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Striving for Relationship-Centered Schools: Insights From a Community-Based Transformation Campaign

By Laura E. Hernández Eddie Rivero
Students and teacher talking together in a hallway with lockers

In recent years, there has been a growing understanding that consistent developmental relationships support student learning and well-being. Research shows that youth who have positive connections with adults at their schools demonstrate higher levels of motivation, self-esteem, and prosocial behavior than their peers in less relationship-centered contexts. Relationship-centered schools also enable a range of positive student academic outcomes, including increased attendance, graduation rates, achievement on English language arts and math assessments, and college-going rates.

Relationship-centered schools provide an alternative to the archaic and de-personalized structures that have come to characterize U.S. secondary schools. This report focuses on one relationship-centered high school transformation effort—the Relationship Centered Schools (RCS) campaign, a youth-led effort supported by the community-based organization Californians for Justice (CFJ).

Californians for Justice and the Relationship Centered Schools Campaign

CFJ is a community-based statewide organization with a mission to unlock the power of student voice and agency. It aims to give young people the skills to become community leaders who organize their peers to take action while deepening their understanding on issues of systemic racism, education inequity, and other forms of discrimination.

The Relationship Centered Schools (RCS) campaign, launched in 2015, is a youth-led effort—supported by CFJ and conducted in collaboration with practitioners and district leaders—that works toward transformative and equity-oriented change in high schools in some of California’s most disenfranchised communities. The campaign centers on three principles to guide action and school improvement: (1) create space for relationship-building, (2) value student voice, and (3) invest in staff.

Long Beach Unified School District

The Long Beach Unified School District (Long Beach Unified) serves more than 67,500 students across its 85 schools. Through the RCS campaign, Long Beach Unified focused on three core areas of practice to cultivate stronger relationships:

  1. Adopting empathy-building practices. These practices include empathy interviews (conversations that help participants develop empathy through open-ended questions and active listening) and shadowing (when a district leader follows a student for a school day to get a better sense of their experiences).
  2. Creating learning opportunities that convene adults and youth. Long Beach Unified developed and implemented learning opportunities such as student-led, equity-oriented Learning Days; implicit bias training; and an Equity Institute that comprised 5 days of professional learning for staff.
  3. Increasing student voice in decision-making and strategic-planning forums. Design teams (groups of staff, family members, and students who identify equity challenges and potential solutions) and student advisory committees (students from various pathways who advise their principal on school climate topics) enabled a wide range of students to share their perspectives and take an active role in school improvements.

Fresno’s McLane High School

McLane High School (McLane), which serves more than 2,000 students, is one of Fresno Unified School District’s 106 schools. In collaboration with RCS, McLane embarked on the following three transformation efforts:

  1. Transforming homerooms into relationship-centered forums. Biweekly homeroom periods aimed to form small communities for McLane’s large student population and enable consistent, multiyear connections. Through its RCS partnership, McLane fine-tuned its homeroom practices by training select students to lead homeroom community-building efforts and providing related professional development to educators.
  2. Putting student voice at the center. This effort elevated student voice in professional learning spaces and cultivated more diverse student representation in decision-making forums—for example, by asking a variety of school clubs to recommend students to serve on the Principal Advisory Council.
  3. Embedding relationship-centered changes in school culture. Through their work with RCS, McLane educators became well versed in relying on relationships as the initial and primary pathways for identifying and addressing emerging challenges. Staff learned to apply relationship-centered principles to their interactions with fellow educators as well as with students.


The examples of Long Beach Unified and McLane High School offer insights into key activities, processes, and structures that support relationship-centered schooling in their settings:

  • Establish structures for relationship-building. Structures for relationship-building among youth and school adults created consistent opportunities for students to be known, seen, and connected to a caring adult. In Long Beach Unified, these structures included the creation of shared learning opportunities and attention to empathy-building practices, while efforts to improve the relationship-centered character of the school’s homeroom structure and increased opportunities for student voice characterized RCS work at McLane.
  • Build trusting relationships among those driving change. RCS implementation was built and sustained through opportunities for consistent engagement and partnership among the youth, educators, district and school leaders, and CFJ organizers who were leading RCS efforts. Interviewees describe how these opportunities cultivated meaningful dialogue, shared investment, and a deeper understanding of the work.
  • Create opportunities for professional development. Shared learning experiences (e.g., Learning Days, dedicated professional learning communities, student participation in professional development sessions) allowed leaders, educators, and youth to learn with and from each other and to build common knowledge about relationship-centered change. As such, they were identified as important in furthering relationship-centered schooling.
  • Foster empathy-building and deep listening practices. By developing their capacity to engage in activities that develop empathy, including empathy interviews and other opportunities that surface insights into students’ schooling experiences, youth and adults built connections that spanned age, identity, and traditional lines of authority—which served as an important foundation into the equity-oriented work of transforming schools to be relationship-centered.
  • Elevate and value youth voice. Youth shared their experiences and lent their insights and perspectives to change efforts through RCS structures and forums instituted at McLane and in Long Beach Unified, including those that enabled increased and diverse youth representation in decision-making forums and professional learning settings. Their perspectives helped to surface ongoing challenges and, at times, to identify potential remedies that could support equitable, relationship-centered practices.
  • Find coherence between relationship-centered schooling and preexisting priorities and initiatives. When RCS work aligned with or reinforced efforts already underway, like initiatives promoting the use of restorative practices, it was more readily embraced because it was more easily understood as enhancing other initiatives. Moreover, congruence between RCS and other initiatives allowed practitioners and youth leaders to leverage emerging structures, routines, and commitments to grow RCS practice among site and district actors.
  • Cultivate the support of administrator and educator champions. In its early phases, the RCS campaign often engaged a subset of educators and administrators who helped RCS gain visibility and traction. Stability among leaders and educators was reported to help deepen and sustain the work, as stability provided continuity to change efforts and helped to onboard educators and administrators when there was turnover.
  • Allocate fiscal resources to support relationship-centered approaches. Investments related to relationship-building structures and capacity-building (e.g., stipends for participation or leadership in professional development opportunities related to RCS) allowed youth and practitioners to collectively learn about supporting student learning and well-being, communicated the district’s commitment to the transformation effort, and acknowledged the time that practitioners and youth leaders expended in this critical work.

Striving for Relationship- Centered Schools Insights From a Community-Based Transformation Campaign by Laura E. Hernández and Eddie Rivero is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

This research was supported by the Californians for Justice Education Fund. Core operating support for LPI is provided by the Heising-Simons Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Raikes Foundation, Sandler Foundation, and MacKenzie Scott. We are grateful to them for their generous support. The ideas voiced here are those of the authors and not those of our funders.