Feelings of belonging at school are important for student success

a male high school student attentively looking up in class

Published in Fortune Magazine February 9th, 2022

When students have a strong community and sense of belonging at school, a whole host of benefits follow, including greater academic motivation and better mental health outcomes. The opposite is also true: Low feelings of school belonging are tied to higher rates of violence, absenteeism, and depression.

Kelly-Ann Allen, a senior lecturer at Monash University in Australia, studies belonging, and she offers these correlations as proof that feelings of community and belonging at school are critical to students’ success.

“I often tell the story of the time I met a very senior professor in an elevator at a conference,” Allen said via email. “I was aware that he researched school belonging, and when I asked him about it, his response was that he didn’t care much for school belonging, but when he looked at the data, its contribution to student outcomes was just too powerful to ignore.”

Unfortunately, though American schools aren’t necessarily ignoring the issue of student community and belonging, they also aren’t universally doing it well. Education technology provider EVERFI recently surveyed over 150,000 students who took a course about cultivating healthy relationships, and just 54% of them agreed that their school community values them.

Perhaps surprisingly, this data point was not influenced by pandemic-induced malaise and disconnectedness. When EVERFI began collecting data on this question in 2016, 46% of students agreed; that number has remained low and fluctuated relatively little in the intervening years.

“The most surprising thing I have found in my research is just how little action or response has taken place concerning school belonging,” Allen said in an email. “Though schools value and prioritize school belonging, there are very few [evidence-based methods] that intentionally set out to foster it.”

Jessika Bottiani, a research assistant professor of education at the University of Virginia, has seen schools struggle with belonging and culture, which she defines as implicit norms and beliefs about how things should work, or the personality of a school. She attributes this struggle partially to the tendency in education to gravitate toward the newest trend in absence of clear best practices.

“Different interventions become the sparky new thing to try,” Bottiani said. “And the lived experience in a lot of schools becomes: We tried it and it didn’t work.”

There may be no magic formula when it comes to student community and belonging, but there are schools that do it well, among them De La Salle Academy, a small private middle school that has been serving grades 6 through 8 in New York City for over 35 years.

“It’s like magic,” exclaimed eighth-grader Kader Kane when asked about his school’s approach to community building.

Assistant head of school Michael Tapscott chuckled at that characterization. Far from employing a rotation of short-lived innovations, the culture at De La Salle Academy is built on long-term consistency, intentionality, and a deeply rooted community that values both interconnectedness and independence. Though students might not be aware of all the quotidian practices that make up their school’s strong culture of belonging, they feel the difference immediately.

“In my old school, you were just looking out for yourself,” said Kane. “But at De La Salle Academy, you want to help your friends, so that everybody succeeds with you.”

If that sounds a bit utopian, that’s because De La Salle Academy has created a bit of a utopia amid the anonymous bustle of midtown Manhattan.

Now housed in a nondescript brick building that was formerly the site of a parochial school—the two sets of entrance doors still bear engravings that designate them as girls’ and boys’ entrances, though the school does not segregate students by gender—De La Salle Academy was founded in 1984 by Brother Brian Carty.

It is (perhaps surprisingly) not a Catholic school, but rather a nonsectarian institution that welcomes all children, regardless of their faith background. In keeping with the Lasallian tradition upon which it was founded, the school intentionally serves academically talented low-income students. All students receive financial aid, and only 10% of the school’s operating budget comes from tuition.

There is no gleaming multimillion-dollar facility here, no reliance on technological bells and whistles to capture students’ attention. The hallways are plain with few adornments in sight, outside of a couple of bulletin boards showcasing students’ latest origami project or staff members who have worked at the school 10 years or more.

Though the hallways of De La Salle Academy may lack the decorative flourishes common in other schools—colorful posters proclaiming the school’s values or admonishing students to treat each other with respect, for example—it’s clear that community runs deep here. On a recent Thursday in January, students streamed out of classrooms after a math exam, pausing their excited conversations about the test to greet head of school Angel Gonzalez with a smile, a wave, or commentary on last night’s basketball game.

Upon enrolling at De La Salle Academy, students are ushered into a far-reaching community that radiates beyond any single friend group, class, grade, or student body. The walls of the school’s largest gathering space, Carson Hall, are filled with class photos of every alumnus to attend the school. Like many staff members, Gonzalez is himself an alum along with Tapscott (they were in the same graduating class). He says that students excitedly search for their teachers’ pictures in order to calculate their age.

Eighth-grader Mary Spiegel also attributes some of the community ethos to a longstanding tradition of “adoption” among students. Eighth-grade students adopt their younger peers, and students call each other by familial epithets: Younger students become sons, daughters, brothers, and sisters to their older “parents.”

Pre-pandemic, students would often sit with their adopted family at lunch or see each other in electives or at lockers in Carson Hall, which were deliberately mixed between grade levels (the school moved to keep students in stable pods during COVID but used to offer many opportunities throughout the school day for students to intermingle across grade levels).

“When I came here as a sixth-grader, all these eighth-graders rushed up to me to adopt me,” said Spiegel. “It’s not forced. [The tradition] came out of the eighth-graders themselves because they wanted to [adopt us].”

However close-knit students’ adopted families may be, school staff are careful to ensure that they don’t veer into cliquishness. Students are taught from their earliest interactions at De La Salle Academy about the dangers of exclusivity, a concept that is explicitly referenced in the student code of conduct.

Though De La Salle Academy is not a religious school, spirituality is a core tenet, especially as it relates to students respecting each other and honoring the sanctity of their school community, which is quite diverse: 84% of students are first-generation Americans from a wide variety of countries and cultures.

“[We’re saying] we still have a bond, even if we disagree,” Tapscott said. “I still see you as human, first and foremost.”

Staff members intentionally develop one-on-one relationships with students and keep a close eye on their well-being and interpersonal dynamics, and there is regular time set aside in the school day to address concerns that arise, either at a weekly whole-school community meeting or in small-group advisories. As they are planning for each week’s community meeting, Gonzalez and Tapscott ask the staff what they’re noticing that should be addressed with the whole school. And if an issue does need to be raised, they are careful to do it in a way that isn’t accusatory.

“If we see something, we strategize about how to make the kids self aware about the impact of their behavior on the community,” Tapscott said. “Nothing is too small to hold up the mirror.”

While staff members are deeply attentive to student relationships and dynamics, they are not domineering. Student ownership and independence are central components of De La Salle’s culture, so teachers are careful to position themselves more as mentors than problem solvers, and students are encouraged to raise concerns directly with one another before enlisting an adult to help.

“We’re mature enough to solve things ourselves,” Kane said. “If you need to go to an adult, they’re there, but your [adopted] brothers and sisters can also give you advice.”

Teacher Constanza Ontaneda recognizes that in order to foster community and belonging in middle school, teachers must strike a delicate balance that honors their students’ childlike innocence as well as their burgeoning sense of agency.

“Kids need to play,” Ontaneda said. “They’re still kids. But on the academic front, we treat them like they’re in high school.”

Ontaneda, who teaches French and Spanish and chairs the world language department, strives to create a classroom environment where kids play while also engaging in rigorous academic work, taking risks, and making mistakes. The world language curriculum is taught through story, which offers many opportunities for students to build confidence through speaking and acting.

“Within this [academic] structure, kids are having so much fun,” Ontaneda said. “They realize it’s safe to show other aspects of their personality [to their classmates].”

There are many other opportunities for students to exercise independence and ownership outside the classroom, starting with their commutes. Students come from neighborhoods across New York City, and many of them travel via bus or subway to and from school. Even the youngest students are encouraged to travel not with their family members but with other students (staff members help students find travel groups when necessary, and families release responsibility gradually after students have learned their commute). Students often travel with their adopted sibling and parent peers and feel a deep sense of responsibility for each other’s safety and conduct.

“We’re asking sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders to travel on one of the busiest transit systems in the country,” Gonzalez said. “Families are anxious at first, but then they see the growing confidence and independence that comes.”

Students are given responsibility for key tasks during the school day, like ringing the bell that signals the transition between classes, the same handheld bell that was used when Gonzalez was a student. Even this seemingly small decision—which students to choose as bell ringers—is undertaken with intentionality on the part of staff members and used to foster students’ confidence and sense of belonging.

“The staff talks, and we ask ourselves who would benefit from this experience,” Gonzalez said. “It’s not about kids being perfect.”

Students are also given latitude to propose and own larger projects. For example, staff members recently shared information at a school-wide community meeting about a devastating fire in a Bronx apartment building. Though nobody in the De La Salle community was directly affected, kids decided to raise funds for the victims and organized the effort largely independently.

“They sent a card. They publicized the fundraiser. They took pride in it,” Tapscott said. “Kids were coming in with their snack money saying, ‘We can go without snack for a couple days.’ The kids took ownership.”

While anecdotes like that may make De La Salle Academy sound idyllic, Tapscott and Gonzalez are quick to note that there are no shortcuts or silver bullets, and that the day-to-day work of running a school is far from easy.

“I like the idea that it’s magic,” Tapscott said. “But it doesn’t just happen. What we do is difficult and exhausting. It takes a lot of work, reflection, and collaboration.”

Schools across the country face a host of obstacles when it comes to implementing a model of student community like De La Salle Academy’s—one that is primarily centered on relationships. First, American schools are typically larger than De La Salle Academy—the school currently serves around 160 students with an average class size of 16. By comparison, the average American middle school class is 24 students, according to a 2018 survey by the National Center for Education Statistics.

While larger class size alone doesn’t make it impossible to build a strong community, teachers are also facing high levels of stress and burnout that might hinder their ability to consistently attend to student relationships and dynamics. According to Kelly-Ann Allen, many teachers report that they don’t feel valued in their school community, which has a direct impact on their students’ feelings of belonging.

“How can we expect teachers to focus on positive student relationships when they simply don’t have enough time during the school day to deliver the curriculum?” Allen said via email. “How can we expect them to hold this as a priority when they are purchasing supplies out of their wages or working several jobs to survive? If we consider the important role of teachers for school belonging, and then we consider the context in which teachers work, we can see that as a society, we have some work to do.”

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