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Introducing the Data-Informed Leadership for Equity Partnership: Using data to improve student sense of belonging

Midwest | May 05, 2022

A group of 5 school-children

Students’ sense of belonging is an important factor for overall success in school. Students with a stronger sense of belonging are less likely to be absent, less likely to engage in disruptive or risky behavior, and more likely to perform better academically relative to students with a weaker sense of belonging.1

One way to support students’ sense of belonging is through the use of culturally responsive practices.2 Such practices serve to help all students see themselves as important contributors to the classroom community. Thus, the use of culturally responsive practices is an important strategy for school leaders and teachers working to achieve more equitable outcomes across racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse students.3

The DILE approach

Through the Data-Informed Leadership for Equity (DILE) partnership, REL Midwest will partner with multiple school districts in Iowa to build school leaders’ capacity in using data to reduce disparities among student groups in their sense of belonging, disciplinary actions, and absenteeism. During the first phase of the partnership, which is focused on developing and refining the DILE approach, REL Midwest will partner with Iowa City Community School District. This district enrolls nearly 14,500 students, 45 percent of whom are students of color.

The DILE approach will incorporate professional learning in culturally responsive practices as well as training and tools specifically designed to support the use of data to address racial disparities in student experiences and outcomes. The approach will target middle school, when students’ sense of belonging often begins to decrease and absenteeism and disciplinary referrals tend to increase.4

The DILE approach will consist of the following components:

1. Training for school leaders and staff in culturally responsive practices.

2. Data monitoring system to facilitate the monitoring of students’ sense of belonging, disciplinary referrals, and absenteeism, along with protocols to guide school leaders and staff in responding to issues flagged by the system.

3. Training and coaching to support the implementation of culturally responsive practices and action-based monitoring.

Developing staff capacity to leverage culturally responsive practices

The Iowa City Community School District is an ideal partner for this work, as leaders are prioritizing efforts related to equity and data use throughout the district. For example, the district recently developed a comprehensive diversity, equity, and inclusion plan, and district leaders are working to tie the plan to data to monitor their progress. The district also recently embarked on a project to develop a dashboard that connects directly to its student information system and other data systems to improve school leaders’ access to data. The work proposed through the DILE partnership aligns with and complements both of these districtwide efforts by building school leaders’ capacity to use data to achieve equitable outcomes for Iowa City’s students.

"Equity is at the core of the decisions that we make as a district," said Adam Kurth, director of technology and innovation at the Iowa City Community School District. "This partnership with REL Midwest will allow us to address the challenge of monitoring complex—but critical—indicators of equitable student experiences and outcomes, but also to develop the capacity within our staff to leverage culturally responsive practices as they take action to mitigate disparities that are identified."

Looking ahead

The DILE partnership’s work will unfold in a series of phases over the next 5 years. Initially, the work will focus on developing and piloting the DILE approach in partnership with Iowa City Community School District. Over time, the partnership will expand to include additional Iowa districts to further pilot and refine the DILE approach as well as test whether it reduces racial disparities in students’ sense of belonging, absenteeism, and disciplinary referrals.


1 Bui, Y. N., & Fagan, Y. M. (2013). The effects of an integrated reading comprehension strategy: A culturally responsive teaching approach for fifth-grade students’ reading comprehension. Preventing School Failure, 57(2), 59–69.; Elias, M. J., & Haynes, N. M. (2008). Social competence, social support, and academic achievement in minority, low-income, urban elementary school children. School Psychology Quarterly, 23(4), 474–495.; Hubert, T. L. (2014). Learners of mathematics: High school students’ perspectives of culturally relevant mathematics pedagogy. Journal of African American Studies, 18(1), 324–336; Napoli, M., Marsiglia, F. F., & Kulis, S. (2003). Sense of belonging in school as a protective factor against drug abuse among Native American urban adolescents. Journal of Social Work Practice in the Addictions, 3(2), 25–41.; Sánchez, B., Colón, Y., & Esparza, P. (2005). The role of sense of school belonging and gender in the academic adjustment of Latino adolescents. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 34(6), 619–628.

2 Museus, S. D., Yi, V., & Saelua, N. (2017). The impact of culturally engaging campus environments on sense of belonging. Review of Higher Education, 40(2), 187–215.

3 Allen, K., Kern, M. L., Vella-Brodrick, D., Hattie, J., & Waters, L. (2018). What schools need to know about fostering school belonging: a meta-analysis. Educational Psychology Review, 30, 1–34; Krasnoff, B. (2016). Culturally responsive teaching: A guide to evidence-based practices for teaching all students equitably. Region X Equity Assistance Center at Education Northwest.

4 Benner, A. D., & Wang, Y. (2014). Shifting attendance trajectories from middle to high school: Influences of school transitions and changing school contexts. Developmental Psychology, 50(4), 1288–301; Borman, G. D., Rozek, C. S., Pyne, J., & Hanselman, P. (2019). Reappraising academic and social adversity improves middle school students’ academic achievement, behavior, and well-being. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 116(33), 16286–16291; Calderon, V. J., & Yu, D. (2017). Student enthusiasm falls as high school graduations nears. Gallup.; Yeager, D. S., Dahl, R. E., & Dweck, C. S. (2018). Why interventions to influence adolescent behavior often fail but could succeed. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 13(1), 101–122.


Mia Malone

Mia Malone

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