The power of belonging

Students and staff in the hallway

Under the leadership of Principal Sarah Chaja-Clardy, the staff and students at Cherokee Heights Middle School live and breathe their “I Belong” power standard. Belonging, determined by the school to be their highest priority, is also one of six core values outlined in the MMSD Strategic Framework.

The work of creating a safe space where everyone feels that they belong is very intentional. Here, both staff and students are given the space and resources they need in order to continuously breathe, reflect and adjust.

Chaja-Clardy spells out how changing her own approach can affect staff, which translates to outcomes for students. One of her Professional Practice Goals is to “focus on my personal wellness to show up present and well as my best self and as a model for staff while creating opportunities for staff to develop their own mental/physical fitness.” The result for students? “Partnering in learning with teachers who are mindful and well.”

Taking care of ourselves and each other

For staff, this means putting wellness at the forefront. Chaja-Clardy has taken the opportunities she’s been given to practice mindfulness as a principal and brought them to her staff.

“If you take care of teachers, teachers take care of kids.” She believes this strongly. “Anything we can do under mindfulness, physical fitness, nutrition – we make sure that every Professional Development day has a chunk of time dedicated to staff wellness.”

And in her personal Theory of Action, she deliberately spells out opportunities to focus on her own wellness so that she can be an effective leader.

Restorative practices strengthen bonds

Students participating in restorative practices and circles

For students, cultivating a sense of belonging happens, in large part, through restorative practices and circles.

“We use circles to welcome our 6th grade students and other students new to the school. We hold ‘support circles,’ where a student can self-refer or a teacher may refer a student because they notice them shutting down or their grades are slipping. We also use circles as a way to re-introduce a student to our community when they’ve been out on a suspension.”

Cherokee Heights Middle School Student

Students also take part in circles that revolve around each month’s middle school-specific social emotional learning theme. A theme such as “Empathy, Responsible Choices, Civic Responsibility or Understanding Different Perspectives” is determined by the school’s circle keepers. They hold a circle to kick it off, then lessons continue throughout the month around that theme.

Chaja-Clardy notes that “many of our students who volunteer for a circle keeper role are kids who are empathetic, and kids who are passionate about the racial justice piece of it.” Circle keepers have had the opportunity to take part in various leadership opportunities outside the school and have presented at national conferences and the Racial Justice Summit and have hosted principals from across the country.

A closer look at climate

As spelled out in their School Improvement Plan (SIP), the staff at Cherokee Heights hold “high expectations for all students who enter CHMS. Accountability and high expectations are consistently communicated to all on a regular basis.” With restorative practices at the forefront, students are held accountable to their school community and individuals are viewed as important contributors to the whole. And, as predicted, the kids are stepping up. Using behavior referrals and climate data to measure the success of restorative practices, the data show their efforts are working to accelerate outcomes and to create a sense of belonging.

Pointing to the school’s Theory of Action, Chaja-Clardy says “This was our theory, and it proved to be true.”

Race and Equity teams

At the start of each school year, staff members are placed on a Race and Equity team with people they do not typically interact with. These teams stay together all year and are led by a core group of circle keepers. Race and Equity circles are held during Professional Development Time (PCT) or on Professional Development days, and these small groups gather to focus on work with learning partnerships. Creating these intentional spaces has allowed for staff to be honest and to really think and reflect on their practices and what they need to keep going.