Woman and child sitting and talking


What’s Working: Unlocking the Untapped Potential of Relationships

This article is part of the “What’s Working” series, which highlights promising practices for helping to close the graduation gap in communities and states across the country.

If there’s any well-accepted truth in the field of youth development, it’s that relationships between young people and caring adults matter. 

“Relationships are the foundation upon which all youth development rests,” Dr. Shannon Varga from the Center for Promise recently said in a webinar on caring adults. “Young people grow, learn, and develop through relationships.”

So what can national, state, and local organizations do to increase the number and quality of caring adults in the lives of students? And how can those relationships help support efforts to increase the graduation rate?

These are the questions the webinar explored, with a group of practitioners, a researcher, a young person, and an expert from a national nonprofit weighing in. 

Presenters included Dr. Shannon Varga, postdoctoral research fellow at the Center for Promise; Alexis Creamer, America’s Promise Youth Trustee; and Michael Huang, Vice President for National Resource Center & Connections for Communities In Schools (CIS). 

A panel of experts from the Colorado School Counselor Corps Grant Program also joined, which included Eva Pugh, Colorado School Counselor from the Colorado Department of Education; Dr. Rhonda Haniford, Assistant Superintendent for Secondary Schools for the Greeley-Evans Weld County District 6; and Christina Cloyes, Lead Counselor at Greeley Central High School. 

Here are a few things they said organizations could do.

Tap into “Non-Traditional” Caring Adults

When you think of caring adults, there are probably three types that come to mind: mentoring relationships, parent-child relationships, and student-teacher relationships. 

Dr. Shannon Varga from the Center for Promise said that it’s important to remember the value of “non-traditional” caring adults. Some examples of non-traditional caring adults are: site coordinators, social workers, school counselors, bus drivers, custodians, and school nurses. 

“There is a disconnect between what research is focused on and who youth are actually turning to; there could be untapped and unidentified sources of support,” Varga said. 

Varga also presented key findings from the research that Center for Promise released, Defining Webs of Support: A New Framework to Advance Understanding of Relationships and Youth Development, which examines the different types of support young people need—instrumental, emotional, and social capital, as defined in the chart below:

Table:1 Social Support

To better understand what it takes to provide these types of supports to students, practitioners in the field shared their insights. 

Implement Five Critical Elements to Developing Relationships

Michael Huang from Communities In Schools started off with a mantra that is deeply instilled in their work: “Programs don’t change children, relationships do.” 

This is why CIS has partnered with the Search Institute to deepen their understanding and practice of building successful caring adult relationships. From this partnership, they learned that there are five critical elements to develop relationships: express care, challenge growth, provide support, share power, and expand possibilities.

Developmental Relationships

So, how can states and local school districts embrace these models? 

Colorado participants talked about the work that is taking place on a state level to increase caring adults in the school through the Colorado School Counselor Corp Grant Program, a program that provides funding to eligible school districts, Board of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES), charter schools, or institute charter schools to increase the number of counselors in schools. 

 “Over eight years of data, we have seen that dropout rates have decreased, and improvement in the graduation rates for our funded schools and matriculation rates to postsecondary has also increased,” said Pugh. 

One of the districts they chose to fund was the Greeley-Evans School District 6. They used their funds to hire eight new counselors who will build the capacity of other school staff to carry out the Multi-Tiered System of Support (MTSS), which matches student interventions with student needs.

“We are most focused on creating a sustainable system that every student would have that caring adult that could monitor the ABC’s so we can intervene quickly,” said Rhonda Haniford, Assistant Superintendent of Greeley-Evans Schools District. 

In order for relationships to be effective, youth trustee Alexis Creamer said caring adults must “encourage open-dialogue and conversations.”

A common thread that tied everyone’s presentation together was the importance of youth voice in developing these caring adult relationships. As noted in the Webs of Support work, “Youth are active agents in their own development.” 

Learn more about the GradNation State Activation initiative

The GradNation State Activation initiative is a collaboration between America’s Promise Alliance and Pearson to increase high school graduation rates by encouraging statewide innovation and collaboration, sharing that knowledge and replicating what works, and developing successful models all states can replicate.

Join the GradNation Learning Community

To get more news about graduation rates and effective practices to increase them, join the GradNation Learning Community, a hub for sharing strategies and successful practices. Just send an email to [email protected] with your name, email address and organizational affiliation. To join the conversation on Twitter, use #GradNation.