By developing strong connections to their students, adults can more effectively assess student needs, provide related supports, and foster healthy student development overall. To effectively prepare students for college, teachers and staff must attend to a range of student needs: academic, social, cultural, familial, emotional, and financial. This holistic approach to developing college readiness relies on the close connections adults form with their students, which allows them to set higher expectations (The Woodrow Wilson Early College Network, 2008).
Connecting to students and their families
In order to foster close connections between students and faculty and staff, CAL Prep promotes “supportive teaching,” which aims to
- engage every student,
- inspire curiosity in every student,
- increase community by knowing students through both their work and life,
- focus on advisory,
- refine intervention practices,
- practice differentiation schoolwide, and
- focus on finding solutions.
CAL Prep extends its responsive, relationship-focused school culture by engaging families through family conferences, student presentations to their families, and parent-teacher meetings. Families are also supported through Saturday school support sessions, evening counseling groups, all-school Saturday schools, at-risk student support teams, newsletters, and weekly emails/phone messages.
Surrounding students with supportive adults
During their senior year, students from Manhattan Hunter Science High School (MHSHS) go to the Hunter College campus every day to take both their high school and college courses. To combat the typically limited connections students have with adults on college campuses, MHSHS and its partner, Hunter College, have established support systems for the high school students enrolled in college classes. For instance, MHSHS seniors are supported by a college liaison and two high school teachers who are physically located on the college campus with them.
They know they’re not lost, because we listen to them. When they say they’re struggling with something, we work with them until we feel like we’ve at least made them feel more comfortable. That doesn’t necessarily ensure they’ll pass the class, but at least they’re more comfortable and they feel like they have the tools to at least try their best.
The students acknowledge and appreciate the support they receive from the high school teachers based at Hunter College. As one student said, “All the high school teachers, they’re like, ‘Don’t give up, come on, try harder.’ They also take time in their classes to give us time to study for college classes. They’re right next door. They’ve been really, really incredible as far as problem solving”(Frelow, 2007a, pp. 3–4).
In addition, high school seniors are required to meet with their college professor in every class within the first four weeks of each semester. This requirement was established by the partner institutions as a way to help the students connect with their college professors, something many are hesitant to do (The Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, 2011).
Fostering deeper conversations
At East Palo Alto Academy High School (EPAAHS), an early college school partnered with Cañada College and Stanford University, the school staff work to build trust and cooperation between teachers and students and among students themselves. Staff achieve this, in part, through a focus on the school’s five “habits of mind:” personal responsibility, social responsibility, critical and creative thinking, application of knowledge, and communication
Teachers help students work toward mastering these habits of mind, and they regularly foster meaningful conversation with students about these habits. While students’ grades remain important, the conversations between teachers and students focus on the habits. For instance, when asked about grading/classroom assessment, one teacher said, “I sit down and say, here are your five habit scores, here’s your letter grade. How do you feel about this? What do you see as your strengths? What do we need to work on?”
By relying upon a broader range of indicators of learning and success, conversations between teachers and students can go deeper than merely a letter grade. These conversations foster stronger relationships and students are better guided towards graduation and college enrollment. As a graduate of EPAAHS said:
They pushed me a lot. I wasn’t an “A” student when I was there. They never gave up on me. Eventually it worked. They kept pushing me. I wouldn’t have graduated if I had gone to [another school] with a lot more students. There would not be that much connection with teachers. No one would have pushed me like they did (Frelow, 2007b, pp. 3–4).
Significantly, graduates of EPAAHS reflected that a focus on personal and social responsibility taught them to work well with others and resulted in trusting relationships between students and teachers. One graduate said, “There were a lot of teachers you could trust. I think trust is a powerful word because you need to trust the teachers.” Another recognized, “Most importantly, it was the way the teachers interacted with the students. You could go to them for anything, not just school stuff.”
Tools and resources
- Scaffolding the College Transition: The Senior Experience by Kristen Vogt describes the uniquely designed senior year for Manhattan Hunter Science High School students at partnering Hunter College.
- The strong adult-student relationships at East Palo Alto Academy High School are highlighted in Building Student Efficacy Through Trust, High Expectations, and Extensive Support by Fred Frelow.
- Is supportive teaching happening at your school? If so, how is it encouraged? If not, do you think it is desirable? Are there barriers to supportive teaching at your school?
- Does every student in your school have an adult they can approach if they are having problems (academic or otherwise)? Do students believe there is an adult they can go to for help and support? How do adults know if students have problems?
- Are there efforts to engage families in school activities? Community members? If so, do you have a sense of how well those efforts are working? How might you build stronger relationships with students’ families and communities?
- Are there any adults at a partner college who know many of your students by name? How might you cultivate relationships between students and college faculty and staff?
Relationship-focused methods and interactive student-centered approaches are two key strategies for success across reform efforts that are documented in research literature (Grubb & Anyon, 2011; Karp, 2011). A research study of principals at early college schools concluded their strong commitment to
- developing students’ positive connections with adults,
- fostering a sense of community,
- having an open door policy, and
- maintaining a positive empowering climate for students that encourages accountability and celebrates success (Jaeger & Venezia, 2011).
“We wanted every child to be well-known and to have a person on campus they could go to”
“Because the school is small, our students feel more like a family”
“I had some students that came in just awhile ago and said ‘Can we just talk to you?’”