A good first grade teacher may be able to spot them:

The wiggly little fellow in the first row whose mind is obviously on other things. The withdrawn little girl who occasionally comes to school with suspicious bruises. The boisterous, bullying youngster who defies authority and refuses to cooperate. (He learned the techniques at home.) The child whose IQ says he/she should be able to learn, but who, for some reason, doesn't.They're all potential dropouts. And while teachers in the early grades may identify them and make silent predictions, the school system by and large doesn't know what to do with them.

Historically, children who fail to fit the well-accepted mold of the existing system have bumbled and stumbled through school for as long as they could tolerate it - or it could tolerate them - and then joined the ranks of dropouts.

Across the country, nearly one in three students leaves school without a diploma to open the doors to employment and other opportunity. In many cases, society ultimately picks up a financial burden that might better have been spent at the other end - in preventing the premature exit from school.

Simply dropping out of school is not the problem. The dropout rate is only a manifestation of other problems that keep these students from progressing to productive, contributary roles in society.

Being in school won't necessarily solve those problems. The objective should be to diagnose factors that could lead to dropping out and removing them as stumbling blocks to an individual's progress.

Does that mean schools are responsible for resolving all society's problems? Society has, in fact, dumped many of its problems in the laps of education, either by design or by default.

In the best of all worlds, strong, solid homes would prepare children for productive lives, with educators as strong allies. Where homes have failed, education has, by tacit agreement, stepped into the breach.

Schools can't do it alone, but they can become better at what they should be about - meeting the needs of individuals, not graduating amorphous classes.

Utah is trying to address the dropout problem. The state's dropout rate is below the national average, estimated at under 20 percent. That looks good only as a comparison. One in five students - or even one in 1,000 - is too many to lose. Society pays the price at one end or the other.

The State Office of Education will ask the Legislature when it convenes in January to double the amount of money it is putting into programs to identify and help potential dropouts. The total request will be $1 million.

School superintendents support the addition to the fund. Some districts already are putting extra money into the quest for a lower dropout rate. Others haven't enough wiggle room in their budgets to supplement what they get from the state. For small rural districts, it is pathetically small.

If the state's newly developed master plan for dealing with at-risk children is successful in keeping more youngsters in school until they are prepared to be gainfully employed, the money would be well spent.

It will take more than money, of course. Philosophical changes will have to occur, shifts in emphasis from the middle of the spectrum to both ends - the ends where dropouts occur. The system will have to become a servant of the child rather than the child a pawn of the system.

The master plan for at-risk students is a well devised document, but it won't be more than words on paper without the support of the state office, the Legislature and the front-line educators who see, recognize and need to help students in trouble.