Two superintendents are getting strategic about students’ relationships. Here’s how other schools can follow suit.

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Jun 9, 2021

An estimated three million students were either offline or completely disengaged from schools last spring, and many more of America’s most vulnerable students—including those accessing in-person or hybrid learning—remain disconnected from the supports they need and the resources they deserve.

While there are no easy solutions for the chronic challenges that the pandemic has exacerbated, schools can begin taking crucial next steps now to address these widening gaps in student attendance and access to quality learning experiences. In the quest to catch up, ensuring all students are supported to thrive will require shifting away from the potentially harmful rhetoric of “learning loss” and towards solutions that prioritize the resources that students need to learn and thrive: reliable social connections inside and outside of school.

What is looks like to center students’ relationships at a strategic level

We know from the science of learning and development that students’ relationships with teachers, as well as other adults and peers, are linked to increased school engagement and performance. However, what’s less known is that a wide range of factors including race, family income, and parental education level can impact the size and scope of students’ networks, as well as the resources those networks can offer. Moreover, within K–12 and postsecondary pathways, students report unequal or limited access to developmental relationships, mentors, and professional connections. This can, in turn, impact students’ learning, access to opportunity and economic mobility. 

Schools hoping to reverse trends like these have an opportunity in front of them: to invest in students’ networks in more deliberate, equitable, and effective ways. That means strategic approaches from district leaders who acknowledge the critical role that relationships play in the opportunity equation.

In Hartford, CT, for example, Dr. Torres Rodriguez, superintendent of Hartford Public Schools, acknowledges, “If our students do not have a long-lasting sustainable connection to an adult, it will result in us perpetuating…barriers and inequities.” The district is ramping up its efforts to prioritize students’ relationships by redesigning the high school experience. As Asher Lehrer-Small, an editorial fellow at The 74 describes it, “Ninth-graders now participate in a freshman seminar that pairs them with a go-to teacher for their first year. Then as sophomores, students link with another staff member aligned to their career interests who follows them through the rest of high school.”

In New Jersey, Morris School District superintendent, Mackey Pendergrast, recognizes the crucial interdependency of anti-racist approaches, students’ relationships, and educator professional training. As a result, the district’s strategic plan explicitly prioritizes building students’ social capital, fostering relationships, and elevating student voices to ensure every student is supported to realize their own potential. For example, the district created a chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers at both the middle and high schools, as well as a Girls Who Code chapter to ensure students are actively engaged, are exposed to diverse career pathways, and are building networks with near-peers and adults in the process. 

By preparing students to navigate personal and professional pathways in ways that go beyond mastery of core content, these programs are taking a more relationship-centered approach to student development by focusing on changing adult mindsets about the power and place of relationships in schools. 

In addition, these programs recognize the importance of partnering with youth to strengthen their identities and sense of purpose. These strategic approaches can especially empower students who have been traditionally under-supported and under-resourced to become full agents of change in their own lives.

Putting it into practice: Key questions for placing relationships first

For schools committed to a strategic focus on students’ relationships, a roadmap is useful. In a new playbook by the Christensen Institute, we distill 5 steps for building and strengthening students’ networks, guided by decades of research on the power of relationships; innovative strategies; and emerging measures from the field. Whether school leaders choose to reset or reinvent, taking a systematic, equitable approach to fostering positive and diverse relationships for students will be imperative. 

Below, I offer five key questions to help schools get strategic about students’ relationships. School leaders and teacher teams can also download a customizable plan with step-by-step activities.

As schools consider what success looks like for their students and how progress can be measured, it’s critical to solicit feedback from members of the school community whom the data and vision will impact. This includes identifying who needs to be included from both within and outside the school to support planning, implementing, and progress monitoring. 

The research is clear: Students’ relationships are an asset, and the ability to mobilize them is a skill. The path to recovery will require students to access both, and now more than ever, district and school leadership is in a position to take strategic steps to help them do so. 

Mahnaz Charania, PhD is a senior research fellow at the Christensen Institute. Her work focuses on studying disruptive innovations in education that amplify equitable opportunities for students to achieve social and economic mobility. In her current role, she leverages her deep expertise in measurement and evaluation to drive innovations that expand students' social capital.