A highly professional and specialized workforce, technological advancements, and increased global competition have prompted 21st Century high school reform characterized by personalized learning environments. Personalized learning has been a common theme throughout research on effective high school reform over the past decade. In Alberta, personalized learning has come to mean the alignment of learning and learning environments with students’ individual strengths, passions, and interpersonal preferences (Alberta Education, 2009). This focus has given impetus to implementation of a High School Redesign Project in many schools across the province. This Project is designed to increase student engagement, improve student achievement, and enhance teacher practice through the development of flexible and student-centered learning environments. Participating Redesign schools are exempt from the required 25 hours of classroom instruction per unit of course credit—also reffered to as Carnegie Units. With this flexibility, high schools are making changes to the structure of their classrooms, schedules, and instructional approaches to best suit the needs of learners (Alberta Education, 2014).
In this article we present the case study findings of one large rurban high school school as it implemented the tenets of high school redesign with a clear focus on building relationships. Their efforts led to an increased sense of student safety, belonging, and engagement and, in turn, improvements in student success.
Personalized Learning Structures Leading to Healthy and Positive Relationships
Eaton and Nelson (2007) outline how the flexible use of time and structure, in conjunction with relationship-building between students and teachers, allows schools to implement strategies that meet the individual needs of students and that foster personalization. In Redesign schools, one of the most common versions of this flexible time is a scheduled block of time for student advisory and individual student academic support, often referred to as “Flex Block.” During this time, students are provided opportunities to make reasoned choices about their needs, both curricular and otherwise. For many Redesign schools, this flexible structure has resulted in dedicated time for students to pursue support for academic needs, as well as connect with peers and teachers beyond the traditional classroom setting. The intent of this flexible time is to increase students’ levels of engagement and connectivity with their learning environments in order to develop cultures of safety and belonging. This culture is characterized by valuable relationships among teachers and students where fewer students are getting lost (McClure, Yonezawa, & Jones, 2010).
Relationships and Connections Through Redesign
Carol, the principal of North High School, described the importance of flexibility in developing strong relationships between students and teachers at her school. She affirmed that improved relationships lead to increased levels of student independence and resilience. Carol changed the social structure of the school as a result of the social-emotional challenges her students faced. She explained that immediately prior to becoming the principal, her school district had completed an international resiliency study; results indicated that students at her school were lacking in many of the skills of their peers. These results were analyzed in conjunction with informal research undertaken by the assistant principal, in which she surveyed staff and students about staff-student relationships. 80% of staff believed they were relating well to students whereas only 8% of students felt that they had a teacher to connect with and who would advocate for them. The discrepancies in the data lead the school leadership team to implement structures and processes that would connect teachers with all students. To accomplish this, the school changed their scheduling so that teachers and support staff members would be more readily available to network with students beyond regular curricular classroom time. Teachers, in particular, were assigned specific time to walk around the school and simply find students to connect with. During this scheduled time, teachers would do something as basic as sit down and talk to students, and by so doing start to build stronger informal student-teacher relationships in the school.
Carol described how, prior to this approach, “there was a chaotic feeling in the building… teachers felt their classes were too large they didn’t have the time to connect with kids.” Then, as change started to happen, Carol observed that a “settled feel” permeated the building. She concluded that these connections were a primary step in providing students with the capacity to be successful in a high school context. She also noted the various mental health needs of students and how some aspects of mental health went hand-in-hand increased resiliency skills.
North High School has a student population in excess of 1800. With relationships becoming a priority, there was a clear shift in mindset about teaching and learning. Even in this large school context, students report feeling more connected to the school staff, as well as their peers. In focus group interviews with a cross-section of students from the school, many described how they felt cared for and connected at school. Specifically, students perceived that their teachers had become advocates for both their learning and well-being. Students viewed teachers and staff as “regularly going above and beyond” and “supportive.” These students also spoke about how their teachers seemed genuinely invested in helping them to be successful within and beyond their high school studies. They described how teachers regularly engaging in conversations that made students feel supported at school, regardless of what the students’ personally identified goals might be. In some cases, students also applauded the guidance of teachers who supported them in making choices about how to pursue interpersonal challenges and academic goals. It was clear that these students had a sense that there was one or more caring adults in the building that were looking out for their well-being, safety, and success (Quint, 2006).
Of note in this particular case was the drastic shift taken by the school community within only two years of restructured focus on relationships within a flexible timetable. This school provides evidence that students’ academic success remains clearly tied to their feeling of belonging, safety, and connectedness to teachers, support staff, and peers in school. Within a couple of years, this school saw improvements in the mental health of their students simply by making deliberate choices to build and foster caring relationships.
Relationships as a Foundation for Student Safety Leading to Student Success
The value of developing healthy and productive relationships as a key strategy to promote high school student success was central to the findings of this study. A majority of participants conveyed the importance of building teacher-student and student-student relationships to create the connectivity, sense of belonging, and ownership that was foundational to learning and academic achievement. McClure et al. (2010) contends that these positive relationships are a hallmark of personalized reform within high schools, and they cite “growing evidence that indicates greater personalization—improved, trusting relationships particularly among teachers and students—are able to raise students’ expectations for themselves and teachers’ expectations for students” (p. 4). It is clear from this one case study, and research already undertaken in the field, that other high schools on their journey of reform would be well-served by constructing opportunities and conditions in which student relationships can flourish. When students feel safe and connected to their schools, academic success and student achievement will follow.References
Alberta Education. (2009). Inspiring action on education. Edmonton, AB: Alberta Education.
Alberta Education. (2014). Moving forward with high school redesign. Retrieved from https://ideas.education.alberta.ca/hsc/redesigning/movinfw/resources/
Eaton, E., & Nelson, A. (2007). New options for the modern student. Educational Leadership Info Brief, Summer 2007(50), 6-8.
McClure, L., Yonezawa, S., & Jones, M. (2010). Can school structures improve teacher-student relationships? The relationship between advisory programs, personalization and students’ academic achievement. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 18(17).
Quint, J. (2006). Meeting five critical challenges of high school reform: Lessons from research on three reform models. Retrieved from http://www.mdrc.org/publications/428/full.pdf