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4 Case Studies: Schools Use Connections to Give Every Student a Reason to Attend

Students who feel connected to school are more likely to attend and perform well, and less likely to misbehave and feel sad and hopeless. There are even health benefits well into adulthood linked to a strong connection to school as an adolescent.

But schools are confronting a range of problems that stem at least in part from a lack of connection—perhaps most visibly: stubborn, nationwide increases in chronic absenteeism.

As they try to boost attendance and keep students engaged, some schools are turning to strategies built around the idea of connectedness. They’ve taken steps to more deliberately cultivate trusting relationships among students and adults in the building. They’ve tried to boost students’ participation in extracurricular activities to ensure they have a place at school where they feel as if they belong. And they’ve collected student feedback on what they’re learning and responded accordingly.

The work lines up with school connectedness strategies the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said are effective at reducing unhealthy behaviors and strengthening students’ engagement.

Here’s how two high schools and two school districts are putting student connectedness at the center of their improvement efforts.

Dive into each case study:

  1. Making 9th graders feel seen and heard
  2. Probing why some students feel they don’t belong
  3. Making relationships part of an early-warning system
  4. Using connections to battle chronic absenteeism

A Chicago school wants 9th graders to feel seen and heard

Educators at Thomas Kelly College Preparatory have homed in on freshman year as a key time to make sure students have a strong connection to the Chicago high school.

“If you’re a 9th grader, nothing is more important to you than belonging,” said Grace Gunderson, a counselor at the 1,700-student school who leads its newly formed freshman success team. “If we can get those kids involved in band or, ‘Hey, I play on the soccer team,’ or, ‘Hey, I always eat lunch in Ms. Gunderson’s office,’ now they have a connection. They have a reason to keep coming to school.”

Kelly’s efforts began with hearing from students. In the first iteration of a survey called Elevate that the school now administers to all students quarterly, students said they didn’t think teachers cared about them, they thought classes were boring, and they didn’t think what they were learning was relevant to what they wanted to do in life, Principal Raul Magdaleno said.

With that insight, school staff—led by the five-member freshman success team—deployed a range of initiatives, both large and small, to foster belonging. They worked on making sure students had a relationship with a trusted adult, that more were participating in extracurricular activities, that the school building was inviting, and that students knew their opinions mattered.

One effort was a “Freshman Cafe,” a spring event last year where nearly all the school’s 500 freshmen sat down one-on-one with an adult for five to 10 minutes and discussed how the school year had gone, asked questions about sophomore year, reviewed attendance and grades and set goals for the remainder of the year, and talked about clubs they could join. Staff members ranging from the dean to security guards participated.

Before the current freshman class arrived at Kelly last summer, the school started sending regular communications to incoming 9th graders introducing them to the school and staff members, held community-building activities for incoming freshmen run by college mentors through a “Freshman Connection” program, and hosted an outdoor “Freshman Fiesta” with snacks and swag, where students had the chance to meet teachers.

And once the school year began, the freshman success team made sure an adult would regularly check in with students flagged as high risk in the Chicago schools’ “Risk and Opportunity” framework, which uses 8th grade attendance and grades to predict students’ likelihood of success in high school.

The school relied on teachers and other staff members in the building who volunteered to do these check-ins as well as college-age mentors working through a community group, the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council, “just so they have somebody else aside from their teachers that’s talking to them, that shows them that they care, that they’re interested in their experience,” said Griselda Esparza, an assistant principal at Kelly.

In classrooms, after students said they thought classes were boring and disconnected, Kelly made this year the year of “meaningful work,” with teachers starting to rethink their instruction to make it more “culturally relevant and rigorous,” Magdaleno said.

Teachers have started working in their professional learning communities to examine whether what they’re teaching is personally relevant to students and connected to life outside the classroom. They’re also focused on whether students have opportunities to make choices about what they’re learning.

“It’s definitely still a work in progress,” Gunderson said. “But I think the students understand now that we want their feedback, we genuinely want to know what they think, and they feel as if their opinions are valued.”

A New York district probes why some students feel they don’t belong

When the Arlington Central school district in New York surveyed students after their return to campus from pandemic closures, staff discovered that older students, students of color, and students in special education felt a weaker sense of belonging at school.

So, staff from the 7,800-student district started speaking with students from those populations to get to the bottom of the problem.

In focus groups, students told staff that books they read in class weren’t relevant and that they weren’t hearing enough viewpoints in history classes. Students who weren’t athletes or musicians said they had no way to connect to their school community.

“We learned a lot, and that helped us prioritize,” said Daisy Rodriguez, the district’s assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

A first response was holding high school activity fairs, bringing information to students about clubs they could join rather than having them seek it out on their own. More informally, administrators sat with kids in the cafeteria to talk to them about their interests and potential clubs to add to the school’s roster.

Working with department coordinators, the district conducted curriculum audits, looking at the texts students were assigned and exploring whether they could swap in more relevant and current selections. And the high school added career and technical education offerings.

High school students also sit on curriculum teams, Rodriguez said. “They give us immediate feedback on programs and resources that we’re thinking about and if it makes sense to them,” she said.

At the district’s middle schools, Arlington last year established regular advisory periods, with groups of students assigned to the same adviser all three years so they can form stronger connections and don’t have to hit reset every fall. The time is set aside for regular check-ins and social-emotional learning.

“Students have reported that they do feel that it’s helpful for them because they actually have a space that they can go to and talk about things that they can’t talk about necessarily in other settings,” Rodriguez said.

