Guest post by Kelly Parker
South Meadow School (SMS) in Peterborough, NH is guided by our vision: “A caring, cooperative, and respectful community of learners.” We are a family and work hard to instill values that will help students realize this vision by providing the support they need to be successful. One of the most important ways we guide students is by helping them connect to our school and one another in a positive way. We use the following guiding principles to nurture relationships and develop connections for all members of the SMS community:
Foster a Sense of Belonging
To foster a sense of belonging, we encourage involvement in academics, activities, athletics, and community service both in and out of the classroom. Our leadership team has designed the master schedule to maximize student participation during the school day and offer two blocks every day that include time for intervention, advisory, and enrichment.
Additionally, we foster a sense of belonging through our approach to lunch. Instead of eating in a large cafeteria, students and teachers eat together in classrooms in their advisory groups. No student ever eats alone. Lunch is a daily time for connection that helps students build friendships with one another and engage in conversation. It also allows our teachers to keep a close eye on students informally and address their needs in a timely manner. Another benefit of this approach is that after lunch, students compost, clean tables, and return trays to the lunch room, which develops care, cooperation, and respect for the school environment.
Bridge the Gap for New and Incoming Students
New and incoming students often need extra help in making the transition into school and forming the strong relationships that will help them be successful. Our formalized peer mentor program bridges this gap for these students. Any student entering SMS establishes an immediate connection with a peer mentor.
The day before the first official day of school, we hold a new student orientation. To welcome our incoming fifth graders and students new to the district on this day, our peer mentors form a tunnel and clap as students enter the building before heading into the gym for an opening assembly. After the assembly, students meet their peer mentors who hold small group sessions to answer questions and get to know one another, go on a school tour, and participate in team-building games. Later in the day, parents join these groups where students meet their advisor and see their classroom.
This orientation day is just the beginning of students’ relationships with their mentors. Mentors meet daily with the program advisor to establish goals, build skills, and work on games to use with their mentees. The mentors and mentees meet every other week to maintain the established connection, creating strong bonds and positive role models. Additionally, peer mentors have worked with fifth grade students teaching them some of the technology and software applications used in the school, like Acrobot, Tinkercad, InDesign, and how to create a slide for the morning webcast.
Target Students Who Need Additional Support
Sometimes a student needs extra help in forming the connections to school that will help them be successful. It is important that schools have a formal way to identify these students and give them additional attention and support.
SMS uses our home teams to identify which students might be missing out on at least one personal connection with an adult. Home teams represent a smaller community of learners within the larger community at SMS, and each team includes a diversified group of core teachers, specialists, and counselors who meet four times a year at staff meetings. Home teams give us a broader perspective across the staff and not just the grade level core teachers. They identify the student(s) and decide how to best engage the student(s) to begin a personal connection in a meaningful way.
After home team meetings, we share information about the identified student(s) with grade level team teachers. These teachers use these insights to pair students in hopes of building peer connections. Also, the teachers begin to initiate intentional conversations with the students; they talk about the different groups, clubs, and activities and invite the students to participate. Also, the counselors invite these students to different lunch groups to help them get to know other students.
Now more than ever it is crucial that educators strive to establish meaningful connections with students. Strong relationships with supportive adults and peers guide students throughout their school journey, helping them overcome challenges and improve academic performance. How does your school build relationships and establish connections with students?
Kelly Parker is the assistant principal of South Meadow School in Peterborough, NH, which serves 408 students in grades 5–8. Parker was the 2017 New Hampshire Assistant Principal of the Year.