Simply teaching literacy to young people at-risk is not enough. The demonstration project had to develop multiple approaches to helping the young people overcome a wide variety of challenges.
Overcoming social and emotional barriers was a necessity in the demonstration project. Many, though not all, of the students at the New School experienced highly turbulent lives, family instability, violence, and substance abuse — all of which interfered with their ability to focus on their school work and develop productive behaviours. Many exhibited survival strategies — from disassociation and introversion to aggressive antagonism — that likely helped protect them from physical and emotional harm but was counterproductive in a learning environment. In order to help the students undo some of these negative survival strategies, the program provided workshops on community building, group decision making, conflict resolution, and problem-solving.
In addition to lacking basic literacy skills, the students had limited background knowledge, and did not know how to learn. Because they couldn’t read the textbooks and productively engage in classroom discussions, around grades seven or eight many of the students began to tune out, act out, and effectively drop out of formal education, whether they were present or not. By 10th grade they lacked critical background knowledge on which to build new academic learning. Moreover, the students had to learn the basics of how to listen attentively, take notes, engage productively in discussions, and follow-through on assignments.
The basic knowledge and skills required for success in high school had to be taught explicitly to the students along with instruction in literacy skills and academic subjects. Young adults who drop out of school and later enrol in an adult education program also require assistance in overcoming social and emotional barriers and learning the basics of how to learn.