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From Story to Action: Cultivating a Culture of Belonging

By Oscar Gonzalez, Director of Equity and Inclusivity
Belonging is a prerequisite for thriving. At the center of our strategic plan is the word “thrive.” We want families, educators, and students to thrive at their highest potential. To thrive means to succeed, and not at the expense of one’s well-being. We strive for our students to thrive and not merely survive academically, socially, in sports, and on stage–in the myriad of opportunities that our whole-child approach offers students. It is for that reason that our strategic plan is enveloped by cultivating a culture of belonging. This school year, we’ve leveraged our partnership with Challenge Success to listen to the stories and experiences of our community members which then informed our actions in order to enhance belonging.
Challenge Success
We are in our third year of partnership with Challenge Success, a non-profit affiliated with the Stanford University Graduate School of Education, to enhance belonging, grow student engagement, and uncover ways we can fortify our partnership between school and home to promote student well-being as we prepare our children to be engaged citizens and thoughtful leaders. When we began collaborating with Challenge Success in 2021, we started by understanding and enhancing well-being and engagement with learning in the Middle School. This year, we expanded our work to include the entire school and have a focus on belonging. 
Challenge Success’s thesis that belonging is needed for both student well-being and engagement with learning aligns well with our strategic plan. 

Challenge Success partners with schools and families to provide practical, research-based tools and strategies to transform the student experience and create a more balanced and fulfilling life for all students. Most of the research behind Challenge Success’s work focuses on middle and high school students, and this year we began to expand into the Lower School as well.

In October 2021, Middle School students, parents, and faculty participated in a survey to collect data about time and schedule, motivation, assessment, school climate, anxiety, learning conditions, and the overall experience of being a student at Graland. From this data, a task force created pilots and helped implement change in order to enhance student wellbeing, engagement, and belonging.

Belonging is “an individual’s experience of feeling that they are, or are likely to be, accepted and respected as a valued contributor in a specific environment” (Healey and Stroman, 2021). 

This school year, we had one focus in our partnership with Challenge Success: belonging. 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.

Challenge Success Has Three Building Blocks of Belonging:
  • I am known
  • I am respected
  • I can contribute 
Using the Challenge Success building blocks of belonging and their model to enhance belonging, we formed a multistakeholder team of 50 people, which includes teachers, outside-the-classroom educators, parents, and students, with representation across the Lower School and Middle School divisions as well as the instructional and business sides of the school. This group is helping Graland co-create and run a few different belonging pilots in order to help us achieve our strategic goal of cultivating a culture of belonging. A smaller subset of this group, the Challenge Success Task Force, helps move the initiatives forward. 
Listening to Stories to Inform Action
The multistakeholder group and task force identified the following communities of focus within the Graland community and conducted empathy interviews with members of these groups:
  • Educators of color 
  • Families of color
  • LGBTQIA+ community
  • Neurodivergent student community 
  • Members of our community with a variety of family structures
  • Members of our community with a physical disability
  • Members of our community from non-dominant religious groups
  • Families receiving financial aid
The empathy interviews provided data on how members of our community are known, respected, and contribute to the community. This ears-to-the-ground approach also shed light on areas where there is room for growth, and this spurred many ideas on potential pilots that may increase belonging. 

The Pilots and Moving Forward 
Knowing that all students, families, and educators are assets to the community, we leaned on the collective genius of everyone involved to co-create actionable, bite-sized pilots. With the communities of focus in mind, the idea is that designing pilots to increase belonging actually benefits all students.  

One pilot is the creation of the Rainbow Club, which came from the LGBTQIA+ empathy interviews. This club is for LGBTQIA+ families, students, and allies to connect, hold space for each other, and promote a safe, healthy school climate. This will be an opportunity for young people to have a safe and supportive space to celebrate, connect, learn, and grow through honoring each other’s identities and family structures.

Other empathy interviews advised ideas for additional pilots. A round of empathy interviews led to the pilot for an educators of color lunch, an off-campus mingle on a professional development day. We are also highlighting celebration and heritage months in Graland Online (“GO”), our weekly digital newsletter. Moreover, for those in our community with physical disabilities we are creating a support plan template to prompt more education and awareness regarding an individual’s needs.  

Building upon the school-wide buddy program, where younger students receive mentorship and guidance from older students, the Student Support Team (SST) is piloting an additional buddy program for Middle School students with learning differences to share their experiences navigating school and discuss the resources they use in order to thrive. Middle School students mentor their buddies with the knowledge picked up through SST, and these younger students learn to reframe obstacles and learn that we all struggle with similar shared experiences. This builds confidence and reduces stigma, as it allows students to have open dialogue, learn that they are not alone, and that their struggles are not exclusive to one individual.

The next phase is to survey the communities of focus as well as the greater community to measure the effect on belonging. For the pilots where survey collections have begun, early indications show that belonging has indeed increased. Once we collect all the data and analyze the results, we will follow up with community members in order to refine our practices and continue going from stories to action so that we can continue to work in partnership, build community, and cultivate belonging. 

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.