Deep Dives

Let’s Make Schools Places Where Students Want to Be

March 29, 2024
Lakeisha Steele
Vice President of Policy
Karen VanAusdal
Vice President of Practice
Let’s Make Schools Places Where Students Want to Be

Recently, we asked a group of students in South Carolina a simple question: “Do you look forward to going to school?” Their answer was unanimous: No. And many of their peers are opting out altogether.

Throughout the country, chronic absenteeism has risen to alarming rates. Across districts as different as D.C. Public Schools and New Trier Township High School District in Illinois, recent statistics show a staggering 30 to 40 percent of schoolchildren are missing more than 10 days of school a year. 

Thirty-seven states measure chronic absenteeism as part of their accountability systems. But many of the responses—often focused on warning notices and referrals to support services or justice-related systems—don’t address what students have told us is keeping them from school. 

We urge a different starting point: Make schools places where students—and adults—want to be. 

Students are telling us that they do not feel a sense of connection to the places in which they spend the majority of their time—their schools. In a 2023 report, YouthTruth shared that less than half of students feel a sense of belonging in school and less than a quarter think their teachers understand their lives outside of school. 

This has a direct impact on their learning. If students are disengaged, they are not experiencing the relationships, curriculum, and opportunities to develop the academic, social, and emotional skills that we know are key for their learning and well-being. It should perhaps not be surprising then that the latest NAEP scores for 13 year-olds, which measures academic achievement of U.S. students, showed historic declines in reading and math.

And the adults are struggling as well. Add to these sobering attendance and academic data those on increasing staff and principal turnover, and we have a clear call to action: ensure our schools are places of engagement, relevance, and belonging for all who step through their doors. 

As part of a CDC grant, we are working with a group of states and districts committed to promoting well-being in their schools. Each of those states have identified student liaisons to share their experience in schools and make suggestions that can improve well-being for themselves and their school communities. When we met with these liaisons, they asked for schools where “humor and joy mix with learning” and “mutual respect, peace and excitement.” They were grateful to those teachers who took time to get to know them, give them meaningful assignments, even decorate their classes warmly, but found that those teachers were the exception and not the norm. So how do we get there? 

Listen to and partner with students and families. Students need to walk into classrooms where they are seen, valued, and heard both through the curriculum and their interactions. They and their families have ideas about how to make this experience a reality and can be partners on policies and practices that make schools inviting. Already, states receive federal funding that requires robust family engagement and can build upon work already happening with statewide family engagement centers. For example, many states and districts have student and parent advisory councils that allow them to hear how they are experiencing school and what could enhance their learning. Districts and states can also use school climate and student and family experience data to inform policies and supports. 

Focus on learning environments. We need to pay as much attention to how children learn as we do to what they learn. That means intentionally building learning climates that fully support students’ academic, social, and emotional learning. States and districts that have prioritized this work often begin with bringing together staff, students, and families to develop a shared vision and a more holistic portrait of the full range of knowledge and skills that students need to succeed in college, career and life. In Kentucky, for example, districts work to embed their vision of “creative contributors” and “empowered learners” into the daily rituals and instruction of students. 

Prioritize adult well-being and learning. To make those types of learning experiences possible, adults across the educational ecosystem must also have opportunities to connect and collaborate in ways that tap into their own sense of agency and belonging. When adults experience inviting conditions, they can better support effective learning environments for students. State policy leaders can incorporate a focus on adult social and emotional learning and wellness into their course offerings, coaching resources, and supports for principals

States and districts have an unprecedented opportunity to use COVID relief dollars to tackle these interrelated challenges of attendance, academic outcomes, and wellness for our staff and students. Let’s start at the root with making schools inviting places for all to be. Our communities will be better for it. 

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David Madeloni

High schools should be more like colleges (more choices, less emphasis on testing), Middle School more like High School (focus on post secondary prep)
Teachers with more autonomy and voice

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Lisa Herold

Lakeisha and Karen,

Thanks so much for this post. I have worked in schools for over 30 years, and I have seen the decline in the disengagement of children and adults over time.

I live in Chicago and am familiar with the culture at New Trier and the cultures of simililarly affluent communities. I’ve seen more children at increasingly younger ages “show up” physically for school while remaining disconnected. This is heartbreaking: 5th graders being hospitalized for suicidal ideation, 6th graders unable to leave the counselor or nurse’s office all day. Parents are frightened and turn to psychiatrists who prescribe heavy doses of medication.

Students face unrelenting pressure to perform, and teachers bear the weight of these pressures on the students. It’s no wonder that many are feeling burnt out.

Ten years ago, my role at a private school in Chicago (Director of Parent Engagement and Positive Discipline) included helping teachers implement the Responsive Classroom Approach. Parents questioned why “we were taking math time to sit in a circle and talk about our feelings.” While we have come a long way in understanding the need for intentionally teaching social skills, we have a long way to go.

Many schools still need to implement a school-wide approach to SEL, and many believe that traditional discipline approaches are still essential. Thank you for shedding light on the evidence of how that is going.

Let’s listen to students and teachers and find ways to help people understand that SEL is not fluff. We must meet the basic human need for belonging and significance.

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Karen Niemi

Great article! Your fan from afar:), Karen

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