Student Experience Research Network Blog

On August 13th, Student Experience Research Network hosted Belonging Now: New Insights from Research and Practice, a virtual briefing featuring remarks from leaders at Beloved Community, EL Education, Equal Opportunity Schools, Kingmakers of Oakland, and from SERN Scholar DeLeon Gray. Presenters discussed the structures and conditions that are needed to support adolescents’ sense of belonging in this unique moment, as school systems are planning for an uncertain return to school and reckoning with our nation’s history of systemic racism.

This briefing is one of a series of periodic events in which we invite the philanthropic community to learn from researchers and practitioners who are studying and applying core ideas related to student experience. Gisele Shorter from the Raikes Foundation, Brooke Stafford-Brizard from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and Charmaine Mercer from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation participated as discussants to draw out insights and implications for the funder community.



DeLeon began by grounding the conversation in historical context. “As we focus on belonging in schooling,” he said, “we have to center race in the conversation, because in every way, the strivings of historically marginalized populations in this country have been about belonging in society. Schools have the opportunity to replicate societal injustices or to change the world from the inside out.”

While belonging is a universal human need, it can only be achieved with attention to this historical context and the positioning of different people and groups in relation to structural barriers and opportunities. DeLeon went on to describe research on how school leaders can build an infrastructure for interpersonal, instructional, and institutional opportunities to belong. Sasha Rabkin, Chief Strategy Officer of Equal Opportunity Schools (EOS), discussed how this research has informed his organization’s process for assessing the cues, experiences, and conditions related to student belonging in a learning environment.

“This is a time to hold up a mirror to our systems and not a microscope to our young people,” Sasha said. Based on student survey and focus group data, EOS identified five elements that are present in environments worth belonging to, and that correlate with students’ sense of belonging, which is associated with their academic outcomes. These five elements are culturally relevant curriculum; culturally relevant teaching; classroom community; high expectations, feedback, and growth-oriented assessment; and conversations about race.

Chris Chatmon, who led the African American Male Achievement initiative in Oakland Unified School District and co-founded Kingmakers of Oakland, described how the program has sustained a sense of community and a commitment to centering students’ perspectives during the current moment. Kingmakers quickly assembled a youth street team and co-hosted conversations with the California Department of Education in which “young people could talk about their trauma and what school looks like, feels like, and sounds like for them, with us listening.”

Touching on similar themes, Ron Berger, Chief Academic Officer of EL Education, explained the Crew structure used in EL Education’s school network, which recognizes that students’ belonging, learning, and well-being are inextricably linked. In Crew, Ron explained, students know that, “your job as a crew member is to look out for your 12 crewmates, and make sure each one of them is safe and okay.” This structure has allowed for greater connection among students during distance learning and has led the organization to develop a multi-platform, synchronous and asynchronous system in which students set their own norms for what a respectful and committed distance learning community would look like.

Across the presenters’ and funder discussants’ remarks, we heard a powerful call to analyze who controls and participates in decision-making across the spheres of research, policy, and philanthropy, and to shift that power to students, families, and communities, particularly those who are marginalized by the current system.

Gisele Shorter identified “an open question with significant potential implications for research. […] Will we continue to center on WEIRD [Western, educated, industrialized, rich and democratic] populations, perspectives, and meaning-making as the base map on which we advance the work?” She and other speakers noted that WEIRD and Eurocentric norms across sectors can skew our measurement, analysis of root causes, and proposed solutions related to belonging.

For funders, challenging these norms can take the form of deep partnership with grantees, in ways that preserve the grantee’s autonomy, allow for flexibility, and foster mutual learning. For education system leaders, challenging these norms can mean using measures of belonging that are tailored to the local context and that reach beyond traditional metrics (e.g. augmenting survey data with qualitative and observational data).

Both of these examples are rooted in trusting relationships with the organizations and people closest to the work. At all levels, we heard that students must be elevated as co-creators and innovators as we work toward a new system that serves every young person.

Additional Resources Related to Event Themes

Speaker Resources

SERN Resources

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


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