re-engage students

A three-tiered strategy for re-engaging students this fall


Jul 1, 2021

The statistics are sobering. According to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), total K–12 enrollment dropped by roughly 3% (or 1.5 million students) in 2020-21 compared with the previous school year. The loss was spread out across the nation, touching almost every demographic group,” reports Education Week.  

The New York Times also reports that in March of this year, though the majority of schools reopened for in-person learning, half of Black and Hispanic children, and two-thirds of Asian-American children, were still learning remotely, compared with only 20% of White students. 

The trend of families refusing to go back to pre-pandemic schooling has become so large and so startling—even to the most seasoned education analysts—that “experts have coined the term ‘school hesitancy’ to describe the remarkably durable resistance to a return to traditional learning,” explains The New York Times. And the fact that half of students of color continued learning remotely when many schools were re-open for in-person learning could suggest that, for one reason or many, traditional schooling couldn’t meet their families’ needs. As a result, further dips in enrollment could occur for the upcoming school year if alternatives to traditional instruction aren’t provided. Equally problematic is the possibility that racial inequities deepen as some students are forced to stay in a public system that doesn’t respond to their families’ needs. 

As many stakeholders interpret the phenomenon as a social and educational crisis for children and youth that must be combated, educators are currently in the process of creating strategies to re-engage students in order to stave off, as much as possible, the negative academic, financial, and staffing repercussions that will likely occur if these “missing” students don’t return or enrollment continues to drop.

Leveraging some of the Institute’s most recent research, this blog provides additional tactics and ideas from an education ecosystem perspective, with the aim of helping student engagement become a strategic K–12 mission, rather than a one-off intervention, to better ensure success.

1. Re-engage from a policy level. 

Re-engaging marginalized students who are most disenfranchised in traditional public education is no small feat, especially when there’s no national alignment around what it means to champion equity in schools. But policymakers can play an influential role in confronting racial injustice by defining baseline expectations around racial equity. And though there’s a lack of consensus on what the government’s role should be in defining these accountability measures, a precedent has been set: In the past few decades, schools have become accountable for providing quality education to students with learning and other disabilities. Special education services aren’t without fault, but there’s a well-understood baseline expectation that schools provide them. Building public will and legal requirements around a clear and missing value proposition (i.e. racial equity) can, over time, embed that proposition into how schools do business.

As schools face up to growing public pressure to confront racial injustice, such broad-sweeping policy changes have a role to play. San Diego Unified is overhauling its grading system to combat racism. Denver Public Schools passed a Board resolution to ensure curriculum is representative of students’ cultural identities. A number of districts have cut ties with police. Demand for such measures may continue to grow, and it’s not hard to imagine a stronger role for federal policy to play in providing protections against racial bias and trauma the same way it provides protections for students with disabilities. (Read more about the two policy moves that could help schools keep their promises to Black students here.) 

2. Re-engage from a school level.

From caring for sick relatives to starting paid work, and from learning within new arrangements built around parents’ schedules to language barriers around school communications, many students’ lives were affected in new or different ways by the pandemic. Schools interested in re-engaging students must start to design learning with families and not for families.

When introducing learning solutions to meet students’ critical needs, using a top-down design approach risks missing the mark on what experiences are most important to the families the school serves. However, developing instructional approaches through inclusive design and co-creation (described here by 228 Accelerator’s Caroline Hill) could help ensure that schools are meeting the basic right all families have to high-quality K–12 education by understanding what problems families are most urgently trying to solve.

Working with families to determine what approaches work best for them can also unlock a range of additional strategies to re-engage students, such as mapping students’ relationships and integrating supports around the most vulnerable students. Families can often provide insight into the relationships (with friends, mentors, and acquaintances) that shape students’ lives and provide mental and academic supports. By mapping these relationships, schools can design more responsive, integrated student support models for all students. (Read more about designing for equity here, and about mapping students’ relationships here.)

3. Re-engage from a classroom level.

For those educators who were able to maintain student engagement during online learning, one strategy was frequently cited: developing student agency. As it turns out, nurturing students’ abilities to contribute and lead can have big payoffs as schools face ongoing uncertainty.

Agency is generally defined as an important learning outcome, characterized by the ability for students to set and pursue their own learning goals. It’s an ingredient for their success through college and careers, and it is also a frequently cited goal among educators working to reimagine teaching and learning. But in addition to being an important outcome, student agency may also be an undervalued resource for schools, especially when they have to recapture students’ time and attention. 
Building off of lessons learned during remote learning, teachers can introduce more student control over activities, schedules, and potentially assessments this fall. They can also invite students to develop homegrown projects related to their own curiosities and interests, or host a “skill share” to teach something new to their peers. There are also a number of ways to strengthen student agency through helping students develop peer connections. (Read more about developing student agency here, and about peer connections here.)

Chelsea is a research fellow at the Institute, where she analyzes how innovation theory can inform the evolution of student-centered learning and the advancement of student agency. As part of this work, she leads the Canopy project, a collaborative effort to build better collective knowledge about school innovation.