When you think back to your elementary or secondary school experiences, what do you remember the most? Did you excel in certain classes? Was there a year that stood out as a highlight? Did you have a positive connection with a specific teacher or coach? Because of this person, did you look forward to going to school?

One trend that becomes evident in the array of answers to these questions is that students (and adults) have an increased probability of succeeding when they feel safe, cared for, and connected. According to a study* done by the CDC on school connectedness, “Students are more likely to engage in healthy behaviors and succeed academically when they feel connected to school.”

Improving Campus Culture by Growing Connectedness

Let’s take a closer look at Michigan’s very own Mark VanderKlok, principal of Dix Street Elementary School (Otsego Public Schools), who, along with his team and the support of Capturing Kids’ Hearts® (CKH), has created a culture that prioritizes campus connectedness and the social-emotional needs of students and staff, in addition to academics.

“I told my staff we no longer just teach the four main subjects of English language arts, math, science, and social studies — we now teach a fifth subject, and that is social and emotional wellbeing,” VanderKlok said. “Just like we don’t expect our students to come in with the standards for that grade level mastered, we also shouldn’t expect our students to have a social and emotional understanding mastered until we teach and model it.”

This approach to leading students is a direct result of a district-level vision for school transformation. Otsego Public Schools has been committed to teaching and modeling CKH Processes for over a decade.

“Our staff and students are all in,” VanderKlok said. “Every part of our district, including our board of education members, uses and implements CKH Processes. Our board members share Good Things before every meeting, and they have their own Social Contract. Our superintendent, Mr. Jeff Haase, is a major champion of CKH, and every single employee in the district has participated in a Capturing Kids’ Hearts training.”

This systemic approach has positively impacted VanderKlok and his team at Dix Street Elementary.

“Our staff is a family. Together we laugh, cry, counsel each other, and hold each other accountable to our culture of care,” VanderKlok said. “We share the ups and downs of working with children, and we place an emphasis on taking care of each other. Each season, we organize affirmation processes and activities as a reminder to continue to build each other up and support each other in the great work we do every day with kids.”

Campus Connectedness Increases Student Engagement, Enrollment, & Performance

The campus and district-level commitment are reflected in performance data. Here’s a snapshot of a 2022 student survey of fourth and fifth graders at Dix Street Elementary:

  • 93% of students indicated that teachers make their classes fun and interesting.
  • 94% of students indicated that teachers call on them regularly in class.
  • 96% of students say they try their best in school.
  • 94% of students said they like to learn new things.
  • 90% of students said that adults at the school help them set goals.
  • 93% of students said that when they have an idea, adults at school listen to them.

“All of our staff believes that our students won’t learn until they know we care,” VanderKloksaid.

Otsego Public Schools consistently score above the state average on the M-STEP and has seen recent improvement in overall ELA and math scores that outpace statewide trends.

Because of the emphasis placed on student connectedness and growing relational capacity, students want to be at Dix Street Elementary School.

“Michigan is a school of choice state, which means students may attend any school they choose,” VanderKlok said. “We have continued to experience a high percentage of students who choose Otsego Public Schools over their home district. Twenty-six percent of our student body at Dix Street Elementary is currently made up of school-of-choice students, which aligns with the overall district average.”

Alongside this enrollment success, the school averages only one office referral a day, which is well below the national average.

Setting the Tone for Student Engagement

Research suggests multiple strategies for increasing students’ feelings of connectedness to school. Some of these include:

  • Fostering caring and trusting relationships — including open communication — between students, staff, leadership, families, and communities.
  • Providing teachers and leaders with professional development experiences that enable them to serve students’ diverse needs beyond academics.
  • Equipping teachers with classroom management tools that promote a positive learning environment.
  • Empowering students with the tools they need to be actively engaged in school and connect with peers and teachers.

Growing and maintaining campus connectedness takes time and intentionality but the positive impact on students and staff, as seen at Dix Street Elementary School, is well worth the effort.


About Capturing Kids’ Hearts:

Through experiential training, expert coaching, a character-based curriculum for students, and personalized support, Capturing Kids’ Hearts® equips professionals in K-12 education to implement transformational processes focused on social-emotional wellbeing, relationship-driven campus culture, and student connectedness.

For district and campus leaders, there may be an upcoming opportunity near you to preview a Capturing Kids’ Hearts event. Click here to learn more.

Author: Dr. Nugget Cunningham


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. School Connectedness: Strategies for Increasing Protective Factors Among Youth. Atlanta, GA: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2009.