Students, of course, already know this. Just a few miles away in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, a group of high schoolers from around the city gathers in a conference room. It’s the first day of Spring break, but they’re not here to celebrate.

“Growing up and having some bad times in school, I want my younger brothers and sisters to have a better education and better schools than I had,” says Chris, a senior. [For confidentiality, NEXTpittsburgh is only using the students’ first names.] “I heard this saying from somebody: ‘Always leave something better than how you found it.’ I love that, and that’s what we’re here to do.”

Chris and his colleagues are members of TeenBloc, a coalition of high schoolers working to amplify student voices and create positive change in schools. Together, they’re developing a series of “teach-ins” — workshops for pre-service teachers at Duquesne, the University of Pittsburgh and elsewhere. The idea, says TeenBloc coordinator Brandon McClendon, is to help new teachers build stronger relationships with students, thus stopping the school-to-prison pipeline before it starts.

Brandon McClendon, coordinator of the TeenBloc program at A+ Schools, works with local high school students to design and facilitate “teach-ins” for pre-service teachers. Photo by Ryan Rydzewski.

“A lot of times, the voices and experiences that black and brown students bring to the classroom aren’t fully valued or taken into consideration,” says McClendon. He and the TeenBloc students aim to change this by looking at the small, positive steps educators can take toward working with kids from a holistic perspective — one that considers students’ needs, aspirations and circumstances.

“Ultimately, we want to build trust and mutual respect,” he says, “because student-teacher relationships play the most vital role in the education experience.”

The TeenBloc students are surprisingly candid about craving those relationships. “If you have a good relationship with the students you have, and you notice they’re off or they’re acting a certain way, you can come to them nicely as a teacher and ask if they’re all right,” says one student, Jhaunea. “That student might open up to you.”

Another student, Jalen, says kids and adults need to work toward understanding one another. “My education, and the way I potentially live my life, is based on my experiences at school,” she says. “I want to show teachers that just because I’m different doesn’t mean I’m a bad student or a bad person.”

Her friend Michelle nods. “Schools have to take into consideration what goes on at home, too,” she says. “They send us straight to punishment without knowing what a child is going through just to get to school. They don’t know if a child is getting abused or not. They don’t know what happens. A lot of kids are really struggling.”

How can we give children the support they need?

Angel Gober, an organizer with One Pennsylvania, sees children struggling every day.

“People don’t understand what’s happening in a lot of families in this economy,” she says. “If a student’s basic quality-of-life stuff isn’t there, then you can kiss your test scores goodbye. You can kiss your reading levels goodbye. You’ll see more suspensions, more expulsions and more kids ending up in the justice system.”

It’s a reality that school districts are increasingly recognizing. Last year, Pittsburgh Public Schools launched a “community schools” pilot within the district, designating five schools to receive a host of “robust, wraparound services,” says LouAnn Ross, the district’s community schools coordinator. A designated employee at each site works with teachers, parents, social workers and nonprofits to provide academic enrichment opportunities, afterschool programs and behavioral supports.

The result, says Ross, is a slew of new support programs based on the needs of each school. At Langley K-8, for example, students can access a community closet stocked with donated clothes. The school has offered on-site immunizations so that students don’t miss class (and parents don’t miss work) for doctor’s appointments.

Elsewhere, the district has deployed extra nurses, librarians and others in an effort to meet students’ extracurricular needs. The district hopes to expand the model in the coming years, aiming to eventually provide services for students’ families and communities at large.

“We know that by meeting these needs, we can help our students succeed academically,” says Ross. “There’s mounting evidence that schools that implement this model put everyone in a better position to learn and teach.”

The district is also experimenting with “restorative practices” — strategies that address discipline through the building and repairing of relationships, rather than suspensions or expulsions — in more than 30 schools. Though a full evaluation of the program isn’t due until later this spring, Dr. Dara Ware Allen, the district’s assistant superintendent of student support services, tells the New Pittsburgh Courier that the district has already seen a drop in suspensions and “a narrowing of racial disproportionality.”

All of this is welcome news to Nina Esposito-Visgitis, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers. Stopping the pipeline “really comes down to needing supports in our schools,” she says. “No teacher wants any kid suspended. I cannot stress that enough. But when you have 30 kids in a classroom, you can’t always stop. So we need resources and people —paraprofessionals, counselors and mental health professionals — to make sure everyone is learning. Is there a cool down room? Is there a principal that helps out? Is there a counselor? We need those options.”