When relationships come first in schools, success follows

By Jean Eddy and David Shapiro, Youth Today

After more than a year of disrupted school for most of the country, we know that meaningful relationships are a powerful part of our young people’s lives. Based on our work and research, we also know they play a key role in helping kids explore and navigate potential future pathways. While it’s always important to develop internal motivation, students show up and do their best when they know someone cares about their presence and performance.

For education to level the playing field, school leaders must embrace the concept that relationships are central to achievement and are not available for every student in sufficient quality and quantity. Schools can be powerfully intentional by building “relationship-centered schools” — a model that takes stock of relationships and addresses students who need additional connections. Although there are examples of this approach throughout the nation, we call for a scaled approach that ensures our young people have the networks they need to explore careers in middle schools; experiment or access work-based learning experiences in high school; and make informed post-secondary education decisions.

What a relationship-centered school looks like

In a school where relationships come first, all students have a web of adults they can name as sources of support. Relationships are valued and viewed as key data points that can be charted, tracked, and scaled up to make sure no student is isolated. The result? Increased student engagement and more students knowing themselves, knowing their options, and graduating with actionable post-secondary plans, as well as an overall greater sense of confidence, purpose, and inclusivity.

So where do education leaders start? The Christensen Institute’s playbook, “5 Steps for Building and Strengthening Students’ Networks,” is informed by leading research in the field and serves as a comprehensive tool for creating relationship-centered schools. Developed for K-12 and post-secondary leadership, it offers step-by-step instructions, beginning with tracking who students know and ending with building lasting networks. With unprecedented federal funding for education, leaders have an opportunity now to commit to relationship-centered schools through free tools such as this playbook, robust coordination of community partnerships, and expanded non-academic support professionals in schools.

Research and proof points

Courtesy of ASA American Student Assistance’s President & CEO Jean Eddy

We know that mentors make a difference in student success. Research shows that young people with a mentor are 55% more likely to be enrolled in college, and 130% more likely to hold a leadership position. There are countless personal stories about the power of mentors in schools — ask someone who played an influential role in their lives, and they’ll likely say it’s a caring adult from their K-12 experience.

It’s also important to note that the quantity and quality of these mentoring relationships vary greatly by student, and until relationships are viewed as outcomes that are necessary for student success, we will not see network gaps close. In a July 2020 report titled, “The Missing Metrics: Emerging Practices for Measuring Students’ Relationships and Networks,” researchers Mahnaz Charania, Ph.D., and Julia Freeland Fisher write:

Depending on their background, students and young adults report vastly different webs of relationships at their disposal. Yet despite their indisputable value in the opportunity equation and broad agreement that “relationships matter,” there’s scarce attention paid to actually measuring students’ relationships and the value of the networks they form over time. In part, this is because relationships tend to be seen as inputs to learning and academic achievement. … To do this well, programs must start to treat relationships as outcomes in their own right, quantifying and tracking them over time alongside academic metrics.

And even if adults in education think they are forming meaningful relationships with students, unless they are intentionally measured, it’s impossible to get a complete picture and ensure students are getting what they need from adults. In fact, data shows that adults and students often have different outlooks regarding relationships. The Christensen Institute’s playbook reports:

For example, while 86% of adults in K–12 schools report that they are building strong developmental relationships with young people, only 45% of young people report experiencing strong developmental relationships. This data suggests that there is a stark discrepancy in how young people are actually experiencing relationships compared to how adults think or hope they are experiencing relationships.

Courtesy of MENTOR
David Shapiro is the CEO of MENTOR

To bolster intentional student supports in school systems, MENTOR and American Student Assistance are piloting a consultative process for relationship-centered schools with districts across the country, including Fresno Unified School District’s Office of Mentoring. This office provides 4,000 K-12 students with mentors through in-person, hybrid, and online mentoring. Their peer mentoring programming is a model used by other districts and has opportunities for middle school-aged youth and students who are learning English to be mentored by high school students.

This work is in its early stages and is already providing insightful information. While a majority of youth reported having at least three people in their lives they could ask for help, one in ten said they did not have one person they could ask. Our goal is to make sure every student has adults supporting them to make informed decisions about their post-secondary education goals and connect with networks that will help them succeed.

What the future holds

As we navigate a new phase of the pandemic, we are acutely aware of what our students lost for more than a year: Their everyday connections, identities, and passions. Our short-term future will see us embracing those connections we missed so much. But our long-term aim, through the relationship-centered schools model, is to create a roadmap for more school districts to help kids explore careers and navigate future educational pathways while paving the way for lasting academic success and social-emotional health. When our school systems prioritize, measure, and hold themselves accountable for the supportive networks formed around our young people, we will equip young people with the most valuable tool and the most powerful companion to what they know: the equally powerful who they know.

Jean Eddy is the President and CEO of American Student Assistance (ASA), where she develops and drives the overall strategic direction of the organization. David Shapiro is CEO of MENTOR, the national organization unifying and elevating the mentoring movement through expertise, advocacy, and awareness.

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