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‘A Universal Prevention Measure’ That Boosts Attendance and Improves Behavior?

Inside a locked room at Colleyville Middle School that staff members use for professional development, a “data wall” offers a glimpse of each of the school’s 600-plus students.

It lists each student’s name and academic data points dating back to 3rd grade. It includes attendance information. And next to each name appear the initials of staff members who have a substantive connection with that student—perhaps a mentoring relationship, a tendency to check in with each other at lunchtime, or a common interest over which they’ve bonded.

When there’s a student name without initials by it, it’s a sign that someone needs to try to make a connection.

“We pinpoint those students, and our teachers and educators, staff members, they go out of their way to try to build those connections to create that mentorship aspect with them,” said David Arencibia, the principal of the Colleyville, Texas, school.

The strategy, a variation on an exercise called relationship mapping, is one that schools have turned to increasingly in recent years. The goal is to strengthen students’ ties to school that weakened from the isolation of pandemic school closures and haven’t bounced back. That disconnection has manifested itself perhaps most visibly in elevated chronic absenteeism.

A body of research that predates the pandemic shows that when students feel connected to school, they’re more likely to attend and perform well academically. They’re less likely to misbehave and feel sad and hopeless. Some research has even linked health benefits well into adulthood to a strong sense of connection to school.

“It’s the closest we have to a universal prevention measure for everything,” said Robert Balfanz, the director of the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education, who has worked with schools on connectedness strategies through an initiative called the GRAD Partnership. “And it makes sense, because if you feel connected to someplace, you’re less likely to be off and sort of disengaged on your own.”

Students’ ties to school revolve around the relationships they have with adults in the building and their peers—whether they think others genuinely care about them and welcome them for who they are—as well as opportunities to participate in activities they find meaningful.

Building off those elements, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified mentoring, service learning, student-led clubs, and classroom-management training for teachers as strategies schools can use to build connectedness, reducing unhealthy behaviors and strengthening students’ engagement.

Many students don’t feel connected to their school

There’s no precise measure for how connected students feel to their school, but there’s evidence that many of the nation’s students don’t feel they have a meaningful bond.

In 2021, 61.5 percent of high school students taking the CDC’s biennial Youth Risk Behavior Survey said they felt close to people at school, meaning nearly 40 percent of students didn’t. Girls, students from most racial minorities, and LGBTQ+ students were less likely than others to say they felt connected. And the closer they were to the end of high school, students became less likely to say they felt close to others at school.

On the other hand, in a March EdWeek Research Center survey of 1,056 high school-age youth, 86 percent at least partly agreed that they felt accepted and welcomed in their school community. Nearly as many students, 81 percent, said the adults in their school care at least somewhat about their well-being and success as people.

It’s clear why students would be drawn to a place where they feel strong connections, Balfanz said.

“There’s a place where they want you there, and there’s someone who knows you, and there’s a group of peers that are going to miss you if you’re not there, you’re going to do something meaningful, and you feel welcome,” he said. “That’s actually a place you would fight to get to as opposed to finding a reason not to go.”

Check-ins, curriculum audits, and clubs: Schools work on belonging

Trying to reverse sagging attendance, the Tacoma, Wash., school district over the past two years has deployed a range of initiatives that aim to foster a sense of belonging among students at greater risk of becoming chronically absent.

They include community-based mentors who come into schools for regular check-ins with students and affinity clubs aimed at Indigenous and LGBTQ+ students, who—district data show—are more likely to have irregular attendance.

One initiative is called the “Walking School Bus.” It provides younger students with a safe way to get to school with a group of peers who are led along an established walking route by high school students or educators. The high school student route leaders get a paid internship and course credit.

It was a response to survey feedback from parents who said their kids didn’t have a safe way to get to school, presenting a barrier to attendance, said Jimmy Gere, Tacoma’s attendance and engagement counselor.

Younger students build relationships with each other and 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.

In Albuquerque, N.M., Manzano High School built connectedness into its early-warning system, so staff could more readily notice when a student is falling behind.

