K-12 Education

Investing in Relationships: How One Cleveland High School “Moves the Needle” for Students

September 5, 2017  • Jim Balfanz, Tina Chong, and Carolyn Trager Kliman

Maddie DeLong built a number of special relationships with students during her service year as a City Year Cleveland AmeriCorps member at East Technical High School (ETHS). Yet one young man she worked with stands out in her memory.

“When he started the school year, he didn’t get along with many of his classmates, and he wasn’t that well-known at school because he came from the other side of town,” recalls DeLong, now entering her fourth year as ETHS’s data coordinator. “He didn’t feel like he fit in, so he’d skip class and hide out in the gym to play basketball. He had a lot of attendance issues.”

This student was a remarkable basketball player, but he didn’t display that kind of confidence in the classroom. DeLong developed a strong relationship with him over the course of the first semester, pushing the student to focus on his schoolwork in addition to his time on the basketball team.

“I told him he couldn’t play basketball if he didn’t do well in school,” says DeLong. “During our work in small groups, I saw that he was much further along academically than he let on. He started doing better during our one-on-one sessions designed to accelerate his academic and social-emotional development, and he was able to translate that success into better performance in class.”

This kind of positive “developmental relationship with a caring adult is exactly what’s needed for all students at East Technical High, says Paul Hoover, the school’s Director of Operations, Accountability and Core Instruction.

“The learning profile of our incoming ninth grade students shows that on average they’re reading and doing math at about a fifth or sixth grade level,” says Hoover. “Many of our students enter East Technical having struggled in previous institutions. A lot of remediation work is required, and we know that these students benefit from additional support.”

At East Technical High School, that support comes from a network of adults in the building who build deep relationships with every student. The school’s overall strategy for improvement is built on the idea that each student needs an adult—whether it’s a teacher, administrator, coach, or other adult support—who can serve as his or her advocate.

East Technical’s focus on meeting student needs by investing in caring relationships was recently highlighted during a visit to Cleveland by the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development. During the May 2017 visit, the Commissioners explored not only individual stories like ETHS, but also Cleveland Metropolitan School District’s comprehensive work to better integrate social-emotional learning into their overall approach to K-12 education.

Hoover and DeLong participated in small-group conversations the Commissioners had with practitioners, highlighting their school’s approach to supporting students’ social-emotional and academic development, which includes a partnership with City Year Cleveland that began in 2011.

Hoover says this partnership has been critical to helping the school meet its goal of ensuring that every student has access to a caring adult relationship. “When students don’t feel like they’re getting the support they need, they shut down,” he says.

In addition, having City Year AmeriCorps members in classrooms full-time has helped increase teacher capacity. “Teachers write City Year into their lesson plans every day,” adds DeLong. “Teachers and City Year AmeriCorps members attend trainings together throughout the year, developing those relationships so that they can figure out how to best address student needs as a team.”

The partnership has had a significant impact on ETHS students, helping improve student retention rates, credit accumulation, and student performance. Though their ninth graders still struggle with proficiency rates, ETHS has made strong growth over the past six years. In 2015-16, the school ranked seventh in the district for student growth out of 33 high schools and was one of eleven high schools to earn a score of “C” or better in growth.

According to Hoover, focusing on student-adult relationships has been a pivotal retention strategy for the school. “The cohort that enjoyed the initial academic and social-emotional support and love from City Year has a four-year graduation rate of close to 73 percent, up from 36 percent since 2011. The five-year rate was 80.5 percent, up from 46.5 percent. That’s not an accident.”

DeLong’s relationship with her student demonstrates the power of this kind of academic and social-emotional support. “It meant a lot to him to see himself as an ETHS student, not just some kid who can play basketball,” says DeLong. “He’s now a varsity athlete at a Division 1 university. That’s not something he would have been able to do without excelling in academics. It’s really remarkable to see.”

“We’re exceptionally proud of our growth,” Hoover continues. “We believe that close relationships with scholars, tutoring, and school-climate work really helps move the needle.”

Click here to read more about City Year’s integration of academic and social-emotional supports designed to encourage students to come to school every day, engage more deeply with their learning and stay on track to high school graduation and success in college, career and life.

Jim Balfanz is the President of City Year and a member of the Council of Distinguished Educators for the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development.

Tina Chong is City Year’s Vice President of Communications.

Carolyn Trager Kliman is City Year’s Senior Director of Education Strategy and Policy.