Reading, writing … and relationships

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Chicago Public Schools leaders and those on the front line should be commended for progress they have made so far in a number of areas. Yet historically and now, reform efforts have a scattered or a single-minded focus rather than a systemic approach. High-stakes testing, teacher retention, school leadership, the achievement gap, violence prevention, truancy and a host of revamped instructional programs are all targeted reforms that have made improvements but were not pulled together to ensure all efforts were aimed at common goals.

Other approaches to teaching and learning unify these different areas. Youth Guidance, a social service agency in Chicago, has implemented one such approach, developed by James Comer at the Yale Child Study Center. The School Development Program combines high-quality instruction with efforts designed to cultivate positive relationships between teachers, principals, students and their families.

In 2003, the Illinois State Board of Education recognized the importance of developing non-academic skills when it introduced standards for social and emotional learning. Although the initiative is mandated by the state, CPS has yet to fully implement it. And still missing from the state’s prescribed approach is the recognition of the power of relationships and the cogent application of a developmental framework.

There is plenty of evidence to back up the vital role relationships play in schools. A MetLife survey asked teachers to rank their three greatest challenges; they listed the following: communicating with parents, maintaining order and discipline in the classroom, and getting support from principals and colleagues. All of these are relationship concerns.

In the book, “Trust in Schools,” Anthony Bryk draws on longitudinal surveys and in-depth interviews to assess how effective social relationships, or relational trust, as he calls it, impact students’ social development and academic progress. Good rapport with students is a resource for teaching.

Teachers need parental support to help motivate and engage children. Principals need teachers’ cooperative efforts to maintain order and model a positive image of the school. And teachers must cooperate with each other to sustain a coherent instructional program. All of these examples of relational trust are essential elements in high-functioning schools.

At Youth Guidance, facilitating relational trust is an integral part of the work we do in Chicago’s public schools. A 5th-grade teacher in one school refused to take students to the school library because she did not like the librarian. An assistant principal in another school responded to the principal only when the principal made direct requests. Along the same lines, students routinely tell us which teachers don’t like each other and which ones do, including who’s dating whom. They tell us which students are favored by certain teachers, which security guards mistreat them, which students bully them and which teachers are the best educators.

Problematic relationships among school stakeholders can undermine any reform effort. Most of us are aware that large numbers of children are dealing with social and emotional challenges and that those challenges hinder their success in school and in life. Yet learning is a socially interactive process. Positive student-teacher relationships are critical to the learning process.

We can no longer afford to hold on to the myth that we made it on our own. Educators must see themselves as “child-rearers” in partnership with parents. We must help parents understand and reinforce what we have learned from experience and research: that how children are raised greatly influences how they develop and learn. Just as our classrooms must continue to move away from isolated teaching in stand-alone classrooms, we must combine high-quality instructional practices with a school culture that is fair, equitable, and instructionally and developmentally relevant.

Now it’s time for Mayor Daley, education leaders, policy makers and the general public to pay more attention to this underlying cause of public schools’ failure.

We must consider new roles for social workers, who can facilitate creating positive relationships throughout the school building, who can incorporate principles of child development to promote students’ academic success and social-emotional well being. Social workers must be key members of school administrative teams.

What would happen if there were a districtwide focus on relationships and child development? What would happen if people who understand the intricacies of human behavior were included in schools’ decision-making process?

If the district takes these steps seriously, Chicago will be the best school system in the country.

Vivian Loseth is the executive director of Youth Guidance, a non-profit social service agency, and the director of the Chicago Comer School Development Program.