Midway through the first semester, a top-down directive to strengthen learning by teachers building deeper, more trusting relationships with and between students is playing out in classrooms throughout the Madison School District.

“Strong, authentic relationships are crucial to our work,” said Superintendent Jen Cheatham, who set the districtwide focus. “Achievement gaps can persist in part when there is a lack of the safe community and support to engage in challenging and meaningful work.”

The push is seen as especially important for students of color, whose test scores as a whole lag far behind white students’ academic performance in the district. Helping them get ahead may require teachers and administrators to take a step back, in a sense, as they focus first on breaking down walls to let learning happen.

“Kids aren’t going to be able to take risks and push themselves academically, without having a trusting support network there,” said Lindsay Maglio, principal of Lindbergh Elementary School, where some teachers improved on traditional get-to-know-you exercises in the first few weeks of school by adding more searching questions, and where all school staff are engaged in community-building lessons in small-group sessions with students taking place at set periods throughout the year.

While noting that getting to know their students is already “something we do feel strongly about,” fourth-grade teacher Beth Callies, now in her 11th year at Lindbergh, said she saw value in a districtwide strategy emphasizing it. “It’s a good push to remind us,” Callies said.

‘Just going deeper’

Lindbergh, a K-5 school at 4500 Kennedy Road on Madison’s North Side, is one of the district’s most diverse schools and also one of its smallest. Its 176 students include 69 percent who are eligible for free and reduced lunch, 30 percent who are English language learners and 14 percent who have documented special needs.

By race, Lindbergh Elementary students are 25 percent Latino or Hispanic, 12 percent Asian, 18 percent African-American, 13 percent mixed-race and 32 percent white — well under the district average of 43 percent white.

And yet its teachers are almost exclusively white.

“So there’s reasons that there might be apprehension at first,” Maglio said. “It is our students of color that sometimes struggle the most with (trust). It’s sometimes our low-income students who are dealing with different traumas at home. There might be some past experiences that contribute to kids or families not trusting us right off the bat, that have nothing to do with us, that we need to figure out how to get past to develop strong relationships, even though those (differences) might exist.”

“We’re just going deeper with it,” said Lindberg third-grade teacher Lisa Duernberger, who added a line to the interest surveys she has her new students fill out each fall in a nod to the district’s increased emphasis on trust and relationship-building.

Beyond asking her students to describe themselves through traditional questions such as choosing what animal or what TV show they would like to be, and where they would like to take a vacation and why, Duernberger also invited them to free-associate this year by responding to the line: “I wish my teacher knew this about me.”

Common ground

The students’ answers, which they also read to each other in a follow-up exercise, were as varied as their life stories. Students said they liked to go camping, had two brothers, worked hard, could read-upside down, and had two dogs at home before mom gave one away.

The shared details may be small but create untold opportunities for finding common ground or building bonds with and between students, Duernberger said.

“I’m learning things about that child that’s going to help me build a better relationship with her (or him),” she said. “This is community building.”

Districtwide, increased teacher training and the creation of classroom engagement plans are ways the district is extending the focus on relationship-building beyond the first few weeks of the school year.

Teachers have been encouraged to mine a book by educator Zaretta Hammond known as “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain” for new techniques and deeper understanding of the issue. At Lindbergh, Maglio built time into the school day for all staff to meet once a week for 40 minutes with students in small groups “to build community and work on trust,” with possible lessons on topics such as resolving conflicts or bullying.

“It’s really based off the issues that kids are having, so there’s not a set structure (for the weekly sessions),” Maglio said. “We just need to think about being more purposeful in how we plan for all our students. It might be working for 80 percent of students, but we need to think more about the ones we may be struggling to reach.”

Students of color “sometimes struggle the most with (trust). It’s sometimes our low-income students who are dealing with different traumas at home. There might be some past experiences that contribute to kids or families not trusting us right off the bat …” Lindsay Maglio, Lindbergh Elementary School principal
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Karen Rivedal is the education beat reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.