You’re a school superintendent in a mid-size urban district. One of your principals calls you to share that attendance rates among students learning remotely this year are dropping. She says, “We’re doubling down on prioritizing relationships to ensure that students have their unique needs met.”

In this scenario, what relationships did you imagine the principal meant?

My bet is that most people imagine teacher-student relationships. Especially since the onset of COVID, as more and more education leaders argue that schools must invest in strong relationships, most often that seems to imply adults’ relationships with students.

There’s a good reason for that: as a recent report from EdTrust and MDRC stated, “Strong relationships with teachers and school staff can dramatically enhance students’ level of motivation and therefore promote learning. Students who have access to strong relationships are more academically engaged, have more developed social skills, and experience an increase in positive behavior.” Disappointingly, the report noted that a survey conducted in a large, diverse urban district found that students from low-income backgrounds reported fewer strong relationships with teachers, and the number of strong relationships declined as students got older.

To address the gap in some students’ access to strong relationships with teachers, two solutions stand out: 1) teachers can map which students need stronger relationships and work intentionally to build their relationships with those students, or 2) because teachers’ time is scarce, and because research shows that access to a diversity of relationships also positively impacts students’ academic success and wellbeing, schools can work to strategically build students’ relationships with those in the community that aren’t teachers.”

In short, teacher-student relationships are critical. But they’re not the full story. In fact, our social capital research this year reveals that there are at least three other types of relationships in K–12 schools that are consistently underestimated for their potential to impact students’ trajectories and drive equitable access to opportunities, inside school and out.

1. Peer relationships

Peers often already support each other’s mental health, share advice, help with academics, and more—but schools mostly leave these relationships to chance. When the pandemic hit, this became glaringly obvious when the playground or lunchroom encounters that typically (but not always) led students to form friendships withered in the face of emergency remote learning. This challenge inspired my colleague, Chelsea Waite, to dig into tools and programs that are deliberately designed to nurture and expand students’ peer networks. 

Her research revealed at least four categories of student support that schools know they need to solve for, and where peers can play key roles, like supporting each other’s academic learning, mental health, identity formation, and decision-making on the road to postsecondary and professional pathways.

With the right tools and models, Chelsea argues, schools can activate peer networks as a lever for more scalable and student-centered systems of support. Whether they succeed depends on where and how schools invest in peer relationships, and for what purposes. Our report on peer connections details five considerations leaders will need to keep in mind. 

2. Alumni networks

When my colleague, Julia Freeland Fisher, began investigating innovative tools and programs that connect students to school alumni, she had colleges and postsecondary institutions in mind. Alumni are radically underleveraged for their social capital in higher education: although it’s common to hear that one of the best things students will get out of college is their network, a Strada/Gallup poll from 2018 found that only 9% of college graduates reported that their alumni network was helpful or very helpful in the job market. 

But if alumni networks are underleveraged in higher education, they’re often totally ignored in K–12. High school leaders, especially, should consider Julia’s research, which reveals four types of high-impact roles for alumni to play, like acting as mentors, sources of career advice (when advice from someone just one or two steps ahead is extremely valuable), and as sources of experiential learning opportunities.

While most examples of models for leveraging alumni networks are for higher education, Alumni Toolkit (an initiative of Big Picture Learning) is a notable exception that’s helping high schools leverage the latent social capital in their alumni networks. And as our paper on alumni networks argues, the vast majority of public schools have an advantage in terms of designing alumni engagement from the ground up with social capital in mind. 

3. The school-family connection

It may surprise some readers to imagine families as an “underestimated” relationship in K–12. After all, the role of families in supporting students’ learning and coordinating care during COVID has been one of the most talked-about topics in many education circles for over a year now. But while families’ connections to students—their children—is obvious, growing the relationship between families and their schools remains an area worthy of attention and investment. 

In fact, I’ve spent the last few months diving deeply into a growing evidence base that shows the power of a more robust approach to family engagement where schools work in partnership with families—especially those most marginalized and least often made to feel welcome. With a strong foundation in the form of a reciprocal relationship between families and schools, families can contribute immensely to school communities by supporting academics, navigating out-of-school and postsecondary pathways, and mentoring students. Even more, families with strong connections to each other can promote overall student wellbeing through a collective commitment to each other as a community.

What’s become clear in this research is that schools should be increasingly skeptical of “family engagement” strategies that rely on increasing the volume of communications out to families. Instead, they should invest in strategies that deepen trusting relationships with families. When they do so, as our recent report on the school-family connection shows, the social capital within those relationships benefits families, educators, and ultimately students.

The innovative tools and programs my colleagues and I have studied this year reflect the fact that it’s networks—not just diplomas and degrees—that lead to opportunities and fulfilling lives. K–12 leaders have a tremendous opportunity to activate social capital in alumni networks, peer relationships, and in the connection between families and schools to improve students’ experiences and outcomes.


  • Mahnaz Charania
    Mahnaz Charania