Older students play alongside younger ones on Field Day, shouting encouragement and helping their younger buddies navigate the relays, ball tosses and sack races.
Third and fourth graders watch each other’s “Shark Tank” presentations on Zoom and unmute to share their support and feedback on inventions their classmates created. “I can tell you worked really hard,” one student says. “I liked the logo you drew,” another chimes in.
Middle School students span the Tampa Bay area to volunteer at dozens of nonprofits on Community Service Day, while PreK3 students draw pictures of helping their parents and putting toys away to show how they can be of service. First and second graders paint “kindness rocks” and hide them around campus to bring smiles to the students who find them.
Community building happens in grand gestures and everyday efforts at Corbett Prep. It involves all of the private school’s grades from prekindergarten through Middle School and remains a priority whether classes meet in person or remotely.
A strong school community generates positive relationships among students within a class and between students and teachers, reducing distractions and stress so students can learn better.
Students in schools with a clear sense of community are more academically motivated, treat others with more respect and kindness and are more likely to steer clear of problematic behaviors, according to research cited in a 2003 Education Leadership article.
Today, it’s more important than ever that schools cultivate a feeling of belonging and safety. High, persistent levels of stress can make it difficult for students to concentrate and retain information, Dr. Pamela Cantor recently wrote in the school policy journal Education Next. Positive, supportive relationships can lower stress levels and increase feelings of safety because these interactions release oxytocin in the brain.
As school resumes, parents and educators have the opportunity to work together to strengthen relationships, find comfort in beloved traditions and create new memories.
Corbett Prep’s social-emotional learning curriculum, the 4 Pillars of Wellbeing, has an entire unit devoted to community building with strategies for teachers and parents. At its heart is shifting your mindset from “what’s in it for me?” to “what do I have to offer?” Practicing gratitude, forgiveness and caring as well as learning to deliver and accept compliments are all ways to start expanding your perspective.
Corbett Prep also encourages students to develop relationships outside of their grade level, which contributes to a feeling of community. Older students mentor younger ones as classroom volunteers, reading buddies or helpers during all-school events. The older students learn about leadership and how to show compassion and understanding, while younger children gain a sense of belonging.
Routines and traditions:
Knowing what to expect helps students feel secure and confident in the classroom. Reliable morning routines and special birthday or “student of the week” celebrations remind students that they are part of something bigger than themselves. At the beginning of the school year, Corbett Prep students and teachers establish ground rules for how students should treat each other and handle conflicts, giving students ownership in how their community functions.
Traditions also help establish a school’s identity and act as important milestones for students. Corbett Prep teachers worked hard to preserve anticipated traditions during the spring with modifications for remote learning. Thespians came together online for the school’s first Zoom play. Student athletes leaned out car windows to accept certificates from coaches during a drive-through awards night. From home, fifth graders built and attempted to float in cardboard boats, a twist on the cardboard boat races that usually held at the YMCA pool. The seventh-grade egg drop, normally at Raymond James Stadium, still challenged students to invent protective containers for an egg but asked students to email video of at-home drops.
Parent volunteers can actively support their school community in many ways – assisting with special projects, supporting school communications or planning larger school events. This involvement helps form community ties and relationships with other families, faculty and staff. When parents give of their time, they also model for their kids how one person can truly make a difference and help them understand the power of a sense of purpose.
Contributing to a spirit of goodwill by volunteering at all-school family events has long been the foundation for a vibrant school community. From the fall festival to the pancake breakfast, and from the fun run to Grandparents’ Day, Corbett Prep parents are integral in planning and staffing memorable traditions. Parents showed support for Corbett Prep and the Tampa Bay community during quarantine as well, waving signs thanking teachers during drive-by events and organizing an effort to assemble and donate 2,020 meals to the needy in honor of the Class of 2020.
Now, more than ever, building and celebrating community in our kids’ schools should be a priority. When students, parents and educators are firmly committed to coming together as one community, schools can ensure they continue to provide a positive, safe and supportive environment in which all students can thrive.