In the last couple of years, the school’s weekly, 30-minute advisory periods have become a time when school staff check in with their advisees and deliberately review their grades, attendance, and behavior over the prior week. If a student is struggling, the adviser refers them to one of the school’s student-success teams, which then works with the student to identify the root cause of their challenges and solutions.

Last spring, Manzano staff interviewed students who had been referred to a student-success team, and they said regular check-ins with their advisers had been the most important part of keeping them on track.

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

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.

In follow-up focus groups, less connected students said they felt as if they had no way to connect to the school community if they weren’t an athlete or musician. So the high school started holding activity fairs to proactively bring information about extracurricular activities to students, and administrators solicited student ideas on new clubs, said Daisy Rodriguez, Arlington’s assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction, and assessment.

“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.

In the district’s middle schools, Arlington last year established regular advisory periods set aside for check-ins and social-emotional learning. Groups of students are assigned to the same adviser throughout the three years of middle school. The district ultimately hopes to bring similar advisory periods to its high school.

And through curriculum audits, the district has tried to respond to student feedback that the books they read in class weren’t relevant by swapping in more current selections.

At Thomas Kelly College Preparatory in Chicago, survey feedback was also critical to efforts to ensure 9th graders felt a connection to the 1,700-student high school.

Through a survey called Elevate that the school now administers quarterly, students largely said they didn’t feel as if teachers cared about them, they thought classes were boring, and they didn’t think what they were learning was relevant, Principal Raul Magdaleno said.

So a newly established, five-member freshman success team held an event before the end of the school year last year where each of the school’s 500 9th graders could sit down one-on-one with an adult for five to 10 minutes and discuss how the school year had gone, ask questions about sophomore year, review attendance and grades, set goals for the remainder of the year, and talk about clubs they could join.

When the 2023-24 year started, that team also made sure an adult—college mentors working with a local community group as well as school staff—would regularly meet with students flagged as high risk in the Chicago schools’ early-warning system.

In classrooms, Kelly has made 2023-24 the year of “meaningful work,” with teachers rethinking their instruction to make it more “culturally relevant and rigorous,” Magdaleno said.

“It’s definitely still a work in progress,” said Grace Gunderson, a school counselor at Kelly who leads the freshman success team. “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.”

[Read more about how these schools and districts incorporate connectedness.]

A connection to school has academic and health benefits

Researchers have linked a range of benefits to strong student connections to school.

Students who said in the 2021 CDC survey that they felt close to others at school, for example, were also less likely to report poor mental health, missing school because they felt unsafe, and risky behaviors such as drug use.

The health benefits have even proved long-lasting.

CDC researchers tracked more than 14,000 middle and high school students over 20 years and, in a 2019 study, found that those who reported feeling connected to school as adolescents were half as likely as adults—or even less likely—to have used illegal drugs or misused prescription drugs, been diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease, experienced emotional distress and thoughts of suicide, or been the victim of physical violence.

There’s also an academic upside to strong student-teacher relationships that’s emerged in multiple studies: better grades and attendance, fewer disruptive behaviors and suspensions, and lower dropout rates.

Dozens of high schools have made such relationships central to their improvement efforts as part of the BARR (Building Assets, Reducing Risks) model, through which teams of teachers are assigned to designated groups of students so they can form strong bonds and quickly notice when a student might need extra support. Years of federally funded evaluations of the model have highlighted the dividends: reduced 9th grade course failures and lower chronic absenteeism, as well as improved teacher collaboration.

Back at Colleyville Middle School near Dallas, staff members have worked throughout the school year to forge a connection with every student. Shortly after the end of the first semester, just a handful of students remained who didn’t have initials by their name on the data wall, said Arencibia, the principal.

Using color codes, the data wall shows when a student might need some extra attention from the adult whose initials appear by their name. And if counselors and administrators notice a student’s attendance is slipping or they’ve had behavior problems, they often ask the adult mentor for more information or for help, Arencibia said.

“Kids are no different than adults. They’re no different than any human being,” he said. “When a human is connected to other individuals or a location—or if they’re connected to a sport, a band, a certain class—they feel included and they feel seen, they feel heard, and they feel a part of what’s going on.”

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