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School Stories

Cultivating a Culture of Belonging

By Oscar Gonzalez, Director of Equity & Inclusivity
At the center of Graland’s strategic plan is the word thrive. We want every member of our community to thrive, prosper, and flourish by pursuing excellence and wellness. When we feel a sense of belonging, we are able to thrive at our highest potential. Belonging is needed for both well-being and engagement with learning, so in order to achieve our mission, to achieve intellectual excellence, build strong character and prepare our students to be engaged citizens and thoughtful leaders, we must cultivate a culture of belonging.
A broadly diverse community fosters empathy, enriches teaching and learning, and promotes intellectual excellence and strong character. Fundamentally, diversity enhances community, and for diversity to thrive, inclusivity is essential. As Arthur Chan states, “Inclusion is an action, and belonging is an outcome.” Belonging is the goal of our inclusivity work. We want each unique member of our community to show up as themselves and to leave Graland as the best version of themselves. 

Through our partnerships and collaboration with Challenge Success, who created “The Building Blocks for Belonging (Interpersonal Relationships, Agency, & Support for those Marginalized),” and Rosetta Lee, who created the inclusive classroom practices framework, we’ve enhanced our ability to cultivate belonging. As educators, we strive for strong, meaningful student-teacher relationships, and at Graland, we are set up to meet the individual needs of students, given our small student-to-adult ratios. It is also an educator’s creed to ensure students’ well-being and to foster a safe learning environment ripe for risk-taking and leaning into discomfort in order to grow. Lee’s framework calls on educators to make certain students can answer the following questions in the affirmative so that they can experience a more inclusive classroom setting. “Do you see me? Do you hear me? Will you treat me fairly? Will you protect me?”

Guiding Principle: Honor Individuality
“Graland values each student as a unique individual and considers every student’s strengths and needs. Graland students learn to value individual differences and divergent thinking. As they grow, they seek inclusiveness and justice in a multi-faceted and diverse world.”

We foster curiosity, and through meaningful relationships, we get to know students and meet their specific needs. We reject the notion that students come as a blank slate, a tabula rasa. Rather we acknowledge that students come with prior learning, their family background, and a multitude of identities and aspirations for who they will become. “We are educating whole human beings, not empty vessels,” (Klein & Ciotti, 2022). In turn, students not only share their stories, but they become curious about the stories of others in the community. To be engaged citizens and thoughtful leaders, to be prepared for a diverse world, students learn to think beyond themselves and start to take into account the community as a whole. 

Through service learning, project-based learning, the Gates Invention and Innovation program, and the many aspects of our programmatic offerings, students begin to find their passions and purpose. At the very least, they identify their gifts and how they can share them with the world. Student voice, advocacy, and agency are essential elements in this endeavor, and students find belonging as they learn and grow in these self-directed efforts. 
Guiding Principle: Cultivate Compassion

“Graland believes that learning is enhanced when those in its community care for each other. Empathy is the basis of understanding in an interdependent world, and with the guidance and support of the adult community, Graland students grow in insight and gain a global perspective and life-long commitment to service.”
We strive for a climate of care and empathy. Students and adults alike gain empathy by working and collaborating across lines of difference and valuing the humanity and dignity of each individual in our community. Morning meetings and advisory allow for creating connections, and educators get to know students as learners and people. Kyle Redford says, “Students don’t come to us with tidy labels and operating instructions. They are mysterious, developing individuals. Approaching their struggles like puzzles to solve, rather than problems to react to, makes our instruction more effective.” With compassionate curiosity, our community members feel seen, heard, valued, safe, and protected. 

Whether on campus, on the sports field, or beyond the walls of the classroom, it is imperative that we meet students’ human need to belong so that they can fully access all that Graland has to offer, the academics as well as hands-on practice with the interpersonal skills needed to collaborate and work with others. Our brains process social pain the same way as physical pain; therefore, it hurts to be excluded. If we’re not actively including, we may be inadvertently excluding, so we work on creating awareness of ourselves, others, and the community. While the golden rule is great, treat people the way YOU want to be treated, the platinum rule is even better, treat people the way THEY want to be treated. It requires communication and truly getting to know others. 

A culture of belonging benefits each member of the community as well as the community in its entirety. As we engage as adults, let’s remember that if we’re going to ask students to do their part in cultivating belonging, then we must model the way and hold ourselves and each other to the
same standards.

Graland Country Day School

Graland Country Day School is a private school in Denver, Colorado, serving students in preschool, kindergarten, elementary, and middle school. Founded in Denver in 1927, Graland incorporates a rich, experiential learning approach in a traditional classroom setting, emphasizing the development of globally and socially conscious leaders who excel academically.