Dropping out hardly happens overnight.

Quitting school usually is the end result of days, months or even years of a youth's failure to fit into an educational system.Frequently, a student's potential for dropping out can be identified in the early grades of school.

And any child can, at some time during his public education, become at risk for dropping out because of particular life events that affect his ability to learn or his perceptions of education, said Stevan Kukic.

With the number of children who fail to finish high school increasing both in the United States and in Utah, the state has begun a concerted new effort to identify at-risk students and "head them off at the pass," said Kukic, the State Office of Education's coordinator of services for at-risk students.

The state office has developed a master plan that incorporates strategies from "prevention through remediation" to deal with the problem. The plan was approved recently by the State Board of Education and implementation of its objectives is under way.

Merely identifying the scope of the dropout problem in Utah has been a problem in itself, Kukic said. The definition has been clouded by such factors as students who transfer from one school to another or leave public school to continue their education through another route.

"The best estimates for Utah are that 11 to 16 percent of our students don't finish 13 years of public schooling," Kukic said. The U.S. Secretary of Education estimated the national figure at 25-30 percent this year.

To facilitate its master plan, Utah has defined a dropout as "a pupil who leaves public school for any reason except death, before graduation or completion of a program of studies and without transferring to another public or private educational program." The state will begin applying this definition in hopes of tracking students and getting a better handle on what the actual dropout rate is, Kukic said.

A companion definition says literacy is "the mastery of skills needed to read, write and compute and the effective application of these skills in life situations."

The goal of the at-risk master plan is not only to keep students in school through the prescribed 13 years (or until they are educationally prepared), but to have them leave the system able to function in an adult society, to pursue additional education or to find and keep a job.

A student becomes "at risk" when his individual needs require uniquely designed intervention to achieve those goals, Kukic said.

Some of the factors that put children at risk are easily identifiable, such as physical or mental handicaps, ethnic, cultural or socioeconomic differences. Special programs have been developed to address the needs of many of these students.

The master plan gives the state office a way to bring together services provided by special education, federal programs for the disadvantaged, migrant educational support, vocational education, equity programs, drug/alcohol abuse programs and others that seek to address particular needs.

However, some factors that cause a child to drop out are harder to label _ situations intrinsic to the individual child that make him a square peg that resists insertion into one of education's round holes _ "those who don't fit into our surface definitions," Kukic said. No organized programs are available to meet their needs.

Historically, the system has been too inflexible to deal with students who don't fit accepted molds. The new plan emphasizes students rather than processes. It envisions participation by the educational community, parents and students themselves to create a successful educational experience for each child.

Dysfunctional families, death, divorce or separation, teenage pregnancy, drug and alcohol misuse by either parents or students, physical, sexual or psychological abuse are all disrupting events that can put a student at risk, even if he previously functioned satisfactorily in the educational system.

"Every student could be at risk at some time. We must have a system that will meet the needs of students individually," Kukic said.

The classroom teacher or counselor may be the first line of defense for a student caught in a situation that would jeopardize his education. Identifying without labeling and then finding resources to meet special needs is the challenge educators face under this plan, he said. Teachers need training to recognize factors that put their students at risk. Utah's large class sizes compound the challenge for teachers, Kukic said. Sheer numbers make it difficult for a teacher to provide special help for a child, even if problems are identified.

The state office will ask the Legislature in 1989 to double the amount of money allocated to at-risk programs. In 1988, $500,000 was provided. Half of the money was divided among the state's 40 school districts through standard formulas and the other half was granted to districts that submitted proposals for special experimental programs to deal with the problem.

"We have some fantastic stuff going on in some of the districts," Ku-kic said.