May 11, 2023

A Sense of Belonging

William Perkins Tift / High School Principal

The following is an edited version of presentations delivered by our school principals at Oakwood’s State of the School event, which took place on May 1, 2023, at Oakwood Secondary Campus.


Since the emergence of the field of emotional intelligence in the 1990s, we have understood more and more across educational research the close correlation between belonging and positive performance in all aspects of school life. And, as pointed out in our section on Curriculum, Oakwood’s founders knew this connection and built this into their vision for the school, where three of our five Statement of Philosophy pillars are grounded in belonging:

  • To cultivate depth of character… We intend for the development of their intellect and character to be intertwined, so that their choices are guided by internal controls and sensitivity to the needs of others.
  • To help students gain self-knowledge… We want students to learn about their strengths and needs as learners. We seek to accommodate and appreciate the unique qualities of each young person and to provide multiple opportunities for students to succeed, to learn from mistakes, and to take risks for the sake of learning.
  • To foster a sense of community… We seek to create a vibrant public life in the school, where students learn to express themselves fluently and responsibly and to consider differing perspectives respectfully. We believe that an environment most conducive to learning and growth is diverse and inclusive, and balances seriousness of purpose with a sense of play.

Yes, education is fundamentally relational, and each of the core relationships of learning—relations to and understanding of oneself, connection with peers, a reciprocal trusting and caring relationship with teachers, and a sense of discovering how and why the curriculum itself relates to you as a learner—each of these relationships is complex and dynamic. And the cultivation of belonging involves myriad work on multiple fronts across these different relationships.

As we reemerge from a global pandemic, and begin to unpack and understand the evolving impacts of that on our kids, our teachers, and our institution, this cultivation of belonging takes on increased urgency and importance. The Surgeon General of the US has declared a mental health crisis for adolescents in our country, and we must work closely in partnership as a school and families to support our young people and provide them with the care, skills, and tools they need to thrive.

Across both campuses, we have worked deliberately to reestablish school culture after several years of disruptions, centering this at our initial Senior Administrative Retreat in August, opening meetings with faculty and staff, and at every grade level. It was fantastic to be all together again in the Secondary Campus Gym for our all-school assembly. And I want to call out our student leaders in two remarkable classes—our 6th graders at the elementary campus and our Seniors in 12th grade—for your work in setting a tone and culture of fun and inclusivity, all with a sense of purpose. Denise, Erin, and I know that however go the oldest students on our campus, so goes the tone and feel of the school year overall.

With the impacts of social isolation then social distancing in the pandemic, combined with the ways that social media drives division and a world seemingly more interested in a soundbite debate than in dialogue towards solutions and understanding, the healthy development of self within a supportive community becomes a prerequisite to the work and vision that Oakwood School has laid out.

When students begin the new school year, are they prepared to meet the challenges therein and are they encountering teachers working to fit those academic challenges to the individual student? One aspect of this includes the onramp to the school year, and our development of Oakwood Summer Programs has helped to establish an annual Kinder camp to support the Kinder transition. In that same vein, we are continuing to build out opportunities in the summer for enrichment and prep classes for different grade levels in key disciplines, including math enrichment for middle school. In the fall of 2023, we will also be piloting classes in 7th grade to provide reading and math remediation for students who need foundational support to best access the Oakwood program, and to account for differences in elementary preparation coming into middle school.

While not all students are needing the skills remediation, we are finding a widespread need across grade levels for explicit teaching of executive functioning skills that help students to navigate classroom and school life. This makes sense given the experiences of the past few years, where, as parents, we were often much more involved in the day-to-day work of remote learning, and where teachers worked to lay out much simpler pathways to learn and track progress.

Meeting Students Where They Are

At the secondary campus, our Metacognition surveys helped to provide broader data and trends on the kinds of executive support students at different grade-levels are needing. Our Learning Specialist, Teri Goldman, has then worked directly with our faculty to incorporate strategies and lessons into the general curriculum to support student development of these critical skills. And we are taking the lessons and observations from this year to map out still more strategies and opportunities for shoring up executive function for all of our students, especially in major transition years.

In the elementary campus, pull-out programs and Math Labs in the upper grades help to differentiate instruction and provide all students with the appropriate challenge. You’ll hear about the impact of that individualized approach on one of our seniors, Westleigh ’23, below.

This year at the elementary campus, we began MAP testing; a set of assessments used by some 9,000 schools globally to help track student progress and inform curricular choices in math, reading, and language usage. With the baseline data collected this school year, we will expand this adaptive testing program into our middle grades next year to gauge both individual and grade-level progress and instructional approach.

A critical part of finding the right challenge in the classroom is about the teacher who is meeting you there and seeing that you belong. This year, every teacher, administrator, and staff member at the school has worked through ongoing training to recognize and combat implicit bias and microaggressions, and we’ve followed this individual e-learning with multiple spaces for reflection, practice, and learning. This is in recognition that every single interaction a student or their family has within the institution can either build towards or undercut that sense of belonging.

Belonging & Academic Support

For as much as students discover themselves through facing academic challenges in the classroom, they also must feel and experience academic support to meet those challenges in order to develop a deeper sense of belonging. Our institutional work here has been to more fully understand our students’ needs for additional support and to work to ensure more equitable and timely access to that support.

For as much as students discover themselves through facing academic challenges in the classroom, they also must feel and experience academic support to meet those challenges in order to develop a deeper sense of belonging.

