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Hampton Roads Community News

Strategies For Empowering At-Risk Youth To Succeed School And Life

Strategies to empower at-risk youth for academic success and life achievements, highlighting the importance of parental involvement and support.

By John L. Horton

Come September the “new” school year (September 2023 – June 2024) will begin for our public schools students and their families, locally and elsewhere. Therefore, I am motivated to write this piece pertaining to some important aspects concerning this upcoming school year, and the like.

As an octogenarian (82), retired Marine sergeant major, probation officer, social worker, college teacher, lecturer, mentor, facilitator, counselor, trainer, advocate and activist, I have seen, experienced and attempted to do a lot over the years and decades, which gives me special insight and realistic understanding when it comes to “simplistic, synoptic strategies for empowering at-risk and disadvantaged youth to be successful in school and life.”


It has been stated that “you earn what you learn.”  Therefore, we must empower all of our youth to become smarter and more productive citizens. Moreover, it has been said that “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”  Unless we are able to accomplish this feat, our great nation will not be competitive in the world marketplace, much less remain the world’s leader.  Economically, politically, militarily, and socially, most of us are already aware of this self-fulfilling prophecy of life.

Another old truism goes: “The flip side of crisis is opportunity.”  When it comes to our nation’s educational system, this is particularly true.  Therefore, special attention and intense interest should be given to those youth who are at greatest risk and most disadvantaged for dropping out of school and/or failing to get a good education.

This is particularly true of those youth who disproportionately come from single parent and economically disadvantaged households.  This population is “at-risk” most drastically, academically and otherwise, and not too much is getting any better for them – after all this time and all the monies supposedly expended on their behalf.

As I see it, there are several significant drawbacks to our present educational processes, and I would like to delineate some possible strategies and solutions:

First, we need an academic program that is comprehensive and inclusive for all of its student body.  We need to insure that all of our children are educated and advanced according to their needs and abilities.  


Some of our children have “special education” needs, especially when it comes to adaptation, behavior and learning.  More study needs to be given to behavior (suspensions, expulsions, etc.) and learning (deficiencies, limitations, etc.) among other things.  This needs to be accomplished in an “open, honest and realistic” environment, involving students, teachers and parents.

Second, we must use a “reality-based” focus for teaching our at-risk and disadvantaged youth.  We could begin by honestly evaluating our students’ educational abilities and skills.

This is more important than ever, especially since the recent COVID-19 epidemic that hampered and harmed many of our youth living in some of our most “at-risk and disadvantaged” communities.  Then we could develop and implement curricula that deal with the students’ (actual/real) levels of comprehension and competence.

Through this “new approach” education system, everyone will be encouraged and expected to achieve and succeed – not by words alone, but also by actions and deeds.  For example, the so-called “special/social promotions” may be a means to an end, but it is “not the answer.”  In fact, it may be a disservice to the very students that it is supposed to help, since many of them end up “dropping out of the system” after getting a promotion that was supposed to be for their own good.

Third, we need programs that more clearly and profoundly focus on the concerns and needs of students who come from at-risk and disadvantaged backgrounds.  For the most part, middle and higher income and/or two-parent families are better able to give their children/students what it takes to achieve academically and socially.

Collectively speaking, special attention and preferential treatment need to be given to those students most at-risk and disadvantaged.  We must come to understand that these particular children have special needs and that they suffer from a loss of community.

Therefore, a “different” approach is needed for imparting the educational/learning experience to them. Otherwise, a telling and substantive “difference” will never be accomplished. And their loss, too, will be our loss. We must always keep in mind: “A chain is only as strong as it weakest link…

Fourth, probably the most critical piece to making this all work – satisfactory attendance, good behavior and academic achievement – is the parent(s).  It is unfortunate that too many of these parent(s) do not have the in-house wherewithal and resources to achieve the “three basics” of satisfactory attendance, good behavior, and academic achievement.

This basic foundation of parental authority and student responsibility has to be developed and implemented effectively before anything else will succeed and/or be meaningful.

Briefly stated, these particular youth need, among other things: parenting skills for their parents, psychological and academic evaluation, concentrated and focused counseling within the school setting, self-esteem and motivational reinforcement, cultural and personal empowerment, mentoring and tutoring, and the like.


Fifth, being successful in school can be equated to the “3-A’s: Attendance + Attitude = Achievement.”  For this educational at-risk population, the “truancy and behavior” aspect is of profound importance.  For, until they come to schools and behave themselves on a regular basis, it will be almost impossible to teach them anything meaningful and substantial.

Keeping disruptive and unruly youth in school solely for the purpose of a body count and budget funding is counterproductive for those students who truly want to learn.

Accordingly, it is of paramount importance that good order and a positive learning environment be maintained in the classroom at all costs. For those students who are unable and/or unequipped to function in this “positive learning environment,” an extensive “alternative school setting” may be the best and/or only recourse.

Lastly, but certainly not least, we must allow and empower our teachers to do and be all that they can be in the classroom.  Teachers should be treated and paid like the professionals they are.  We must encourage our “best and brightest” to become and remain teachers.  We need to give our teachers “room to operate” and solicit their advice, opinions and ideas.  We need to support our teachers in these vital endeavors, for they “educate” the children who are our future and our hope.  

We can no longer afford to ignore these vital issues and hope that the situation will get better all by itself.  Political correctness, governmental intervention and human sacrifices will not save us, alone, without parental involvement and participation on behalf of their children/students.

In summary, we must aggressively pursue “corrective actions” until our goals for our children are achieved.  Good intentions are groundless unless the final objective(s) are achieved.

Alas, we have come too far and invested too much economic, political and social capital, not to succeed in this formidable task that lies before us.

Enough talking and grandstanding. Enough division and mayhem.  Let’s get to work and make it happen for our youth to be successful in school and life.

And, let us always remember those “ten most powerful and substantive words”: If it is to be, it is up to us!

John L. Horton is a resident of Norfolk and frequent contributor to this newspaper.


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