Relational Education: Catalyst for Change


By Arina Bokas and Rod Rock

Bokas and Rock Climate for Change 300x300Relationships. In this one word, Billie Pambid, the former principal of Renaissance High School (RHS), an alternative educational facility within Clarkston Community Schools (CCS) in Michigan, defines the growing success of her school. Located in a spacious, renovated, historical building featuring high ceilings, beautiful staircases, and large windows overlooking safe neighborhoods and traditional junior high and elementary schools, RHS is a haven to many teens. In the last few years, the school has doubled the number of graduating students. Through personal connections and meaningful educational experiences, RHS inspires perhaps the most profound change of all—a change in mindset.


Most students at RHS have very little interest in academic pursuits and test-based achievement. Some have failed academically so many times that they have given up on school altogether. Their main battle lies within themselves and is caused by adversity, insufficient support, or perhaps a lack of trust in their own sense of agency and faith in others to help them.

Students come to RHS for various reasons. Many of them report not having connections at their previous schools. Some students face socioeconomic and legal challenges, overwhelming odds in their previous schools and communities, or hostile peer pressures. Regardless of their circumstances, they have an emotional separation from others due to failed or negative relationships. They feel isolated and report more internal resources than external. This is the mindset with which many come to school.

The Red Thread

The “red thread” is the metaphor used by a variety of cultures for uniting and building connections. It is suggested that once a person enters our lives and makes an impact, the connection lasts a lifetime (Ritchhart, 2002). In the last five years, CCS has shifted toward a greater emphasis on emotional engagement that is based on an individual’s interests and supported by a caring community. The red thread has thus become a symbol for what the school system views as a cornerstone of its culture—that learning is a consequence of an emotional engagement and that the connections made with students will last a lifetime.

This approach is well supported by recent research: relationships in school play a decisive role in nurturing academic achievement (Fredricks, Blumenfeld, & Paris, 2004; National Research Council, 2004, Furrer & Skinner, 2003). “The strong point of RHS has always been the relationships we form with students; they know we care about them and their education,” stated Billie Pambid.


For the students at RHS, motivation often starts externally as the established policies for student success prove over and over that their education is important. For example, many students have transportation issues, and tardiness is ongoing. To offset the effect of this on learning, the school rotates its first hour (period) throughout the week so that students are not late for the same class over and over again, which can lead to a lot of missed learning in one area.

As students start forming relationships within RHS, emotional connections become their main motivators. They do a lot for staff members because of their desire not to disappoint them. To cultivate trust, staff members deal with each student individually, avoiding stereotypical assumptions and giving them the benefit of the doubt.

When a 16-year-old student left his assignment at home, he could easily anticipate a failing grade. After a few unsuccessful phone calls to his house, he pleaded with the principal to believe him. Not knowing what to expect, she took him to his home. The boy hurriedly ran into the house and came out with the completed homework. There were cars parked in the driveway; the family was there, but nobody was there for him.

Serving the community provides a great sense of accomplishment and personal value that many students otherwise lack. The school forms partnerships with businesses and organizations to encourage community relationships. Lowe’s Toolbox for Education, for instance, provided funding, materials, training, and field trips for students to build park benches that were donated to several community groups. Gradually, motivation becomes internal as students realize their self-worth and ability to make a difference.


Behavior is always a concern at RHS. There are a few unbendable rules, but there is also some flexibility. The most important rule is that the learning environment must be maintained for all students. While individual behavior cannot interfere with someone else’s learning, people who work here understand that it is typically not discipline that kids need but rather someone to hold them and to listen to them until they are able to return to class. It is a common occurrence for a student who feels emotionally unfit to be in class to ask to stay in the principal’s office. For many hours each day, the office is filled with students working in self-selected isolation.

Drugs are also a reality in the school, just like any other. However, at RHS, students are more likely to ask for help and work hard to overcome their addictions. The staff is always honest with students and not always punitive. The school will notify the parents and get students help, but expulsion is a last resort. Candid one-on-one conversations about their addictions, initiated by the principal, accomplish much more than any punishment. They also build strong relationships, which many students maintain for the rest of their lives.


The integrity of the program at RHS is based on teaching the same content and having the same final assessments as the district’s traditional high school. While this provides the curriculum’s foundation, relationships formed with kids allow teachers to determine additional resources or alterations necessary to make learning personally relevant.

Decisions regarding class and semester duration are examples of such alterations. Depending on the content of various units and the amount of difficulty students are having with them, teachers collaborate to either shorten or increase the duration of their individual classes. Staff also collaborates to facilitate interdisciplinary teaching—that is, making a conscious effort to apply knowledge or values to more than one academic discipline. Credit recovery, online classes, courses at the county’s technical campus—which provide practical career education to students—are options available to all students.

The school’s final examinations follow the same guidelines as in the traditional high school, but the exam is often administered as a sequence of shorter exams throughout a semester. Students take exams early in units of study (there are usually several units that are covered in one semester), making them learning tools to revisit content that was missed. Additionally, students are graded on final projects or presentations that also reinforce essential content.

Final Word

Universally, all children require and deserve the best possible education, regardless of their abilities, social statuses, or zip codes. Connecting emotionally to others leads to a sense of belonging, support, tangible assistance, and mentoring guidance (Sarason, Sarason, & Pierce, 1990). RHS’s staff does not allow low expectations to define students. Everyone who works here believes in relationships, human connections, and education as a catalyst for enduring change.


Fredricks, J. A., Blumenfeld, P. C., & Paris, A. H. (2004). School engagement: Potential of the concept, state of the evidence. Review of Educational Research, 74, 54–109.

Furrer, C., & Skinner, E. (2003). Sense of relatedness as a factor in children’s academic engagement and performance. Journal of Educational Psychology, 95(1), 148–162.

National Research Council. (2004). Engaging schools: Fostering high school students’ motivation to learn. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.

Ritchhart, R. (2002). Intellectual character: What it is, why it matters, and how to get it. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Sarason, I. G., Sarason, B. R., & Pierce, G. R. (1990). Social support: The search for theory. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 9, 133–147.


Arina Bokas is the Clarkston PTA Council president in Clarkston, Mich., and the host of the Future of Learning television series on Independence TV. She is the editor of Kids’ Standard Magazine and a faculty member at Charles S. Mott Community College in Flint, Mich.

Rod Rock is the superintendent of Clarkston Community Schools and serves on the faculty at the summer Future of Learning institute at Harvard University.

Connect with Bokas and Rock on their website.



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