The district wants older students to lead more of these sessions in coming years, and it would ultimately like to bring advisory periods to the high school.

At the elementary level, students now have daily morning meetings, a time set aside for social-emotional learning and work on communication skills.

So far, the district has seen some positive results—a reduction in chronic absenteeism that Rodriguez attributes at least in part to the district’s work on connectedness.

“We know that when kids feel like they belong in school, they have better attendance, they have better academic achievement, and just greater social-emotional support,” she said.

A New Mexico high school makes relationships part of its early-warning system

Manzano High School in Albuquerque, N.M., relies on a dedicated advisory time so students build strong connections with staff who can then spot warning signs that a student might be falling behind.

The 30-minute advisory period that happens every Monday isn’t new to the 1,300-student high school. What’s new about it is that, over the past couple of years, advisers have been expected to check in with their advisees and, using the school’s student-information system, review their grades, attendance, and behavior over the prior week.

If a student is struggling, the adviser fills out a referral form and sends it to one of the school’s five student-success teams, each of which includes an academic counselor. That team starts working with the student to identify a root cause of their challenges and potential solutions.

The advisory period’s conversion to a key component of Manzano’s early warning, or student success, system has involved training for staff members on becoming deliberate listeners and lunch-and-learn sessions on building relationships with students, said Jeanie Stark, the school’s student-success systems coordinator.

“When you’re listening to the students, it’s listening to what they’re saying and maybe even listening to a little bit beyond that to get to that root cause,” she said. “And you may or may not respond right away.”

It’s still a work in progress. The school has work to do to ensure all advisers are using the student-success system as the framework for conversations with students, Principal Rachel Vigil said.

Attendance has improved this year, and the number of students requiring student-success-team referrals has been dropping, Stark said. But a more immediate sign that the check-ins and related work have been successful is feedback from students.

Last spring, Manzano staff interviewed students whom advisers had referred to a student-success team. Of all the help they’d received, the regular check-ins were the most meaningful and helpful, the students said.

“Students were saying, ‘We do better when we have people doing those one-on-one check-ins,’” Vigil said. “Just, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ It doesn’t even have to be academic.”

Grades and attendance data are readily available through the student-information system, Stark said, but students “want a lot of communication. They want that teacher to talk to them, and they want them to tell them how they’re doing.”

Now, the Albuquerque district wants to spread Manzano’s work. It’s working with other high schools in the city to craft their own student-success systems, and some of Albuquerque’s middle schools are figuring out what a student-success system looks like for younger students, said Sheri Jett, Albuquerque’s associate superintendent for school climate and supports, a new position.

Working with the student-survey company Panorama, Albuquerque has also begun conducting regular student surveys on students’ skills, habits, and mindset. Manzano staff hope these surveys will provide them with even more student feedback they can use to tailor their student-success system.

In Washington state, a district uses connections to battle chronic absenteeism

The Tacoma, Wash., school district’s work over the past two years to cut chronic absenteeism has revolved around strategies to strengthen students’ bonds to peers and trusted adults while using student and family feedback as a guide.

“We believe the relationship is the intervention,” said Laura Allen, the director of the 28,000-student district’s whole-child department, the hub for much of the school system’s student-wellness work.

With a grant from Washington’s state education agency, Tacoma two years ago hired a district attendance and engagement counselor to lead work on boosting attendance. As part of that work, the district surveyed students and families to find out why kids attend school and why they miss it.

“The No. 1 reason why kids said they come to school was to see their friends,” Allen said. “It doesn’t mean that they don’t want to do well academically, but that friendship connection was first and foremost.”

With that knowledge in hand, schools worked on creating new clubs that could provide more students opportunities to spend time with friends and foster a sense of belonging.

District data showed that Indigenous and LGBTQ+ students were more likely to attend school irregularly, so staff helped create new affinity groups aimed at giving students from those populations a place to “feel seen and heard,” said Jimmy Gere, the attendance and engagement counselor.

Some schools formed attendance clubs to build connections with students at risk of being chronically absent and work through problems that could keep them from coming to school.

Newly formed building attendance teams—sometimes existing teams that expanded their focus to include attendance—took inventories of their schools’ existing interventions for at-risk students, held listening sessions with students and staff, and took school-specific steps to address attendance challenges.

Tacoma also began working with two community organizations that provide mentors who regularly meet with students during school hours, checking in with them and working with them on social-emotional skills.

These experiences show students that “good things happen at school, whether it’s with your teachers or staff that are there every day or community partners that are set up to deliver their services within the school,” Gere said.

And one new initiative provides younger students with a safe way to get to school while giving older students a paid internship and course credit.

The Walking School Bus is an organized group of students who walk to school together each day, led by a high school student route leader or Tacoma educator, stopping at established points to pick up more students. It was a response to feedback from parents who said their kids didn’t have a safe way to get to school, presenting a barrier to attendance.

Younger students build relationships with high school students, and high school students gain a service-learning opportunity—one of the CDC’s identified strategies for building school connectedness.

“There’s an element of mentorship because elementary kids love high school kids,” Gere said.

Tacoma has seen attendance inch up since it started these initiatives. Average daily attendance has been 88.3 percent so far this year, up from 85.6 percent in 2021-22, before these initiatives began, district data show. But it’s still early, and future funding for some of the work is uncertain as the state attendance grant comes to a close alongside other federal COVID-relief money.

Still, Tacoma will be able to carry on much of the work based on building connections, Allen said. For students, she said, “it is all about making sure that they know that they’re seen and that they’re loved.”

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