“There is, however, one thing that the twins’ teachers, families and communities can do to improve their odds, no matter where they go to school: Make sure they are engaged in learning something important with someone who cares about them.”

To Overcome Poor Schools, Students Need to be Engaged by Karen Pittman


Early in our design year, we made a commitment to talk to students, teachers, and school leaders. At first, it was easy for me to say, “I have been teaching students for seven years. I know what they are going to say.” The commitment we made was not only to talk to them about school but to enter that conversation with a beginner’s mind. These kinds of interviews and surveys have been done countless times before but, for me, it was powerful to listen to students actually say the things that I knew to be true– so much so that I can honestly say I took these “truths” for granted. Across the board, every type of student in every type of school said the same thing. Relationships with adults in the building were one of the most, if not the most, important aspect of their success. In fact, all students at two of the schools, both alternative schools for over age-under and credited students said the same things about adults. Each student explained that whenever they were late or absent, an adult from the school called or sent a text message. Those students identified a very simple gesture as evidence of strong relationships. This experience resulted in a phrase that, to this day, is used by us to keep us on track with our design:

Relationships at the foundation.

Below is an early graphic we created to show how everything in our model is built upon positive and meaningful relationships.