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Building a Sense of Belonging—One Step at a Time

It’s Holy Week—which means our students and teachers are on a hard-earned holiday. But they still have the capacity to inspire us—as a group of eighth graders and their teacher Anthony Rozario at St. Athanasius in the Bronx reveal.

“Everyone belongs” is a fundamental tenet of the St. Athanasius School community. To make that aspiration a reality, though, requires more than a slogan. And this spring, that quest led the school’s eighth graders to hang out on the steps before school.

What they are doing there, and why, suggests how intentional routines—anchored in a school’s deepest beliefs—can drive school culture.

Religion teacher Anthony Rozario provides a broad context: “We want people to come to our church and to belong. Yet often, our parishes are large and anonymous. With the intrusion of COVID, this distancing seems even more pronounced. Our school experienced this disconnect, too.”

Before COVID, all students and teachers at St. Athansisus used to begin every day meeting up in the gym for prayer and affirmations, like “Way-to-Go Wednesday” shout-outs. Only then would they move in orderly lines to classrooms. “We started the day like a family, like a community,” eighth-grader Miley explains.

But due to the pandemic, students have gone straight up the stairs in the morning to their classrooms for the last two years. Before announcements, eighth-grader Neveah explains, “we read, which is good, but…”

“Not as good as starting your day all together,” Miley adds.

When the shift away from a morning meeting began, “Principal Jessica Aybar and Dean Fiona Chalmers suggested that some teachers could strategically position themselves on the stairs,” Mr. Rozario relates. “Considering that the mask mandate was still in full force, it would also help to learn students’ names and to get a sense of how their day was starting off.” His colleague, librarian Gisela Schera, made a special effort to greet students based on the saint or feast of the day. So as happens at many schools, teachers began to greet students on the stairs each morning.

At the start of Lent, Mr. Rozario suggested that the eighth graders engage in service that reinforces the truth that everyone belongs in their school. Together, they decided on a number of ways to serve—including joining this “Stair Ministry”—and Miley and Neveah took on the task of organizing their classmates’ shifts—an effort that wasn’t as simple as it sounds.

“There were some people in our class who said, ‘oh, please, don’t make me do this.’” Neveah chimes in: “We had to push them out the door to do it.”

And not every student was struck with a deep sense of belonging every day. As Miley says, “some people wake up on the wrong side of the bed, and you can really tell that.”

Miley greets more students as they come up to their classrooms.

But the students recount dozens of stories like one involving a seventh-grader who responded with a fun greeting of his own—and they now talk with him more than they did before. They particularly like greeting the little kids—”adorable–so enthusiastic—” and Neveah has developed a particular connection to second-grader Heaven. “She has amazing energy, and you can tell she knows that she has a community.”

“Just a smile can make someone’s day, and the fact that I can do that for someone is amazing,” Miley says.

“I would do it again in a heartbeat,” classmate Brianna reflected. In fact, the positive discoveries outweighed the challenges to such an extent that the eighth graders have asked to keep their spots on the stairs through the end of the school year.

Mr. Rozario observes, “I notice a growing sense of confidence on the part of the ‘Morning Greeters,’ along with more interaction with the students in other grades. As the masks come off we are seeing more smiles, and more students seem ready for the new day.”

As so many headlines illustrate these days, re-establishing a sense of community is an urgent task, and often a complex one. But St. Athanasius, that effort starts simply each morning with a handful of eighth-graders, and it proceeds one “good morning” at a time—a promising start.