Independent schools often talk about fostering a culture of inclusivity within their student community and providing a welcoming environment. Within that framework, however, may lie the assumption that there are those on the inside “welcoming” those on the outside into the space, as invited guests. There is a subtle but significant difference between a student who feels invited into a community as a guest, and one who feels an inherent sense of belonging and shared ownership within their school environment.
Education leader and diversity practitioner Rodney Glasgow remarked on this distinction between inclusion and belonging in his first welcome address to students and families as Head of School at Sandy Spring Friends School (SSFS) in the fall of 2020. Rodney shared: “When you feel welcome, you feel like you could come in, and you'll be OK, and you could, to a degree, make yourself ‘at home.’ But when you belong, you already are at home. You know where the milk is kept in the refrigerator. You know where your favorite slippers are... You might have a key, even if it isn't your own home. This is a place that creates belonging.
Within that space of belonging, students are able to gain a better understanding of themselves and those around them, build self-confidence that fuels both academic success and emotional well-being, and become effective citizens of the world.
While students may find that sense of belonging in different ways, below are four important characteristics to look for (along with questions to ask) if you are seeking a school that effectively cultivates a sense of belonging for students and families.
Students are provided tools for self-advocacy and authentic opportunities for creating change.
Within school settings, there is a broad spectrum of expectation around how students participate in shaping the policies and culture of their environment. Students who feel that their input is actively solicited and authentically heard are more likely to feel a genuine sense of belonging and ownership. Look for a school that teaches and encourages students to speak up if they have questions or concerns, is a safe place for students to approach adults about problems, and provides plenty of opportunities for student involvement and input. The responses may differ depending on the age level of the students, but consider asking these questions of your school:
- How are most policy and/or disciplinary decisions made?
- Are student voices and feedback solicited from administrators when considering policies or procedures that may affect their daily lives?
- What is the role of student government? If there isn’t a formal student government, are there other school activities or clubs to help promote, teach, and provide opportunities for student leadership?
- Are student representatives included in faculty/staff and board meetings?
- Beyond student government organizations or clubs, are all students encouraged to think critically, to question policies and procedures, and to advocate for actionable change in productive ways as part of their day-to-day experience? How are these skills taught, both inside and outside the classroom?
Teachers lead and learn alongside students.
Teachers who recognize the partnership in learning also empower students to take an active role in their education. While it’s important for faculty to have a deep understanding and mastery of their subject area, the best teachers are often those who also actively engage with their students in questioning concepts and looking for new ways to approach or challenge a topic, instead of simply lecturing from the front of the room. Ask the school:
- What is the school’s philosophy of learning?
- What are some of the typical learning tasks in which students engage, and how is progress assessed?
- What kinds of professional development opportunities are provided so that teachers are able to provide for differentiated needs of students in class assessments?
- How do students and teachers typically interact with one another?
- Do students have input into the curriculum offered? If so, how is student feedback collected and used as the school decides what courses to offer and teachers decide what material to include as part of their course syllabi?
School programs and curricula are thoughtfully developed to help expand students’ understanding of the world–and themselves.
As knowledge, understanding, and course material continually evolve within higher education and in the world at large, secondary schools should regularly audit their curricula to ensure that students are prepared to meet the demands of our global society. Similarly, schools should review course selections and materials to determine whether the curriculum offered is culturally responsive and representative of various cultures and perspectives. Some questions to ask a school might include:
- Who determines the course curricula and content within each department?
- Does the curriculum reflect a flexible framework that allows for differentiation?
- Does the school conduct third-party audits or outside review of curricula and materials to determine if courses offer culturally-responsive content?
- Are students and parents/guardians surveyed in order to solicit feedback on course offerings and course material?
- What professional development is offered for faculty/staff to ensure that their course content remains relevant and culturally-responsive?
Students see themselves reflected in their community.
During the summer of 2020, many Black students took to social media as part of the “Black at” movement to share their experiences at predominantly White schools. The incidents reported as part of the “Black at” and other BIPOC social media movements illustrated many examples of both daily microaggressions and highly traumatic events experienced by Black and BIPOC students; the severely negative effects of feeling marginalized and alone within a school community were clear. Energy that might have been put towards academic achievement was often, by necessity, directed instead towards emotional self-preservation and/or having to “prove” oneself to get basic recognition. By contrast, students who feel that they have a supportive community around them, and who see their own cultural and social identities reflected as part of their peer group and within faculty, staff, and administration are likely to feel more validated and less vulnerable to social/emotional issues. Students are not only provided more opportunity for positive social and emotional interactions, but they are also able to direct skills and talents towards their academic self-fulfillment and positive achievements. Ask your school:
- What practices does the school employ to effectively recruit, retain, and support a racially, economically, neurologically, and socially diverse community of students and faculty/staff?
- Does the makeup of those in leadership positions in the school community reflect the student population?
- Are trained staff available to support students who encounter instances of bias or hostility within the school? How are these incidents handled?
- What professional development opportunities are provided for faculty and staff to ensure that students do not experience instances of microaggression or bias in the classroom?
- Does your school offer affinity group meeting opportunities for students, faculty-staff, and parents/guardians?
Belonging at Sandy Spring Friends School
Students who feel a genuine connection to those around them, and who feel that they bring valued contributions to their learning environment, are often better able to bring their whole selves to the classroom. Emotional and psychological energy that might otherwise be spent feeling self-conscious about a perceived difference from peers or frustrated about not feeling seen and heard can instead be put towards heightened academic success, growth of emotional and social well-being, and increased efforts to create positive change in the world around them.
As Rodney Glasgow shared in his opening remarks to Sandy Spring Friends School families at the beginning of the school year, “This is a place that creates belonging.” That special sense of belonging at SSFS stems from intentional work on the part of students, faculty, staff, administration, and our families. It requires asking ourselves the questions above each year; continually soliciting feedback from students, faculty-staff, alumni, and families; teaching and practicing methods of self-advocacy; and, above all, maintaining a culture of trust and respect, so that when we are not hitting the mark, members of our community feel empowered to discuss the issues in an open and authentic way, knowing that their voices will be heard and they can be part of the solution.