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A Retrospective Study of Student Engagement among At-risk Elementary Students with and without Disabilities Open Access

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Each year, thousands of students drop out of high school. Students with disabilities make up 13 percent of the student population nationally, but have an average graduation rate of 60% (America's Promise Alliance, 2014). Dropping out not only has negative effects of students personally, but it also greatly impacts our country's economic future. By leaving a large and growing subgroup of students behind, we are squandering an opportunity to improve our nation's economy and international standing. Years of research on dropouts and dropout prevention have taught that poverty, behavior, grades and a number of other factors serve as elements that place students at greater risk of dropping out. Despite these risk factors, research indicates that of all risk factors present, the most important factor in a students' decision to graduate or not is student engagement. A students' decision to drop out is not an instantaneous event, but one that occurs as a result of a developmental process of withdrawal (Finn, 1989). According to Finn's Participation-Identification framework (1989) student engagement, students' feelings of connectedness, belongingness and valuing of school, develop early in a student's academic career. Given the important role of student engagement in a student's decision to drop out or not, dropout prevention efforts should focus on this alterable element. This study employed a retrospective mixed methods design to explore levels of student engagement among at-risk third-, fourth- and fifth -grade students. Nineteen at-risk elementary students with and without disabilities participated in a school-based mentoring program aimed at improving student engagement, problem-solving and goal-setting. Student engagement levels were measured using Finn et al.'s (2007) Identification with School Questionnaire before and after mentoring. Results were disaggregated by disability level to determine differences between students with and without disabilities. Wilcoxon and RM-ANOVA was used to determine differences in engagement levels. Statistically significant results indicated increased student engagement after mentoring for all students. Teacher-mentors provided qualitative information indicating changes in student engagement as well. Implications and recommendations for future research, policy and teacher education are discussed.

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