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Increasing Engagement and Work Completion Through Advising and Mentoring (KIPP DC)

How a virtual school increased levels of student engagement


This brief case study features the work one school system completed to address the challenge of student engagement in their virtual and hybrid learning environments. It is part of a larger brief exploring the work that four 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

A small, virtual program within a charter network based in Washington, D.C. serving 200 students in grades 2-8, KIPP DC’s Virtual Learning Program uses an instructional model that 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 of Engagement: Work Completion

Each of the districts featured in TLA’s student engagement case study was selected based upon their focus on one particular aspect of engagement, ranging on a continuum from foundational (i.e., attendance) to deeper (i.e., active learning) characteristics. Each district chose to focus on an aspect of engagement that emerged from team discussions, self- and team assessments, and aligned to their reason for joining Strategy Lab. 

Continuum of engagement from foundational tenets to more meaningful learning.

Four arrows going to the right showing the continuum of engagement: Attendance to Participation to Work Completion to Active Learning. 

Attendance: Actions such as physical presence for in-person or synchronous sessions.

Participation: Behaviors and action markers such as camera on/off, verbal responses in discussions, and/or use of chatbox/reactions.

Work Completion: Actions such as submitting assignments or completing tasks, as well as resulting grades earned and/or GPA.

Interaction and Collaboration: Actions such as working together with peers, creating products, and/or taking part in peer and/or self-reflection.

The KIPP DC team identified a core challenge: how to improve academic growth in synchronous classes. While they aimed to personalize learning to boost interest and academic achievement, the team also recognized the pivotal role of student attendance and participation but decided to focus on work completion.

Workbook entries from the team brought to light a telling statement that guided the focus of KIPP DC’s work: “Students are coming. They are generally happy. Now, are they learning?” A closer analysis of academic and attendance data by the team revealed that a high number of students did not seem to be invested in their learning. The team disclosed that 80 of 200 students earning a ‘D’ or ‘F’ also had an attendance rate below 80%. They also acknowledged that for students to be invested in their education, they needed to attend class and actively participate by completing required assignments.

Ongoing conversations around existing policies and practices pointed to a problem of practice: the challenge of increasing student work completion to drive engagement in meaningful learning.

Designing and Piloting a Measurable Solution: Advising and Mentoring

To address this issue, the team decided to design and pilot a program to help teachers implement best practices for effective virtual instruction that would encourage students to attend class, participate in activities, and submit required assignments.

The team designed a pilot based on one-to-one mentoring sessions between teachers and students struggling academically. The team examined two quarters of academic data to identify students they believed would benefit from meeting one-on-one with their teachers. They hypothesized that if students and teachers were able to build a relationship, then students would feel more inclined to attend class, participate, complete their work, and they would ultimately see an improvement in their grades.

The pilot focused on two core concepts:

  • Advisory Check-In: Nine middle-school teachers conducted weekly advisory check-ins with targeted students in grades 5-8. During 10-minute synchronous check-ins, teachers and students discussed academics, goals, and individual concerns. These conversations provided students and teachers with a chance to build a relationship as a means to motivate students to attend class, participate in activities, and turn in their work. Teachers utilized a checklist during each meeting to ensure their check-ins addressed behaviors and actions that the pilot team wanted students to improve.

  • Mentor Teacher: Middle-school teachers served as mentors to specific students experiencing attendance and/or academic issues. The benefit of one-on-one time with an adult allowed teachers to monitor student progress and provide individualized support.

What Happened

Post-pilot survey responses affirmed that students enjoyed meeting with their mentor teachers, with 77% indicating that checking in helped to improve their grades and attendance. More promisingly, the ‘D/F’ rates for the quarter decreased across students in grades 5-8. The team shared that although some teachers did not consistently document attendance, they were pleased to note that grade-six student attendance increased from 86% in the second quarter to 93% in the third.

As an additional benefit, 96% of students believed they had at least one teacher with whom they felt safe going to for help, and the pilot teachers shared that they appreciated the time to meet with students one-on-one. School leaders reported that grades and attendance increased for students who regularly attended one-to-one advisory check-ins. As such, it appears that the school team found success in the targeted effort to increase grades by providing a scaffolded support structure. 

What’s Next

The KIPP DC leadership team is planning to use lessons learned from the pilot to scale the advisory check-ins to the elementary grades. Encouraged by the positive correlation between one-on-one check-ins and academic progress, the team remains hopeful that this process will continue to benefit students. It is important to note that the team intentionally focused the pilot on work completion (i.e., academic growth) – an outcome of increased attendance and participation – as a foundational tenet of engagement. 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: