BACK TO SCHOOL: CREATING A COMMUNITY OF “BELONGING”
Lakewood schools kicked off this year celebrating the reunion of our school communities by being “Better Together.” On campus learning is underway for more than 2,500 PreK–12 students. Virtual learning options through the district’s Online Academy Edgenuity continue for about 100+ students and their families preferring that instruction model.
No matter which option was chosen, during the first days of school we focused on building a powerful sense of community and belonging. We took the opportunity to establish an atmosphere in our classrooms and lunchrooms, on our buses and through activities and athletics to ensure that each student and staff member is seen and valued by the other people sharing those spaces with them. We know that each student, staff member and family bring a distinct set of cultural and social experiences to school every day. These gifts make them who they are and provide the basis for meaningful social and learning relationships.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, children’s emotional and behavioral health challenges were of growing concern even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Addressing these challenges was part of each school district’s Student Academic and Well-being Recovery Plan. State officials required this plan before schools could return to in-person learning. Stanford University assistant professor Gregory Walton suggests humans “interests, motivation, health and happiness” are connected to the “feeling that we belong to a greater community that may share common interests and aspirations”. Research also suggests that feeling excluded negatively impacts academic and social success.
As schools and programs started, we saw and felt the joy of friendship and re-connection. Kids were drawing pictures of themselves and sharing with their classmates. Others were describing their experiences from the summer and during the pandemic. Many were playing together once again on playgrounds and on athletic fields. Teachers were leading discussions of what students found meaningful in stories read in classes. Our staff members, from the first bus pickup in the morning to the final whistle in sports practices, have been finding new and creative ways for students to engage in school by giving voice to their joys and experiences.
Across the district students were asked to write down examples of when they did or did not feel like they belonged. Staff and the district’s Equity Team are using those responses to further assess student needs and build on their readiness to accelerate learning—socially, emotionally and academically.
Part of re-establishing community and belonging has been acknowledging our responsibilities to the health and safety of one another. Students have been terrific about wearing face-coverings and connecting in physically safe ways. Classes are focused on kids and learning because everyone—adults and students — are listening and responding to the occasional, gentle reminders to stay safe. Students are embracing the idea that they see each other and want to do all that they can to make sure the classmate sitting next to them or the staff member who helps them learn will be in school tomorrow.
There is still much uncertainty. These are challenging times. But we will get through this. The story of Lakewood School District has always been that we will take care of each other and come through any difficulties together. We are #bettertogether.