In our student course feedback surveys at the secondary campus, we have included questions on the extent that students are receiving outside support for a given class. And while the use of tutors overall is roughly on par with peer institutions, we have seen a particular concentration of outside tutoring support in certain disciplines and even for specific classes. Our challenge is now to match institutional resources and opportunities for greater student access to support where it is needed, both in and outside of the classroom.

In Kinder through 3rd grade, our new educational therapist, Karen Brigel, works through a pull-out program to provide our youngest students with assistance in the development of their emergent reading and literacy skills. This is a key reading acquisition window for students that helps set them up for the transition from learning to read in these early grades to reading to learn as they move up through Oakwood’s academic program. We know that our program of study is text and reading-heavy, and this culture of reading starts with our youngest students.

In 5th and 6th grades, the Math Lab provides regular opportunities within the afterschool program for drop-in support or ongoing enrichment and intervention. This is critical as we know that pre-algebraic foundational skill acquisition is essential to success in the increasingly complex math curriculum of the secondary campus. We have also substantially built out our Study Center programming at the secondary campus with our Study Center for All initiative. This work aims to demystify and normalize one-time or ongoing academic support by making it more visible and accessible. Our new Collective Bargaining Agreement with our faculty establishes the Study Center as part of the regular workload for faculty so that we can be sure to have teachers from our Humanities and STEM fields always at the ready for supporting students at the times when students are available. In the coming year, we will continue to build on this program, incorporating opportunities for afterschool academic support (particularly essential for our student-athletes, actors, and others staying for afterschool commitments), a more robust peer tutoring program, and easy ways for students to schedule time or just drop in for support as needed.

Among the student body, the re-emergence of the Neurodivergent Affinity group has also helped to shed light on and further normalize learning differences, and to drive home that every learner is a unique individual with unique needs. It is the mission of the school to understand and meet the needs of the learner where they are. Below, we hear from Oakwood senior, Westleigh ’23, about her process for discovering, understanding, and advocating for her own learning needs.

Finding & Seeing Oneself

Finally, and perhaps most important to the cultivation of a sense of belonging both at school and in the world is the development of a healthy and positive sense of self. This work shows up in every facet of school life. As touched upon here, our curriculum needs to not only align across divisions and grades but also better reflect the diversity of backgrounds and experiences in our community. Students need to be able to see themselves reflected in our curriculum, and also in our faculty and staff. Our Senior Administrative Team has worked to transform our recruitment, hiring, and onboarding processes to seek out and retain high-quality educators from diverse backgrounds. We have begun expanding this training and work to the broader leadership teams on both campuses.

As students and families, it is vital that Oakwood sees and celebrates your culture and background, and we have continued to build upon cultural heritage celebrations, affinity group programming, Parent Guardian Organization, faculty, and student groups committed to anti-racist work and solidarity towards racial justice at both campuses. The new Collective Bargaining Agreement also builds affinity faculty sponsorship into our workload definition for teachers to better lift up and acknowledge the tremendously important work of those faculty helping to steward student affinity and alliance spaces. These spaces are essential to the cultivation of belonging, to surfacing institutional shortcomings, and to celebrating the fullness of each member of our community.

The college admissions process can be one that is daunting and alienating to families, particularly if their sense of belonging at the school may already be tenuous. Over the last several years, Melissa Palmer, Steffany Perez, and now Carolyn Starks, our amazing College Counseling team, have expanded programming to help address belonging through greater information sharing and support throughout the process. In addition to moving our assignment of students to their counselor from junior year into sophomore year, the counselors incorporate student voice into the counselor match to consider factors of interest, identity, and prior relationships to find the best fit of counselor for each student. Furthermore, the office has substantially expanded programming on affording college and navigating the financial aid process, hosting an in-person HBCU gathering, celebration and fair, and supporting students (and their families) who are the first to pursue post-secondary education.

Our efforts to move further into a restorative model help us to center belonging and the necessary repairs to community, relationship, and individual sense of belonging that come about when members of our community make mistakes that impact others. I’ve always appreciated the signs on my sons’ elementary campus classroom doors that “mistakes are expected, inspected, and respected.” We all know from experience that some of our most impactful and lasting learning comes out of reflecting on our mistakes and dwelling in the discomfort of facing those mistakes and repairing the impact they may have had on others. This also reflects a broader need in our society to better center the impacts of our actions and carefully tend to those impacts, as opposed to ways that many folks, especially those in majority culture, can downplay impact by focusing too much on our good intentions.

As a faculty, we work to regularly monitor and foster student connections with adults on campus in both formal roles like advisors, as well as in more informal relationships as mentors, confidantes, and advocates. We want to ensure that all students build these healthy relationships. Our Student Success Team approach to coordinating interventions and support helps to bring together on each campus our Social Emotional Learning staff, Deans, counselors, and learning specialists to take a whole child approach to support plans. And we have spent time this spring developing a partnership to conduct a full and robust climate survey for our student, faculty, and parent/guardian communities to better understand and identify areas of strength and opportunities for growth in our cultivation of belonging. We will roll out that comprehensive survey next fall.

When all of these things come together—appropriate academic challenge and access to support, along with the development of a positive sense of self—there emerges a strong feeling of belonging. When students feel that, they shine through the countless opportunities that Oakwood presents for student expression, engagement, application, activism, reflection, and growth. They thrive in our Oakwood community, and they go out and impact the world. I can think of no better example of this than current senior Reid ’23: