of effective human relations within the school and its system.    A positive public image is an ongoing concern and has become the focus of many schools.   Principals should realize how important the role  is in creating a positive public image and needing to strive to develop this concept.

       

A principal and staff must continually work together in their attempt to nurture its primary client, the student.   This is not to say that staff members should never disagree.    Rather, cognitive dissonance among a staff is a healthy and positive growing process.   Schein (1985) feels that serious internal conflict is what an organization should attempt to prevent.   There is some merit in the conclusion by Trice & Beyer (1993) that healthy disagreement could possibly be stifled by a group.   A close-knit staff may avoid controversy for the sake of preserving positive relationships.    The professional strength of a school or any organization becomes evident in how conflict is handled.   The leadership within that school is also called on to deal with serious conflict.   Whenever possible, an administrator should be openly supportive of the school staff.

A principal and staff must continually work together in their attempt to nurture its primary client, the student.

        


  

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Changing the School's Culture

  

Teschke (1995) explains that strong schools do not happen by accident as there are not many that do not have a strong leader guiding the school.    While schools make a difference in what students learn, the principal’s role becomes influencing what schools teach and how they are run.    Well run schools are effective because their culture supports achievement, rewards excellence, focuses on academic and intellectual tasks, and provides opportunities for everyone to exercise some control over their environments and strives for soccess.   Sergiovanni (1994) thinks that the crucial term here is “culture”, which is a set of beliefs, values, rules, customs and traditions that controls everyone and everything in any institution.   Trice and Beyer (1993) state that probably the most important quality of an innovative cultural leader is that he or she is able to convince members of the organization to create/follow a new vision.   The culture of a school is a way of doing things, and the principal plays a key role in making this happen.

  

Getting close to the students by walking around the school doing supervision can go along way to establishing ties with the school clientele.   The principal, in making himself or herself available and allowing the students to drop in at anytime, makes sure that the students are the number one priority; they express this to their students by modeling the behavior.    When there is a strong level of commitment on the part of the principal to know all the students in the building personally, there is less chance that discipline will be a problem.   In order to run a strong and effective school, he/she must know the students, their backgrounds, and where they are from.   This bond allows communication to flow freely.  

Teschke (1995) explains that strong schools do not happen by accident as there are not many that do not have a strong leader guiding the school.

  

  

 

 

 

 

  

When there is a strong level of commitment on the part of the principal to know all the students in the building personally, there is less chance that discipline will be a problem.

         


  

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Developing School Climate

  

For years there have been people who have recognized the need for school change (Barth, 1990).   With declining social and moral standards, rural communities are growing concerned for the improvement of schools.   Barth (1990) states that if schools are to improve from within, leadership must emanate from many sources in interaction, including teachers, principals, parents, and students.    The concept of shared leadership and of a rural school as a community of leaders whose very mission is to help enlist all members of the community to make important contributions to the work of the school would enrich and refresh role bound training programs.

  

Leadership is key to a strong school culture.   Principals must read and shape the culture along with the teachers, students, and community members (Deal & Peterson, 1991).   To accomplish this they must lead by following, serving, and enabling others to lead (Sergiovanni, 1994).   The role of  rural principals can be that of  facilitators who allow teachers and community members the freedom to try different ideas on their own.

With declining social and moral standards, rural communities are growing concerned for the improvement of schools.   Barth (1990) states that if schools are to improve from within, leadership must emanate from many sources in interaction, including teachers, principals, parents, and students.

         


  

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Decision-Making

  

Leithwood (1992) states that an effective principal communicates high expectations to the students as well as to the staff.   The effective principal is a team leader who displays high levels of interpersonal skill and is especially adept at communicating with all stakeholders both in and outside the school system.   The principal must be available to all parties and must involve all members of the school in the decision-making process.   He/she must also seek meaningful input from all members of the community served by the school.   Blase and Blase (1994) state that the willingness on the part of the principal to share the decision-making process leads to ownership by the teachers.   Effective principals demand and support quality in everything that goes on in the school.   The effective principal is skilled at managing the stakeholders to make effective decisions.   Partnerships are built through communication, and schools that hope to develop stronger relationships with parents must communicate effectively with them.    Schools with school-based decision making usually do a good job of this.   They disseminate information in a variety of ways, including newsletters containing information about the school budget, student performance, decisions of the school council, and curriculum information (Mohrman, Smyer, & Wohsletter, 1994).

Leithwood (1992) states that an effective principal communicates high expectations to the students as well as to the staff.

           


  

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School-Community Relations

  

The principal of a rural school is most directly responsible for maintaining the relationship between the school and the community.    He or she must develop a strategy for school-community relations which takes into account the community’s values and power hierarchy.    Rural school principals have the opportunity to interact with the community in many ways that may help to develop positive relations.   Maslow (1943) believes that human motivation plays an integral role in the development of a student’s well being in any situation.    An administrator’s role is to provide positive leadership examples for both staff and students of an educational institution.   As some might expect, role modeling is one of the first steps to achieving this.

The principal of a rural school is most directly responsible for maintaining the relationship between the school and the community.    He or she must develop a strategy for school-community relations which takes into account the community’s values and power hierarchy.

        


  

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Motivation and the School

  

While, undoubtedly, the parents are the primary caregivers, and should be, the school has been thrust into an increasingly active role in that respect.    Maslow (1943) would concur that principals have an enormous responsibility in the development of the psychological and physiological characteristics of a student in their care.   More and more children are being raised in situations that require assistance from educators.    Maslow (1943) discusses the basic needs that  are required in his theory of human motivation.    The physiological and safety needs of a child are at the forefront and are readily visible to those people who are in constant contact with those individuals.    Maslow explains that injustice, unfairness, or inconsistency in the parents seems to make a child feel anxious and unsafe.   If this should happen, children may look elsewhere to provide the comfort and safety of the home and that may be the school. 

Maslow (1943) would concur that principals have an enormous responsibility in the development of the psychological and physiological characteristics of a student in their care.   More and more children are being raised in situations that require assistance from educators.

         


  

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Working with At-Risk Students

  

Rural principals face considerable challenges in educating growing populations of students at-risk of failure and dropout.     The roots of problems faced by at-risk students are complex.    Principals need to provide alternatives for at-risk students so that programs are personalized and the learning environment is more suited to this type of student.

       

Rural principals who create academically challenging yet personally supportive school cultures motivate many at-risk students (Payne, 1997).    Principals who have clear and high standards will have more success in working with at-risk students.     In schools where at-risk students succeed, principals set clear standards that plainly state what students should know and be able to do at key grades with periodic benchmarks to help measure progress (Codding & Rothberg, 1999).    Rural principals in personalized schools expect students to follow unambiguous rules and behavior standards, often have work related curriculum to provide active and experiential learning, and help students gain insight into their behavior (Cawelti, 1999).

  

Professional teamwork is essential to the success of at-risk students.    Collaboration among regular and special educators ensures that at-risk students have access to rigorous curriculum and interventions that increase learning.   Core teams of teachers, counselors, parents, and resource educators need to be brought together to meet and discuss ways to increase at-risk students’ achievement with classroom modifications, and school infrastructures must include time for team planning.

        

At-risk students often have personal histories of school failure.   Personalizing their learning helps principals prevent academic failure.   Principals who establish counselor-led school-based support teams can quickly mobilize educators and families to address issues blocking student achievement (Kaplan, 1994).    Calling on all interested persons to work collaboratively to address learning concerns prevents at-risk students from initially stumbling from becoming enduring failures.

         

Principals can also set at risk students up for success by having extended time with the same teacher.    At-risk learners often gain from extended time with the same teacher (Hanson, 1995).  One teacher working with a group of students can make modifications tailored to the student’s learning needs inside the classroom.    Fewer transitions means more teaching and learning.

  

Increased time together also strengthens interpersonal bonds.    Students who belong to a group in which group cohesion and increased trust and respect between students and teachers contribute to learning.    Continued contact also improves teacher relationships with parents.

      

Rural principals need to also examine the idea of pairing an at-risk learner with a trained adult or older peer to adapt learning and practice at each student’s pace, learning style, and comprehension.    Over time, tutoring creates a bond that motivates increased student learning and increases the student’s classroom competence.

  

Principals also need to examine the option of mentoring at-risk students.     Mentoring at-risk students with a caring older peer for tutoring, academic assistance, career preparation, or successful role modeling can help students learn how to constructively solve problems.    Activities can often include attending sports events, meals, social visits, and community and cultural events that the students might not otherwise experience.

         

The best option to keep at-risk students in school is for students to learn how to be successful in the first place.     Principals need to personalize student learning through developing a school culture and practices deliberately committed to at-risk learner’s high achievement.     Meaningful instruction taught by competent teachers in a caring school environment contributes to at-risk students’ academic achievement.    Helping at-risk students become competent learners prevents the need for students to choose to drop out of school.

Rural principals face considerable challenges in educating growing populations of students at-risk of failure and dropout.     The roots of problems faced by at-risk students are complex.    Principals need to provide alternatives for at-risk students so that programs are personalized and the learning environment is more suited to this type of student.

  

 

In schools where at-risk students succeed, principals set clear standards that plainly state what students should know and be able to do at key grades with periodic benchmarks to help measure progress (Codding & Rothberg, 1999).

  

  

At-risk students often have personal histories of school failure.

  

  

One teacher working with a group of students can make modifications tailored to the student’s learning needs inside the classroom.    Fewer transitions means more teaching and learning.

  

  

    

  

  

Principals need to personalize student learning through developing a school culture and practices deliberately committed to at-risk learner’s high achievement.     Meaningful instruction taught by competent teachers in a caring school environment contributes to at-risk students’ academic achievement.

        


  

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Conclusion

  

Changing conditions in rural education have brought about changes in expectations and roles of principals.    The traditional view of the rural leader is that of an individual who exercises authority and directs the activities of others, but more recently leadership had been defined as an interactive, dynamic process by which all organization members are able to achieve their common goals (Seyfarth, 1999).   

     

Rural principals perform many roles including affirming values, setting goals, motivating members, and helping to solve problems.    The essence of the principalship is decision-making.    Principals operate from the basis of authority to make certain decisions and use their influence to effect other decisions.   However, the major role of the principalship is to provide leadership to improve the quality of life of each individual within the school.   This is done by articulating and developing a vision, empowering a community of learners and leaders, and creatively providing the resources to implement the vision.

     

The rural principalship has become more complex than ever.    Rural principals must live with paradox- competing demands that seem to pull them in opposite directions.   He/she must have a sense of urgency about improving their schools that are balanced by the patience to sustain them over the long haul.   They must focus on the future but must also remain grounded in current reality.   Principals must encourage autonomy while at the same time demanding adherence to shared vision and values.   They must celebrate successes but perpetuate discontent with the status quo.    They must be strong leaders who give power to others. 

   

The approach taken in this literature review has been to identify the key roles that a Rural Principal should address in the operation of an effective rural school.   However, the role which the studies do not examine completely is the administrator’s role in insuring that AT-RISK students’ needs are met and that they are successful in this environment.

      

As administrators, there is a need to give young people a reason to believe that they can change their future.    This makes it much easier to deal with attendance issues, dropouts, violence, substance abuse, and teenage pregnancy.    For the mainstream students in any school, the valued outcome is usually obvious: to get into a post-secondary institution.    Those who do not expect to attend these institutions, however, are often confused as to why they should care about getting good grades or even about finishing high school at all.

  

The issue of definition is an important first step in understanding the problems faced by at-risk students.   Historically, “at-risk” students were primarily those whose appearance, language, culture, values, communities, and family structures did not match those of the dominant culture that schools were designed to serve and support.   Students who have certain kinds of conditions such as living with one parent, being a member of a minority group, and so on, are defined as at-risk because students in these categories are statistically more likely to be among the lowest achievement groups or to drop out of school altogether.

  

Changing societal realities and expectations now require that schools attend to issues that were traditionally addressed by families and other community institutions.    The development of school environments that meet the needs of all students is based on the fact that traditional approaches have failed to change overall behavior.    Principals in rural communities have a great role in changing the school environment so as to ensure the success of all at-risk youth.

          

Most of the research in the field of education focuses on the traditional roles of the rural principal.     Very little says anything about what role the principal should play in the education of at-risk students.    We need alternatives and strategies for meeting the needs of the growing population of at-risk students whom we will meet not only in our classrooms but also as our neighbors and as the adults of tomorrow.    From that perspective, it is imperative that rural schools begin the transformation to get student ready for our at-risk student body.    Who better to take on this role of transformation than the principal?

  

  

  

  

 

  

Rural principals must live with paradox- competing demands that seem to pull them in opposite directions.   He/she must have a sense of urgency about improving their schools that are balanced by the patience to sustain them over the long haul.   They must focus on the future but must also remain grounded in current reality.   Principals must encourage autonomy while at the same time demanding adherence to shared vision and values.

  

  

 

  

 

  

  

 

As administrators, there is a need to give young people a reason to believe that they can change their future.    This makes it much easier to deal with attendance issues, dropouts, violence, substance abuse, and teenage pregnancy.

  

    

  

  

 

Changing societal realities and expectations now require that schools attend to issues that were traditionally addressed by families and other community institutions.    The development of school environments that meet the needs of all students is based on the fact that traditional approaches have failed to change overall behavior.

    

 

  

From that perspective, it is imperative that rural schools begin the transformation to get student ready for our at-risk student body.

         


  

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Part II: Discussion of the Findings: An Analysis of Five Rural Principals and Five Rural At-Risk Students

  

Methodology

  

The research was qualitative in design.    It involved researcher observation, demographic data sheets/ questionnaires and interviews.   Using the idiosyncratic set of values, feelings, and beliefs of the principals and students involved, the study attempted to understand how these two groups saw the role of the principal and how it led to success for the at-risk student.

  

The writer conducted this study in five rural schools across the province.  The sample chosen for the study consisted of five rural principals and five at-risk rural students.    At-risk students were selected on a number of factors, but the main one was that they would be at risk of leaving education before they graduate.

         


  

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Instrument

  

The  interview, demographic data sheets and questionnaires were chosen because they would be best suited for the complexity of the field situation.   The main source of data collection was the interview.    The observations of the interviewees were essential because of their ability to identify the issues in this context.   The interviews were also used to discover what differences there were in perceptions between the principals and the at-risk students.           

      

The interview questions were formulated to guide the discussions and to help ensure that all the issues related to at-risk youth were discussed.    Some of the interview questions read as follows:   What issues do at-risk youth deal with?   What do at-risk youth need in schools to be successful?      What does your school currently do to insure success for at-risk youth?  What role does the principal play in facilitating success for at-risk students?    What else could rural schools be doing for at-risk students?   What will make this possible?   What role will the principal have in making this possible?   These were sample questions for principals and questions for students were modified.

  

Through the analysis of the interview responses, six themes arose: high expectations, interagency/ community involvement, engagement, vision, individualized learning, and parental involvement.     These themes were used to help organize the discussion.

The observations of the interviewees were essential because of their ability to identify the issues in this context.   The interviews were also used to discover what differences there were in perceptions between the principals and the at-risk students. 

         


  

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High Expectations

  

Students identified in the study as being at-risk of educational failure often received a watered-down curriculum that emphasized the basic academic skills.    All students, especially those at-risk, need to be engaged in interesting and challenging learning that goes beyond basic proficiencies (Karlsson, 1996).    Student respondent #2 felt that “the principal needs to be supportive and to have high expectations of all students.”

        

Principals in the study also felt that at-risk students had their instruction slowed down and stripped bare of anything but survival skills.    All students in the study were scoring below average.   They were consistently being excused from top performance and given sympathy instead of motivation.    Principals need to be continually making it their task to raise the bar for at-risk student’s academic success.

      

The principals interviewed felt that it was imperative to set clear and consistent boundaries and also to be consistent in implementing school policies that clarify behavior expectations.     Principal respondent #3 expects appropriate behavior and reasonable effort.    The principals felt that it was important to keep expectations simple and consistent.

      

It was also important that expectations be both high and realistic.    Benard (1993) describes several ways schools can implement this step.    First school staff should convey to students positive messages.    Principals need to insure that classrooms embody high expectations and are characterized by high-order, meaningful, and participatory curriculums.   Also, to provide teaching strategies that communicate high expectations and are cooperative rather than competitive and are focused on interest based motivation.    Responsibility for learning needs to be placed on students through active participation and decision making.

       

The principals in the study attempted to set clear expectations that clearly state what students should know and be able to do (Codding & Rothberg, 1999).   Principals need to expect students to follow unambiguous rules and behavior standards, require a work related curriculum to provide active and experiential learning, and help students gain insight into their behavior (Cawelti, 1999).

All students, especially those at-risk, need to be engaged in interesting and challenging learning that goes beyond basic proficiencies (Karlsson, 1996).

  

  

 

Principals in the study also felt that at-risk students had their instruction slowed down and stripped bare of anything but survival skills.

         


  

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Interagency/Community Involvement

  

In relation to interagency involvement, location appeared to be a factor.    A number of recent studies seemed to verify that location is a challenge for many principals in having consistent interagency involvement in their schools (Evans, 1996; Samier, 2000).

Location limited principals’ access to the services available in larger centers.

         

Many of the principals felt that their communities did not have the supports and services needed for at-risk students and those that did felt they “were often fragmented, offering services to little or too late.”    When at-risk students do spend their time in school, a variety of other services share responsibility for creating the conditions in which at-risk students can succeed.    The rural principals recognize that they want to play an essential role as partners in establishing collaborative initiatives and partnerships.     The problem that they faced was getting the services into the community.    It was stated by the respondents that they felt that the school plus initiatives would certainly push this along.   The goal should be for school personnel to collaborate at every level with other institutions that share responsibility for meeting the needs of at-risk students which would allow at-risk students to have access to high-quality services.

  

The at-risk problem must be approached through the concerted efforts of schools, families, and the community.    Since all three institutions contribute to a child’s education, best results will be obtained from collaboration.    This may require teaming with other communities to share services.     These collaboration efforts are obviously not easy.   However, when the potential benefits of such collaborations are significantly greater than the prospects of achieving desired results without working with others, these kinds of collaborative efforts need to occur.    Principals in smaller rural communities need to pursue collaborative relationships with groups beyond the community borders.    Neighboring school divisions may be able to provide additional educational resources.    Regional mental health centers, hospitals, and various other regional service agencies may be of service.    Principals need to be assertive in bringing together families, community institutions, agencies, and other groups and individuals to respond to the needs of at-risk children.

  

The principals in the study also agreed that building these collaborative partnerships is not easy.    However, when the benefits of such collaborations are significantly greater than the prospects of achieving desired results without working with others, these kinds of interdivision and intra/inter-community linkages need to be seriously considered.

        

In some cases it may be necessary to develop communication and team-building skills through staff development.    Teachers are no doubt skilled at working with children.   However, some teachers find working with adults not to be as comfortable.    In a similar way, parents, agency personnel, and others in the community may not possess adequate skills necessary to facilitate the success of efforts to develop, combine and coordinate services.    All the principals in the study felt that it was necessary to have targeted training in basic communication and team work skills which would be an excellent start in building collaborative relationships.

   

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

 

The at-risk problem must be approached through the concerted efforts of schools, families, and the community.

 

  

   

  

Principals in smaller rural communities need to pursue collaborative relationships with groups beyond the community borders.

  

  

  

  

In some cases it may be necessary to develop communication and team-building skills through staff development.

         


  

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Engagement

  

An important task for principals is to help students who are at-risk to achieve a sense of belonging in school.    Students need to be encouraged to embrace involvement as a healthy and natural part of young adulthood.    Simply stated, engagement means that students make the most of their school years by taking advantage of the activities that the school has to offer.    Students need to be encouraged to participate on teams, clubs, groups, and special activities as a part of their educational experience.

Engagement can also mean the active involvement in at least one academic, social, or extra-curricular activity in the school (Sergiovanni, 1994).    Sergiovanni found that engagement in even one of these aspects of the school significantly increased the likelihood of staying in school.   However, the principals in the study agreed that academic achievement must take place for school achievement to improve.

       

Improving school engagement for at-risk students may require staff development to heighten teacher sensitivity.    Fennell (1991) addressed student perceptions of teachers as uncaring, especially in the more academic content areas.    This point was agreed upon by the students in this study.   These kinds of perceived characteristics, whether accurate or not, often contribute to decisions to drop out of school.   The principals in the study felt empathy amongst staff was essential in the rural setting if improvements would be made for at-risk students.

Improving school engagement for at-risk students may require staff development to heighten teacher sensitivity.

         


  

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Principals with Vision

  

The rural principals felt that it was important to practice the skills and apply the knowledge of effective instructional leadership.    Principals need to have a vision-- a picture of what they want students to achieve.    They engage teachers, parents, students, and others to share in creating the vision.   They encourage them to join in the efforts to make that vision a reality.   They keep the vision in the forefront by supporting teachers’ instructional efforts and by guiding the use of data to evaluate the progress of the school.   Having a stated vision for the at-risk students in the school and a plan to achieve that vision is essential for principals to possess if they expect others to buy into the need to do more for at-risk students.

They (Principals) engage teachers, parents, students, and others to share in creating the vision.   They encourage them to join in the efforts to make that vision a reality.

         


  

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Individualized Learning

  

It was felt by the at-risk respondents that they certainly had personal histories of school failure.    Having the learning opportunities personalized was felt to be important to the at-risk students.    The teacher needs to personalize learning with flexibility to advance the at-risk learners achievement.    Extended time with the same teacher was also clearly evident as a need of at-risk students.     At-risk learners often gain from extended time with the same teacher (Hanson, 1995).    Fewer transitions and adjustments each day mean more teaching and learning in a consistent environment.

  

Increased time together also was a factor raised by the students in the interviews, making them feel like they had stronger bonds.    Group cohesion, increased trust, and respect between students and teacher facilitate student learning.    Continual contact also was felt to improve relationships with parents.

       

Providing extra one-on-one help was also found to be important to students.     Innovative schedules where students receive extended learning within the regular school day, such as block scheduling, was felt to be important for students.    This allows for fewer transitions between classes and fewer subjects for students to work on in a day.     In this framework the at-risk students receives manageable chunks of information, practices it under direct supervision, receives prompt and specific individual feedback, and uses the feedback immediately to increase learning.   Longer class periods also encourage practical applications of learning, increasing relevance and motivation.   In addition, the block schedule can make schools, safer, calmer, and less distracting to at-risk students (Shortt and Thayer, 1998).

  

Having the learning opportunities personalized was felt to be important to the at-risk students.    The teacher needs to personalize learning with flexibility to advance the at-risk learners achievement.

  

  

  

  

Innovative schedules where students receive extended learning within the regular school day, such as block scheduling, was felt to be important for students.    This allows for fewer transitions between classes and fewer subjects for students to work on in a day. 

         


  

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Parental Involvement

  

Of the many partnerships that principals agreed were essential, meaningful associations with parents were among the most important.    When parents create a positive learning environment at home, have high expectations for their children’s performance, and encourage positive attitudes toward education, student achievement is significantly improved (Fennell, 1991).    However, the principals in the study agreed that there is often a significant gap between many schools’ espoused commitments to parental involvement and their actual efforts to incorporate parents in significant, meaningful ways into the ongoing education of their children.

  

The main reason parental involvement with the schools is so important for at-risk children is that their home and school worlds are so different.    Principals in the study felt that it was particularly important for teachers to develop communication with parents of at-risk children so that both understand the other’s settings and expectations which may alter both settings.

       

Principals need to begin to find the strength in the families and let the parents know that these strengths are valued.   This also means it isn’t helpful to view at-risk families as failures.    Most students interviewed felt that their parents cared for them but were unable to provide for their needs.    Parents need to be given the opportunity to grow and learn along with their children.   Rural school staffs need to help parents identify what they’re capable of and how to overcome obstacles.   All individuals and families need to feel empowered, especially at-risk families who often feel powerless and out of control.    School staffs need to ask parents what they’d be interested in doing and work with their agendas.

       

The partnership with at-risk parents is felt to be impossible by the principals in the study without collaboration from the other agencies and community services.     Schools cannot provide all the services that at-risk families need, such as parenting education, counseling, health care, and housing.    Rural schools must partner with the agencies that they have to insure that all the needs of the students are met in order to educate them properly.

