At Evanston Township High School (ETHS), it is vital for all our students to know and believe they belong here. Belonging is not a byproduct of getting a good education. It is something a student must feel to get a good education. Research shows that a sense of belonging at school makes a difference not only academically but also for long-term health, well-being, and human productivity. How important is belonging? Karyn Lewis, in her Education Northwest blog says it well:
“Belonging is a fundamental human need; whether we are conscious of it or not, we are always monitoring how well we feel we fit in during all of our social interactions. When we don’t feel like we belong – when we feel excluded, rejected, or like an outsider – it saps our precious mental resources and energy, distracts us, and keeps us from being fully present in the moment. Belonging acts as a precursor to other aspects of positive functioning in the classroom. For instance, when students feel like they belong, they show more motivation, engagement, and self-efficacy. Thus, social belonging is one of the first things educators should attend to because when it’s lacking, students find it difficult to succeed academically and are less likely to thrive.”
Beck and Malley, in their article titled “A Pedagogy of Belonging,” review the research showing that “Most children fail in school not because they lack the necessary cognitive skills, but because they feel detached, alienated, and isolated from others and from the educational process.”
Building a culture of belonging is not new at ETHS. We have been intentionally and strategically doing this since we launched academic de-tracking more than a decade ago. Increasing the sense of belonging among students has contributed greatly to better results for them. However, our work is not nearly complete. For example, many students of color in our community still face stereotyping, profiling, fear of deportation, and many forms of discrimination and disenfranchisement in their daily lives. ETHS must be a safe, nurturing place where all students feel a sense of belonging in classrooms, in student activities and at school events. They need to feel embraced by ETHS and by our community. That’s critical for them to flourish here and flourish in their lives.
At ETHS, we are focused on high quality teacher-student relationships and creating a supportive and caring learning environment. We continue to put increased resources into providing emotional and academic supports for our students, systemically addressing the well-being of each individual student, and being sensitive to students’ needs and emotions. Our teachers and adults at ETHS know the importance of showing an interest in students and striving to understand them as individuals. In our classrooms and school activities, we foster positive peer relationships and mutual respect. We expect respectful and fair treatment of our students while teaching them to be respectful and take personal responsibility for their own actions in this supportive learning environment.
Equity is essential to creating a strong sense of belonging. Without equity; without de-tracking; without courageous conversations about race; without increased opportunity and access for all students; without our policy, procedural and structural changes; without high expectations and abundant supports for all students; and without our ongoing equity commitment and training, our work would have never progressed as far as it has and as far as it is going to progress. Our school board has adopted district goals, policies, expectations and a budget to enhance equity and well-being, providing the elements necessary for a culture of student belonging. Our staff is dedicated to this work and is providing leadership to achieve equity and belonging. Belonging increases when we demonstrate how much we value diversity while challenging any form of discrimination: racial, ethnic, religious or other.
All of us can contribute to making certain that young people in Evanston know they belong here. Our ETHS Welcome Center, for example, serves as a physical reminder of our commitment to making meaningful connections. We are proactively increasing partnerships and building stronger relationships with families and the community. Evanston Cradle to Career, a forward-looking, collective-impact initiative, is also instrumental in our partnering across the community, addressing systematic change to fully realize equity and belonging for all young people.
At ETHS, we communicate unwaveringly to our students and staff that we embrace each person’s race, culture, personal history, heritage, religion, customs, beliefs, special needs, gender identity, sexual orientation and ethnicity. In order to feel belonging, each student must feel seen, heard and valued as an individual human being. This is the maxim we live by every day at ETHS.
Please, as members of this community, join us at ETHS in assuring that each young person experiences a strong sense of belonging in Evanston and in our school. This matters. This is what it means to be a Wildkit, to belong in our Wildkit family.