Relationships and connections with other people are critical to our daily lives—at home, at work, and in our communities. The significance of relationships in schools is no different especially in middle and high schools, and particularly for low-income African American, Latina/o, immigrant, and English Learners (Rodriguez, 2008; Valenzuela, 1999). Across the country and in the Inland Empire specifically, low-income students of color are more likely to live in poverty, attend under-resourced schools, and live in communities where their voices and experiences are unknown or marginalized by institutional policies and practices that are supposed to serve them. This is no more apparent than the significant dropout rate facing the region. Reports show that 50% of African American and Latina/o freshman will not graduate four years later. That is, for every 10 freshman who enter the 9th grade, only 5 will graduate four years later. In addition, African American, Latina/o, and English Learner students also have disturbingly low rates of college attendance and success. This crisis requires all of us who are concerned to be thoughtful, deliberate, and impatient for results so more of our nation’s most valued resource—our young people—are successful and thriving members of the community. .
In addition to poverty and inequitable opportunities to learn, students also face specific challenges that are reflection of the structure and legacy of schooling in the U.S. For instance, as students travel through the educational pipeline, their opportunities to meaningfully engage and interact with important school adults drastically changes. In the early years, student have one teacher for 7 hours a day to middle and high school where they have 7 teachers in 7 hours. Across their educational journeys, students also changed significantly—psychologically, socially, physically, and intellectually. They face peer pressure, increased academic expectations (even starting as early as kindergarten with the implementation of high stakes testing), and are challenged to figure out who they are and how they fit in the world.
For many students and families in the Inland Empire, high rates of employment, poverty, and transient home lives makes family life quite stressful. A recent study found that the City of San Bernardino has the highest rates of poverty in any large city in California and second at the national level ( Detroit, Michigan was #1). Despite these challenges, we need to ask, How do schools respond to this crisis? What can schools do? What explains success among students that live in these conditions? We know many of our students and families not only rely on schools for an education and a guaranteed breakfast and lunch each day, but these communities they also place a significant amount of hope in what is possible through formal education.
One significant factor that has proven to shape and promote opportunities and academic success is the presence of meaningful relationships in schools. However, we also know from educational policy, universities that prepare teachers and school leaders, district planning, and school level professional development sessions, that too much focus is placed on class size, test-taking, behavior management, and lesson planning and not enough attention on the cultural factors within schools that can motivate, inspire, connect, and engage students. Our work shows that relationships may be the “X” factor that can reduce dropout and promote student engagement. Knowledge of this reality should push policy makers, community stakeholders, educational leaders, and teachers to take notice and act at the policy and practical levels.
In 2007 The Gates Foundation surveyed dropouts and found that the second most significant reason why they dropped out was because they felt that no one cared about them (the first reason was boredom in school). Thus, meaningful relationships and connections between students and adults in schools allow students to access information, identify mentors, and feel more connected to school (Noddings, 1992; Stanton-Salazar, 2001). Basic forms of “knowing” and “talking” are also vital to developing the basic foundations of student-teacher relationships in school (Rodriguez, 2003). In fact, research also shows that in some cases, teachers must engage students in relationships first, followed by an attempt to engage students with the curriculum (Rodriguez, 2005). That is for some students, getting them to read, write, and do their homework might require a significant connection with the teacher. And sometimes its not just the teacher. Sometimes the teacher needs to help the student identify with the curriculum. Too many times, adults have deficit-oriented views toward students which often hinder their ability to connect or relate to students. On the other hand, school adults who do recognize the strengths and skills (i.e., bilingual) students bring to the table does indeed impact their engagement and achievement with school.
In our research specifically we found the following:
• In some cases, connections between students and adults must precede the curriculum;
• Relationships driven by care, trust, and respect are vital;
• Adults must recognize that students face adult-like challenges and responsibilities and bring those into the school/classroom; recognizing not ignoring is vital.
• Adults who know, talk and provide high expectations & support, are ways teachers relate to students;
• Adults who give students a voice in the classroom/school, is an indicator of relating to students;
• Adults who understand the students and their community, is a reflection of relating to students;
Practical and Policy Suggestions
Our research suggests that schools and the communities that surround them need to reinvent themselves into relationship-rich cultures, not just buildings full of people that prepare for and take tests. Students tell us that relationships can indeed transform opportunities for them, boost their engagement and achievement, and along the way help them meet any state or district achievement target. In environments where poverty, inequality, and generations of struggle have persisted, relationships can be the one factor that makes the difference between staying in school or dropping out. Thus, relationships not only matter but they are also high-stakes. The following is a set of recommendations that can be points of discussion, ideas for policy development, and practical ideas for use in schools and communities.
Possible Actions Related to Power of Student-Adult Relationships and Connections in Schools
• School leadership should recognize and emphasize the connection between relationships and learning/student engagement. Student-adult relationships, connections, and interactions can be the gateway to academic engagement;
• Teachers, school leadership, and school board members should “shadow” a student for a day to see school through the relational lens of students;
• Schools need to recognize that for many IE students, teachers and other significant school adults are some of the only college-experienced adults that they interact with on a daily basis;
• Schools should highlight teachers who excel at connecting and relating to students; we already have examples of excellence in every school but often no one knows about;
• Schools should prioritize relationships just as much as testing;
• Schools should start “Relationship Campaigns” in schools;
• Districts should create policies that celebrate schools who prioritize the power of relationships to promote student engagement, achievement, and success;
• As a community we need to understand that the presence or absence of meaningful relationships and connections is an issue of equity;
Students who have been the most marginalized in schools and in our region are also the most likely to dropout, fail in school, and not find a direct pathway to college or a career. As a community we experience missed opportunities and lost or overlooked talent when we fail to engage our students, particularly those who have historically struggled. While there are many programs and initiatives already underway, thousands are not connected and are not recognized. Meaningful relationships and connections between students and adults may be the bridge to engage more of our students. We need to learn from our most successful students and schools. We will see that meaningful relationships do indeed matter. The question is, Do we have the will to recognize the significance of relationships and act so that we move one more step towards creating more equitable opportunities for all Inland Empire youth? Relationships are not just a social or cultural artifact of schools. Relationships are matters of equity and opportunity.
Contact: Dr. Louie F. Rodriguez, Principal Investigator for The PRAXIS Project.
Recommended Citation: Rodriguez, L. F. (2011). Relationships as the “X” Factor in the Dropout Crisis: The Will to Recognize and Act. The PRAXIS Project. Polimemo 1 of 10.