  

When parents create a positive learning environment at home, have high expectations for their children’s performance, and encourage positive attitudes toward education, student achievement is significantly improved (Fennell, 1991).

  

         


  

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Part III: Recommendations

  

Most teachers and principals are inadequately prepared to deal with at-risk student issues.   Students who felt that their teachers did not care or their principal was not understanding to their issues were likely to drop out.    Rural schools will have to become more student ready for the at-risk populations.   This will result in some creativity from within the school to create programs which are more individualized and more supportive of the at-risk students needs.    

       

Throughout the interviews, several roles emerged for the rural principals to more effectively work with at-risk students.    It was clear through all the interviews that at-risk students learn differently and not at all slowly when they are appropriately engaged to their learning styles and needs.    Rural principals need to establish high expectations that are reasonable and reachable.    Meaning is a key component to learning especially for at-risk students.    Acceleration can be accomplished by setting high and clear goals with meaningful material.

      

Creating meaning for at-risk students often means engaging them in learning that is relevant to their lifestyle.   Most principals and students interviewed felt that it was essential to have a work component with emphasis on developing a positive and productive work ethic.   This could mean anything from work experience in the community to starting up a school business.

  

Critical to the principal role is involving family, community, and agencies in supporting the at-risk student education.   These various groups can help to nurture the child.    All principals felt that the stakeholders involvement can effect positive outcomes for attendance and persistence in school.    The effects of these groups range from small to substantial but require the coordination of the rural principal to be effective.

       

Providing opportunities for staff development activities to improve learning for staff regarding the at-risk student was seen as essential.   Having staff buy into the changes that are required for the education of at-risk students requires them to be educated.    Success for at-risk students relies on the notion that the program will include deliberate and pertinent staff development which is set up on a needs based program.     More professional development needs to be spent on the realities of at-risk students.     Teachers graduate from university with little or no knowledge of the needs of the at-risk student.    If teachers and principals are to understand the at-risk students’ needs then the topic of at-risk students should become a component of university courses.

        

Students in this study strongly supported the notion of smaller class sizes.   They felt that their success was directly connected to the fact that having closer student-teacher and student-student relationships helped them feel more comfortable.   The smaller classes allow teachers to individually prescribe instruction and monitor progress and encourage more interactivity.

      

Principals must also provide opportunity for the at-risk population to be engaged in a deliberate atmosphere and program of social skills in self-management and responsibility.     They must work toward objectives that increase student self-control, school success, attachment and commitment to education.    It was felt by the respondents that such a program will improve student conduct substantially. 

  

Students who felt that their teachers did not care or their principal was not understanding to their issues were likely to drop out.

    

  

It was clear through all the interviews that at-risk students learn differently and not at all slowly when they are appropriately engaged to their learning styles and needs.    Rural principals need to establish high expectations that are reasonable and reachable. 

  

  

Creating meaning for at-risk students often means engaging them in learning that is relevant to their lifestyle.

  

  

Providing opportunities for staff development activities to improve learning for staff regarding the at-risk student was seen as essential.

         


  

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Suggestions for Further Research

  

The following are suggestions for further research.   Some of the suggestions involve further research in the area of at-risk students, while others are based on questions that arose during the analysis of the data.

      

This study was narrow in scope in several ways.   In order to get a more complete picture of the role of the rural principal in working with at-risk students, more research in the area will be needed.   Sampling could be expanded to include elementary students in interviews as well as a broader sample across the province.    There is still a need for further research focusing on the relationship between the role of rural principals and their affects on the success or failures of at-risk students.   This would be best accomplished by the collection and analysis of longitudinal data.

         

The goal of this study was to examine the role of the rural principal in working with at-risk students.   There was no attempt to examine the role of the urban principal and to examine the similarities and differences between the two roles.   The discrepancies between the two could not be explored within the parameters of this study.    It seems that there is a need for research focusing on parental, community, and agency support systems available to rural principals for the at-risk student.   

  

It appeared that some of the rural principals do not have the level of support that they require.   Research in this area might be particularly timely since School Plus initiatives are coming into place around the province.   The rural principals discussed how they felt they were doing as much as they could for the at-risk population and they simply could not get access to a lot of the services that are required.   To find out if there is truly a lack of support, it would require research focusing on parental, community and agency views of at-risk students and principals in rural schools. 

  

In order to get a more complete picture of the role of the rural principal in working with at-risk students, more research in the area will be needed.   Sampling could be expanded to include elementary students in interviews as well as a broader sample across the province.

  

  

  

It seems that there is a need for research focusing on parental, community, and agency support systems available to rural principals for the at-risk student.   

         


  

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Concluding Remarks

  

From the study, the conclusion could be made that at-risk students in rural schools are not receiving the education that they require to retain them in school.   Students who are in difficulty must be quickly identified and given immediate attention.   If a student is identified as being at-risk, plans must be set forth by the principal and all involved to assist the student by providing all the supports available.    For rural schools to review the education of at-risk students, it will be necessary for the principal to review school philosophy, organization, and the use of staff and resources in and out of school.

        

The at-risk population will most likely continue to grow with the eroding of rural communities.    It is the rural principal’s role to insure that at-risk students are not allowed “to fall through the cracks” and become another statistic.    They must utilize all of the resources available to them and ensure that the educational community is aware of the importance of educating all students, including at-risk students, to the best of their ability.

 

There is no distinctive formula for the role of the rural principal in working with at-risk students.    The roles will vary from school to school and division to division.    Some thins will fail, and some will succeed.  Because of the growth of the at-risk population in our schools, there will continue to be much refining in schools as to what works best for at-risk students.    We are continuing to gain a lot of knowledge as we work with this group of students; this helps us to better understand the roles and structures of administration when working with them.    We must continue to utilize all of the resources at our disposal and to look for new opportunities to engage this group of students in education.    There are doors that continue to remain closed to at-risk students.    It becomes the rural principal's role to break down these doors and to help the at-risk students see the opportunities available to them.

  

This study was to examine the role of the rural principal in working with at-risk students.    This was done by collecting data from interviews and demographic data sheets.    Both data sources provided insightful information on the role of the rural principal in working with at-risk students.    Five principals and five at-risk students gave their consent to participate in the study.

  

The data collected suggested that the rural school principals felt that they were doing all they currently could for the at-risk students’ education, given the circumstances.   On the other hand the majority of the students did not feel that they were being educated in the most effective manner.   

  

Despite all of the research on the role of the rural principal, there is not a lot of agreement on the best way to educate at-risk students.    Unfortunately, it does appear that the dropout rate is closely linked with the readiness of the school for the at-risk student.    However, the students involved in the study had many contributing factors to make them at-risk which the schools in these situations simply were unable to manage on their own.     The most obvious one seems to be a lack of parental involvement in their child’s education.

       

Most of the participants interviewed in the study stated that at-risk children generally live in vulnerable families and neighborhoods where the incidences of poverty, teen pregnancy, unemployment, substance abuse, and violence are widespread.   Most of this study showed that the respondents felt that many more students would be living under conditions that placed them at-risk of educational failure in the future.   Principal respondent #3 felt that at-risk students live with a variety of physical and emotional issues.   However he felt that “identifying the cause of their status sometimes points to limitations in ability, serious neglect and abuse.   Unfortunately it is a result of parents who are terrible role models; the latter seems acceptable within society.”

        

It was apparent that all the administrators in this study had already reconfigured their schools’ offerings to provide the extra boost such students need to bolster their chances of academic success.  Respondent #2 has established a transitional room for the middle year students, a student support center for the high school students and alternative programming.  With no substantial knowledge base for identifying consistently effective strategies, these efforts have resulted in widely varying outcomes.

  

Students who are in difficulty must be quickly identified and given immediate attention.

  

  

  

The at-risk population will most likely continue to grow with the eroding of rural communities.    It is the rural principal’s role to insure that at-risk students are not allowed “to fall through the cracks” and become another statistic. 

  

  

  

 

We are continuing to gain a lot of knowledge as we work with this group of students; this helps us to better understand the roles and structures of administration when working with them.    We must continue to utilize all of the resources at our disposal and to look for new opportunities to engage this group of students in education.

  

  

  

  

  

  

  

 Most of this study showed that the respondents felt that many more students would be living under conditions that placed them at-risk of educational failure in the future.

         


  

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References

  

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