The Tampa Bay Times recently interviewed Jeff Eakins, superintendent of Hillsborough Schools, about his efforts to improve graduation rates. Eakins had some insightful things to say about his role and what works when you’re trying to help students make it to the finish line.

First, Eakins credits the gains in graduation rates that his district has already made with getting to know kids and understanding the barriers that they each face. Educators in his district focus on forming relationships with individual kids, mentoring them and finding out what support they needed to make it to graduation.

Second, Eakins emphasizes that his job is “to support people who ultimately will support people who will help kids be successful.” Eakins wants his teachers to feel they have both the tools and the flexibility they need to help kids be successful.

Finally, while the Hillsborough Schools have been focusing on closing the achievement gap they have actually seen graduation rates increase for all student demographics, including white students.

Making improvements for the students you aren’t even targeting might sound strange, but we have seen the same thing in our work. By focusing on the students that are struggling the most in the system, we have been able to show that even students that we were not focusing on see academic improvements. Clearly, if we can create a system that supports the most vulnerable students then we have created a system that can support all students.

We also understand the importance of building those relationships between educators and between educators and learners. People are at the heart of education, and we are glad to see that the Hillsborough Schools are making those relationships a priority.