By: Julia Freeland Fisher

George’s* initial months of COVID schooling followed an all too familiar path: once a strong student, as a seventh-grader flung into a virtual classroom last March, George started to fall behind in reading and history. He needed help, but was too anxious to ask for it over Zoom where his peers would overhear. Some days he didn’t want to show his face on camera. And his go-to outlet, a travel baseball team, was canceled for the season.  

But George was lucky enough to have someone waiting in the wings: a mentor named Linda, whom his school, Chicago International Charter School (CICS) Bucktown, had paired him with the year prior. When he began to falter, George’s teachers called on Linda. She knew that in sixth grade, George had thrived on one thing: checklists. If he could cross something off his list, Linda told his teachers—like passing the test, finishing the project, turning in the assignment—pride would beam out of him, a huge grin on his face.

It wasn’t just his teachers that banked on Linda’s support: when George began to struggle, George’s mom started checking in with Linda almost daily. During a particularly difficult week, George’s mom told him to look out the window: Linda was there, outside, waving.

It was gestures like these, a system of checklists, and the collective support of his mom, his teachers, and Linda, that helped George get his seventh-grade year back on track.

Many hoped that this school year would return to normal. But students are gearing up for more unknowns. The number of school districts across the country launching new plans for hybrid learning more than doubled from July to August.

One thing, however, is utterly knowable: like George, the millions of students who returned this fall need a community of positive relationships. “Every student deserves a team of learning guardians,” said Phyllis Lockett, founder and CEO of Chicago-based education nonprofit LEAP Innovations. “Given the very broad spectrum of students’ learning and social-emotional needs, especially this year, we need to mobilize a broader set of caring adults to support each student.”

Years ago, researchers began to highlight just how critical relationships are in helping students thrive. Boston University researchers Jon Zaff and Shannon Varga found that contrary to the belief that young people need merely a single strong mentor, they, in fact, benefit from a web of close connections. And researchers at the Minnesota-based nonprofit the Search Institute have found that as the number of strong relationships in a student’s life increase, so does academic motivation, social and emotional skills, and his ability to take responsibility for his actions. And risky behaviors, like alcohol and drug use, decline.

Every student deserves a team of learning guardians.

Phyllis Lockett

In other words, the old adage that “it takes a village” rings true in the research. And if COVID taught us one thing, it’s that students will need an entire village, both inside and outside of school, whom they can lean on and learn from in the year ahead.

That’s a tall order. Even prior to the pandemic, schools’ ability to weave webs of support was constrained by punishing adult-to-student ratios. The average student: teacher ratio hovers around 16:1. And the average guidance counselor: student ratio is a staggering 464:1. Those hardly amount to the relationship-rich environments young people need.

Luckily, some innovative approaches suggest how schools might overcome these limits. For example, schools can modernize the traditional “parent-teacher conference.” Achievement First’s Greenfield School in New Haven, Connecticut has “Dream Teams,” composed of students’ parents, caregivers, extended family members, or neighbors. Teams meet frequently to consult with students about their goals and to solve challenges together.

Students themselves are also a magnetic resource hiding in plain sight. During the pandemic, students have reported missing their friends the most. Schools can capitalize on that, and offer more structured ways for students to support one another. For example, the Atlanta-based Forest School enlists peers as “Running Partners”, pairing students with an accountability partner to help them stay on track.

And schools can deploy modest staff capacity to coordinate in-and out-of-school connections. For example, the nonprofit City Connects assigns coordinators to meet with teachers to discuss each and every students’ individual strengths and challenges. Based on these individual assessments, coordinators connect students to services in their communities and monitor those connections throughout the year.

Amidst surging case counts, students like George might have to endure another year of awkward Zoom rooms. School leaders are spending this fall swirling in the logistics of determining where and when students will learn. But these well-intended operational gymnastics risk a major blindspot: determining who students can turn to throughout the year. Schools’ focus on logistics may accomplish some modicum of reliability. But relationships will drive resilience. They are the not-so-secret sauce that helps students get by and get ahead.

*The student’s name in this piece has been changed to ensure student confidentiality.

Julia Freeland Fisher is the Director of Education Research at the Christensen Institute.

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