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School Stories

The Building Blocks for Belonging

Oscar Gonzalez, Director of Equity and Inclusivity
Graland recently partnered with Challenge Success, a research-based organization affiliated with the Stanford University Graduate School of Education. Challenge Success partners with middle schools, high schools, and families to embrace a broad definition of success and to implement research-based strategies that promote student well-being and engagement with learning.

The organization offers a wide variety of programs with workshops and training, and during our January Professional Development Day, educators participated in Challenge Success’s workshop, “The Building Blocks for Belonging.” This workshop encouraged educators to continue activating our strategic goal of Cultivating a Culture of Belonging and, as a result, implement this framework and work on the following building blocks, which are “Interpersonal Relationships, Agency, and Support for those Marginalized.”

Interpersonal Relationships
Challenge Success’s first “Building Block for Belonging” is interpersonal relationships. Given the educator-to-student ratios, we’re able to foster strong student-teacher relationships. We strive to know students both as learners and people. We want students to show up as their true authentic selves and to leave Graland as the best versions of themselves, so getting to know students beyond their academic profiles is essential. Our whole-child approach allows students to shine in different arenas and to get to know many educators on campus. In a recent Challenge Success survey, 84% of Middle School students shared that they have an adult they can go to if they have a personal problem, and 88% have a peer they can go to. Both scores were higher than the national averages, and we want to raise these scores even more.

The framework also calls for collaborative, small-group learning. Given our favorable school’s smaller class sizes, students have ample opportunity to partner and collaborate in small groups. They have more opportunities to share and explain their own perspectives, belief systems, and ideas while learning how to back up their claims with evidence. At the same time, they hear from their peers and get to engage in civil discourse and cross-cultural communication. They learn to collaborate across lines of difference, and through this process, they observe and learn strategies used by others. Using the theme of “my story, your story, our story” allows students to have a stronger sense of self and others, all while figuring out what it means to be a member of a thriving community. 

“The Building Blocks for Belonging” emphasizes that empathy is required to build and maintain strong interpersonal relationships. When students are affirmed in their identities and are curious about getting to know their peers, they can push themselves and each other to grow by hearing and considering divergent thinking. Empathy is key, especially in tough situations, and when students lean into discomfort both academically and socially, they ultimately create stronger bonds and relationships. 

To do this at home, Challenge Success recommends that parents and caregivers create daily time for connection with children to model relationships effectively and, in turn, to lessen any uncertainty children may have.
The next “Building Block for Belonging” is agency. At Graland, we have always focused on student agency. From our youngest students participating in free choice time to eighth graders focusing on an area of interest for their capstone project, students have the freedom to explore their passions. Student voice leads to decision-making, which ultimately leads to a more engaging and dynamic learning environment. We encourage students to remain curious and ask questions to shape their educational experience and meet their needs and passions. Students are able to take the reins when there is more buy-in, so creating relevance to their lives makes the “why” of what we do explicit. The more we teach useful skills with real-world applications, the more students can apply them inside and outside the classroom. 

In addition, as part of the partnership with Challenge Success, there is a task force made up of educators, parents/caregivers, and students. The students are equal members, and their voice has been integral in identifying pilot programs that will benefit all community members. Given the students’ keen insights and experience, the task force is working to implement a more robust Middle School test and assignment calendar. Students have taken charge of creating a change that will benefit them and leave a legacy in the future. 

If you are looking for ways to promote child-led agency at home, Challenge Success suggests that parents and caregivers create rules along with their children and, just as importantly, establish consequences together. This can help children feel autonomy and a sense of control and responsibility in their home and learning environments.  
Support for Those Marginalized 
The final “Building Block for Belonging” is support for those marginalized. Different communities have different members who are marginalized, so first, it is important to identify who has been historically or continues to be marginalized or excluded in a given community. We can all think of a time we felt included or excluded and how that felt. The more we can actively include all members of our community, the more we can enhance belonging. 
At Graland, affinity groups are one way we provide support for underrepresented communities. Affinity groups, as defined by the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), are “a bringing together of people who have something important in common (race, gender, profession or special interest, etc.).” Our goal is to cultivate community, identify issues, and generate discussions through group environments in which Graland members share experiences, learn from one another, and strengthen their community ties. Through these groups, students and adults are affirmed in their identities, build relationships, and cultivate leadership.

Another practice at Graland is the buddy program. Younger students hear from older students or alumni directly. For instance, through our Student Support Team (SST), Middle School students with learning differences share their experiences navigating school and discuss the resources and support they use in order to thrive. This builds confidence and reduces stigma, as it allows students to have open dialogues and learn that they are not alone. In turn, younger students can reframe obstacles and learn that we all struggle with similar shared experiences and that these struggles are not exclusive to one individual or to one’s identity. 

Through our curricula and academic programming, we aim to have windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors. Mirrors allow students to see themselves represented in positive, joyous, and affirming ways in books and media; windows create opportunities to learn about others’ lived experiences; sliding glass doors let students interact with new parts of the world and collaborate with others. 

At home, parents and caregivers can think about their book collections, the media they consume, and the outings they take to create opportunities for windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors. These varied experiences foster a growth mindset and enhance the possibilities of change rather than maintaining fixed identities.

As a school, we want parents and caregivers to have strong interpersonal relationships, to have agency, and to feel supported, as well. By putting kids first, our collective goals are aligned. My hope is that, as the adults who model so much for children, we can uncover our shared experiences and create spaces where all voices are heard so that we continue to lift one another up and ensure everyone is seen, heard, and respected.  

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.