Today, we’re diving into the topic of why a special school is more than just an educational institution, but a vibrant and supportive community. At my school (SEN), we believe that fostering a sense of community is crucial in creating an inclusive and empowering environment for our students.
It’s important to first clarify the vision of community that we aim to promote. As Robert Pirsig (author of Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) pointed out, the more we try to point to beauty, the quicker it disappears. Similarly, defining the nature of communities can be challenging, which may explain why notions of community are often referenced but not fully articulated.
To provide a starting point, we view community as a dynamic process marked by interaction and deliberation among individuals who share common interests and commitments to shared goals. It involves collective pursuit of these goals, leveraging the unique talents and capacities of community members, while valuing consensus and, at times, deferring to strongly held minority opinions, this is especially key in a special school. Acceptance of these opinions arises from respect for all members of the community and a belief that divergent ideas often drive progress. Meaningful interactions among community members lead to a shared sense of responsibility for both the process and its outcomes.
Being part of a community can greatly contribute to an individual’s wellbeing in various ways. Firstly, communities offer social connections and support networks that can help individuals feel a sense of belonging and reduce feelings of isolation. Humans are social beings, and having positive social interactions and relationships can significantly impact mental and emotional wellbeing. Being part of a community can provide opportunities for socialising, forming friendships, and developing supportive relationships, which can promote a sense of connectedness and hopefully, Joy.
So membership, according to Chavis & McMillen the concept of membership in a community can be defined by five key attributes: boundaries, emotional safety, a sense of belonging and identification, personal investment, and a common symbol system. These attributes work in tandem to establish a clear understanding of who is considered a member and who is not. They create a framework that delineates the parameters of the community and fosters a shared sense of identity and commitment among its members. The shared symbol system could relate to logo, values statement etc.
Secondly, communities can provide a sense of meaning and purpose. When individuals feel that they are part of something bigger than themselves, such as shared values or a common goal, it can give them a sense of purpose and direction in life. Shared experiences aligned to personal and professional interests deepen learners’ sense of belonging and trust (McMillan & Chavis, 1986) This can be particularly important for individuals who are searching for meaning in their lives or facing challenges, as being part of a community can provide a sense of identity and a reason to strive for personal growth and development. A good school will support members that are going through challenges in life.
Thirdly, communities can offer opportunities for personal growth and development. Many communities provide resources for learning, skill-building, and personal empowerment. This can include effective CPD, workshops, mentorship, and other opportunities for acquiring new knowledge and skills. Engaging in personal growth and development can lead to increased self-esteem, self-confidence, and a sense of accomplishment, all of which can contribute to improved wellbeing.
In addition, being part of a community can also offer a sense of collective empowerment. Communities often come together to advocate for shared interests and causes, which can give individuals a sense of agency and the ability to make a positive impact on their society. This sense of collective empowerment can foster a sense of purpose and fulfilment, as individuals feel that they are contributing to a greater good. This can impact the wider community partners i.e local shops who benefit from their relationships with schools, including learning about schools’ inclusive culture (Gross et al 2015).
Ten Ways School Leaders Can Develop a Sense of Community.
- Build strong relationships: School leaders can prioritise building strong relationships with students, staff, and families. This can be done through regular communication, open-door policies, and creating opportunities for meaningful interactions. This should be supported by governors.
- Promote inclusivity: Foster a culture of inclusivity where every student, staff member, and family feels valued and respected. Create policies and practices that promote diversity, equity, and inclusion, and address any discriminatory behaviours or attitudes.
- Foster a sense of belonging: Create a sense of belonging by promoting a positive and inclusive school culture. Leaders across the school organise events, activities, and celebrations that bring the school community together and make everyone feel included and welcomed. These could be as simple as an assembly or Inclusive Sports Day like the Sensory 5K.
- Involve families: Involve families in the school community by creating opportunities for them to participate in school events, volunteer, and engage in decision-making processes. Regularly communicate with families and seek their input on school matters.
- Create a supportive environment: Foster a supportive environment where students, staff, and families feel safe, supported, and heard. School leaders often provide resources, services, and support systems that cater to the unique needs of students in a special school.
- Encourage collaboration: Promote collaboration among students, staff, and families to foster a sense of community. Encourage teamwork, group activities, and shared projects that promote cooperation, communication, and social interaction. This is especially good if that project has a community benefit such as designing or maintaining a sensory garden.
- Provide opportunities for personal growth: Create opportunities for personal growth and development for all members of the school community. Many schools offer significant amounts of training, workshops, and professional development opportunities for staff.
- Celebrate diversity: Celebrate and appreciate the diversity within the school community. Encourage school leaders to create opportunities to learn about different cultures, traditions, and experiences, and promote acceptance among students, staff, and families.
- Foster a positive school climate: Create a positive school climate where mutual respect, kindness, and empathy are valued. Encourage school leaders to address any negative behaviours, conflicts, or bullying promptly and take steps to ensure a safe and respectful school environment.
- Encourage student voice: Empower students to have a voice in the school community. Provide opportunities for students to express their opinions, suggestions, and feedback, and involve them in decision-making processes, such as student councils or focus groups. This will help students feel valued and included in the school community.
Improve the Inclusion of the School In The Local Community.
This is a summary of Gross et al’s work on how special schools in the US improved their relationships in the wider community.
- Engage with the community | Regularly visit local businesses and service organizations, establish relationships with owners/proprietors, attend community events, designate a staff member as a community liaison
- Jointly identify mutual interests and goals | Invite community representatives to school events, create a school council with participation, survey partners about family and student needs, link interests and goals to student learning
- Ensure reciprocity in the partnership | Meet regularly with partners to update goals, identify ways for the school to give back to the community, utilise community resources to support families and children
- Maintain an “open door policy” | Invite feedback from families, school staff, and community members, schedule appointments with representatives, make school buildings available for community use
- Invite community members to serve in various roles within the school | Invite community members to serve on committees and leadership teams, involve them in evaluation of school and staff performance, engage them as active participants in projects, field trips, and celebrations.
Schools can foster successful community partnerships through effective school leadership, a welcoming school culture, dedicated educators committed to student success, and the ability to collaborate and communicate effectively with community partners. These partnerships not only benefit schools in the present, but also have the potential to yield long-term benefits.
In conclusion, schools are not just places of learning, but also communities where students, teachers, staff, families, and partners come together to create a supportive and inclusive environment. A strong sense of community within a school fosters collaboration, engagement, and shared responsibility for student success. It enables the development of meaningful relationships, promotes a sense of belonging, and empowers individuals to thrive. The power of community in schools goes beyond the present, as it also leaves a lasting impact on the future, benefiting not only the school itself, but also the wider community as a whole. Together, we can continue to build and nurture vibrant and inclusive communities within our schools, creating a positive and empowering educational experience for all.
Bryk, A. S. (2010, April). Organizing schools for improvement. Kappan Magazine, 91(7),
23–30. Retrieved from here.
Mcmillan, David & Chavis, David. (1986). Sense of Community: A Definition and Theory. Journal of Community Psychology. 14. 6-23. Read Here.
Westheimer, Joel & Kahne, Joseph. (1993). Building school communities: An experience-based model. Phi Delta Kappan. 75. Read Here
Gross, J. M. S., Haines, S. J., Hill, C., Francis, G. L., Blue-Banning, M., & Turnbull, A. P. (2015). Strong school–community partnerships in inclusive schools are “part of the fabric of the school.…We count on them”. The School Community Journal, 25(2), 9–34. Read Here
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