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Building Teacher Capacity to Increase Student Belonging (KIPP DC)

How one virtual school improved climate for student belonging and teacher capacity for mentorship


This brief case study features the work one school system completed to address the challenge of student belonging in their virtual and hybrid learning environment. It is part of a larger brief exploring the work that three school system teams undertook in TLA’s Strategy Lab program, which is a networked learning experience that leverages our Real-Time Redesign (RTR) process to help teams identify and address root-cause equity barriers.

Context: KIPP DC Public Schools

A small, virtual school based in Washington, D.C. serving 200 students in grades 2-8, KIPP DC’s instructional model offers a combination of synchronous and asynchronous learning. They joined Strategy Lab to explore structures for learning and engagement that would best support the varied needs of their students.

The Challenge: Addressing Individual Connections to Support Learning

During discovery phases, the team identified two challenges: the need to improve students’ sense of belonging and to improve teachers’ capacity to mentor students.

According to evidence from the team assessment, system leaders believed they were at the beginning stages of building relationships with students as well as leveraging technology to support collaboration and community-building in their classes. Despite a commitment to supporting students’ individual needs, they saw gaps in support for elements like social-emotional learning and non-academic activities and needs.

These gaps in support were likely related to academic challenges as well. The team reported that approximately 45% of their students had at least one grade of “D” or “F,” with 80% of those not attending class on a regular basis. Leaders believed that if teachers could better connect with their students personally (and vice versa), then those students would feel more valued and motivated to learn.

Data from the team assessment revealed that teachers would need support, as leaders reported a disparity in teachers’ abilities to build a strong, ongoing presence with students. This was further confirmed in student empathy interview data: students wanted stronger relationships with teachers and peers as well as to feel a greater sense of purpose with their school work.

Ongoing conversations around existing policies and practices pointed to a problem of practice: the challenge of redesigning their instructional program to foster a sense of belonging to support academic growth.

Designing and Piloting a Measurable Solution: Building Teacher Capacity to Implement Advisory Check-Ins

To address this issue, the team designed a pilot that addressed student-to-teacher and teacher-to-teacher relationship-building through two features:

Capacity-Building for Teachers: Middle school teachers piloted a virtual relationship-building tool called Along. Intended for use with students, the team first used the tool to offer a means for teachers to build relationships with one another, share best practices, and familiarize themselves with a guided conversational model to use during check-ins. Teachers collaborated with their colleagues in the pilot on ways to support disengaged students and discussed best practices for conducting advisory check-ins and identified students who were struggling. The leadership team also provided the teachers with a checklist of items to discuss when meeting with students.

Implementing Advisory Check-Ins: Nine middle school teachers then conducted weekly advisory check-ins with targeted students in grades 5-8. This team committed to conducting weekly check-ins until the end of the school year. During 10-minute synchronous check-ins, teachers and students discussed academics, goals, and individual student concerns. These conversations provided students and teachers with a chance to get to know each other – a key factor in cultivating a sense of belonging.

What Happened

Post-pilot survey responses revealed that students enjoyed meeting with their teachers, with 79% of students indicating that checking in with their teachers helped to improve their grades and attendance. More promisingly, 96% of students believed they had at least one teacher with whom they felt safe going to for help.

Teachers also shared that they appreciated the time to meet with students one-on-one. Of note, two pilot teachers who regularly used the virtual relationship-building tool appeared to enjoy the check-ins the most. School leaders reported that grades and attendance increased for students who regularly attended one-to-one advisory check-ins.

What’s Next

Encouraged by the positive feedback from students and teachers – particularly as it related to relationship-building and instilling a sense of belonging – the KIPP DC leadership team is planning to use the lessons they learned from the pilot to scale advisory check-ins across the school, especially since the students who needed the most help did not attend advisory check-ins. This plan aligns with why KIPP DC joined Strategy Lab: to explore structures for learning and engagement that would best support the varied needs of their students.

Resources for Taking Action

Below are some tools and ideas that can help system leaders and educators think about this strategy in their own context: