We Prioritized Relationships First

“If I learned one lesson at Saul from the past 18 months, it is that to do anything effectively, we had to prioritize our relationships and communications with the community above everything else.”

Alexa Dunn, principal of Walter B. Saul High School of Agricultural Sciences (Saul), leads a career and technical education school that emphasizes the value of hands-on learning.  She had to rethink the way her faculty and staff delivered content. Knowing that virtual learning could quickly jeopardize student engagement and outcomes, Dunn deployed a comprehensive communications plan that put Saul at the center of students’ and families’ lives.

Saul increased attendance by 27% from the previous year and earned near 90% daily attendance in 2020-21 through one-on-one conversations, more frequent small group advisory meetings, and daily communication and phone calls home, especially when students did not log-on to start the day.

More importantly, Dunn shared that having a relationships first approach led her team to identify challenges that often lead students to miss school or not log in.

“These phone calls helped us to mitigate many issues that would have caused students to become detached from their school lives: food insecurity, technology issues, mental health challenges, loss of jobs in families, and more. For example, when we saw a spike in food insecurity, we worked with our partner Food Moxie to make deliveries to students’ homes. We personally delivered hotspots to students. Our smaller size helped, but I genuinely believe that the strong relationships we cultivated helped our students feel engaged and connected with teachers, content, and curriculum.”

As Dunn looks ahead to welcoming students back to Saul and its active farm in September, she believes that leaning into the lessons of the Neubauer Fellowship during the pandemic, especially in terms of community building, helped set Saul on a course for continued success.

“The past year presented a unique opportunity to reframe what our school traditionally thinks of as teaching and learning. We had to evaluate the social-emotional component of our work and realize that relationships are the most important piece of education. You can have emotional conversations and close relationships in-person and through Zoom. Success is rooted in people’s ability to connect.”