``In terms of a national issue, the Soviet threat pales beside it,'' says Richard Berendzen, president of American University in Washington, D.C. ``It is the biggest problem facing education today.'' What Mr. Berendzen -- and nearly every other speaker at a recent education writers conference here -- is talking about are the growing numbers of so-called ``at risk'' youth in America. ``At risk'' youth are defined as those who have no central, defining models provided by parents, church, or schools; who are, often as not, born into poverty or broken homes; who, as they get older, fail to learn habits of responsibility or discipline; who are often illiterate; who get pregnant, drop out, take drugs, or resort to crime.
To deal with this problem, many educators say, America must ``restructure'' the way it approaches public schooling -- must aim for a smaller-scale school system which allows for more interaction between teacher and student.
The litany of problems faced by ``at risk'' youth -- drugs, alienation, crime, etc. -- are familiar. But the numbers of these young people are continuing to escalate. Educators at the conference, held by the Washington Journalism Center, a nonpartisan group that sponsors issues-oriented conferences for journalists, warn that these youth now constitute an entire population -- a new subculture. They say public schools are currently unable to adequately educate and help this emerging population, whic h roughly numbers 2.4 million -- some 15 percent of all youths between the ages of 16 and 19, according to several studies.
Their numbers may grow exponentially. Emily Feistritzer, director of the National Center for Education Information, an independent research concern here, notes that last year 20 percent of all live births in the United States were to unwed mothers. About 650,000 of those children were born to teen-agers -- babies who in five years will begin first grade under less-than-ideal circumstances.
Ms. Feistritzer notes further that, in 1983, nearly half of all children lived in single-parent homes. ``That has never happened in the history of our country,'' she says.
Berendzen says an American University study shows that, while 48 percent of children in black families live in homes with just one parent, a full 8 percent live in homes with no parent.
Several speakers at the conference noted that between 1985 and 1990 the percentage of minority children in school is expected to rise from 17 to 30 percent.
Recent studies (notably one by Jonathan Kozol) claim that up to one-fifth of Americans have reading difficulties: ``What happens to the children of those parents?'' Berendzen asks. Meanwhile, the dropout rate continues to rise -- is as high as 40 percent in many major urban centers.
Such figures have caused some organizations -- particularly the Education Commission of the States (ECS) in Denver -- to begin to collect social data regarding ``at risk'' youth, and point to programs in places around the country that are effectively combating the problem. Earlier this month, ECS released a report titled ``Reconnecting Youth,'' a brief but comprehensive look at young people who do not appear to be headed for a productive life.
A moving force behind the ECS report is Allan (Scotty) Campbell, a business executive with ARA Services in Philadelphia, one of the largest privately owned food and maintenance companies in the world. Mr. Campbell also helped coordinate the recent Committee for Economic Development (CED) study, ``Investing in Our Children.'' Both reports indicate new interest in the public schools on behalf of American business.
Like the CED report, ``Reconnecting Youth'' recommends that schools, businesses, and communities help make young people learn the behaviors and insights needed to obtain and hold a job.
The ECS report says that while the number of ``at risk'' youth are increasing, the overall labor pool in America is shrinking. Because of this, youth who are likely to survive on social services rather than on their own achievements now have a bigger long-term negative social and economic impact than in years previous.
As Campbell says, ``The business community has to be interested. This is no longer a small, isolated problem. It affects us all.''
ECS president Frank Newman told the Monitor after his press conference that the dropouts of today differ substantially from the dropouts of 30 years ago: ``Back then, most dropouts either began right away to support a family, or to go into an apprenticeship,'' he says. This is not the case today. ``Dropouts are generally not self-sufficient people.''
This train of thought leads Mr. Newman to say he feels the problem of disconnected or ``at risk'' youth boils down to a question of self. It isn't that ``at risk'' youth lack the cognitive ability, or the intellectual capacity, he says. What they lack is a faith or recognition that education is appropriate and will be important in their lives.
They lack ``self-identity and self-confidence,'' he says. Many define themselves as losers, or find themselves in an environment in which anyone actively trying to succeed is viewed with suspicion.
The schools and programs listed in the ECS report that are successful in turning lives around all work to reinforce a positive sense of self in children. A notable example is Middle College High School in La Guardia Community College in New York, where teachers are required to know and deal with students individually.
Most educators at the Washington journalism conference agreed that restructuring the schools so that teachers spend more time with students is essential to dealing with ``at risk'' youth. Newman reports that these kids aren't ``beyond hope.'' There are extreme cases, he says, but ``there's a huge gray area in the spectrum of `good to bad' kids these days.'' Many children change for the better with what seems like a ``surprisingly small push,'' he says.
Ms. Feistritzer, at the National Center for Education Information, says that without a ``fundamental restructuring'' of the school system -- eliminating middle management and training teachers to deal with a ``radically different school population'' -- the system will deteriorate further.
Newman notes that one immediate area of restructuring is the reduction in size of the huge, impersonal high schools now dotting the urban landscape. ``The La Guardia system succeeds because they won't allow themselves more than 500 kids,'' Newman says.
Still, Feistritzer is not optimistic that real change will come until the problem of ``at risk'' youth becomes more noticeable. By then, she says, it may be too late. Instead of ``waiting until this problem is a disaster, we better do something now,'' Newman concludes.