On a warm July morning, weeks before the beginning of the school year, a group of rising freshmen find themselves on a school bus, joyfully chatting with their middle school friends as they ride to their new school.
As the bus comes to a stop in front of the high school, the chatter subsides; the tone becomes serious. The application of the parking brake precedes a nervous quiet. In this moment, students realize that they’re entering a new phase—that high school means an unfamiliar building with unfamiliar classmates and teachers.
Students shuffle off of the bus into the massive, mostly empty building. They’re greeted by a friendly face: a senior wearing a “Peer Leader” tee. The peer leader welcomes them and ushers them toward the small group of students already gathered in the gymnasium.
As students walk through the doors, they unknowingly cross a threshold into an innovative high school transition program intentionally designed to facilitate their success in high school and beyond—a program that offers insights into transferable strategies for fostering a strong sense of community that promotes student success.
I’ve had the privilege of working as the site coordinator for The First Year Experience, a project supported by The Jim and Carol Trawick Foundation, at my school. The program uses research-based methodologies to build students’ sense of community in practice.
For example, the foundation conducted an extensive literature review exploring historical perspectives and current understandings of a sense of community and its impact on the school environment. That research revealed several key dimensions of community: connectivity, comfort, social influence, and social and emotional learning—tenets that lend themselves to a programmatic framework for ensuring effective practice.
In our context, approximately 75 percent of program participants identify with one or more traditionally marginalized groups, and we ensure that 100 percent of programming supports one or more of these dimensions of community. Participants average a 13.5 percent higher GPA, maintain a 7 percent higher daily attendance rate, and are half as likely to be referred for administrative discipline than their peers.
Below, I explain these particular dimensions of community and offer examples of how to cultivate them in student transition programming.
We define connectivity as a feeling of attachment to one’s community. How does a student feel attached to their school community? The simple answer is involvement with school-based teams, clubs, and organizations; however, knowing that student involvement is important and actually getting students involved are different conversations.
To better understand students’ connection to their school community, the First Year Experience team met with each participant to learn more about their interests and needs and conduct an extracurricular activity inventory. The team learned that these young students were brimming with interest, yet they had not yet taken the steps toward involvement.
The most impactful strategy for facilitating connectivity included adult-facilitated mutual introductions. The team introduced students to club sponsors, walked students to lunch meetings, hand-delivered permission slips for extracurricular experiences, and jumped at any other opportunity to get students involved. This active approach positioned students for connectivity and was a powerful reminder that they had trusted adults in the building who cared about them.
Comfort is the feeling that an individual’s physical and psychological requirements are fulfilled. Research shows that physical safety and emotional safety are fundamental to productive environments; for example, psychologist Abraham Maslow contended that people are inherently motivated when their foundational needs are met.
Sometimes, high school can be an uncomfortable place for students and adults alike. Knowing this, our team identified one strategy that was most effective in providing students comfort: a structured peer leader program. Peer leaders, who were once program participants, serve younger students as mentors, guides, confidants, and friends. Given the power of this peer relationship, the team’s paramount responsibility is ensuring that they have the appropriate students in these key positions.
3. Social Influence
The perception of one’s impact within their community, social influence stems from one’s actions or those of selected leaders. Our team found that this dimension is frequently bolstered in an indirect manner.
Importantly, participants from historically minoritized communities are rarely in a position of influence due to systemic barriers. This makes the first two dimensions even more important. If students feel comfortable at school and connected, they often follow a natural progression toward self-actualization.
Empowering students to have agency in their school life is critical to this progression. Frequent, intentional affirmations, encouraging students to take ownership of their social and academic journeys, yielded confident, proactive young adults. These brief, informal check-ins take only a few moments but instill an agency that has a lasting impact on students as they find their way.
4. Social and Emotional Learning
Social and emotional learning involves acquiring and applying a skill set that enables individuals to comprehend and effectively regulate their emotions, supporting their ability to establish and sustain positive relationships. We prioritized this dimension while building our program team.
Team members used noninstructional time (e.g., advisory periods) to facilitate mindfulness practice, community circles, and restorative circles. These strategies culminated in monthly, student-led emotional well-being campaigns. Messaging through sidewalk chalk, the morning announcements, social media, and even the occasional public address allowed students a platform to identify the real issues they face as young people in modern society. Young leaders seized this opportunity to share strategies, skills, and healthy outlets they gained as a part of their social and emotional learning.
Fostering a Sense of Community to Promote Student Success
The greatest asset of any initiative is the ability to adapt. The First Year Experience team regularly modified programming to best meet participants’ needs. No single strategy proved perfect for all students, but the four shared in this article had the greatest impact. With each iteration, one thing remained constant: an intense focus on the vision.
From the perspective of my experiences, I encourage you to incorporate these four strategies into your preparations for welcoming a new class of students to your school. These strategies have been researched and tested and are ready for implementation at no cost. Prioritize your students’ sense of community; the results will follow.