Students & Educators Discuss the Importance of Belonging in Schools

/ May 27, 2024

Thriving, connecting, enlightening, understanding, shared leading, and empowering— all were a number of repeated themes that surfaced in RARE’s second Open Discussion of 2024 this past April 29.

Fostering a Sense of Belonging – April 2024

The topic of the April 29 Open Discussion was Fostering A Sense of Belonging in Schools. The guests were students and educators from BELONG Partners and the NAACP Youth Council (NYC). The former, an acronym for Building Equitable Learning Opportunity and Nurturing Growth, was represented by educators Alan Wong, Sylvia Hadnot, Tymmony Keegan, and students Shasmeerra Jadhav of Renton High School  and Jonathan Diaz of Dimmitt Middle School, also in Renton. The NYC was represented by the moderator for the evening William Souza-Ponce and Semai Hagos, both of Ballard High School and Mina Huynh of Garfield High School.

NAACP Youth Council

Most of the panel, all of whom are people of color, had at times experienced a sense of isolation in the predominately white schools they had attended. Some had struggles and feelings of powerlessness. It was that feeling of isolation at the Center School that prompted Mina Huynh’s transfer to Garfield where she connected with other students of Vietnamese ancestry. “I felt a good sense of connection and community there,” she said. Feeling “safe” and “accepted”, she has since thrived, engaging in a number of extracurricular activities including outreaches to Little Saigon where she is working on an oral history project.

The panelists all agreed that connecting with others to form communities is empowering. William Souza-Ponce’s high school experience has been greatly enhanced by joining Ballard’s Latino Student Union at Ballard. It meets weekly to discuss issues, play games and hang out, giving each of the group a greater sense of belonging. As a result, William has become more active in school issues. Semai Hagos, president of the Ballard Black Student Union, is just one of three Eritreans attending Ballard. She has enjoyed meeting others with similar experiences. “We’re all different in our cultures, but our experiences are similar,” she said, adding that she would like to see more communication with the teachers.

BELONG Partners

Teacher Alan Wong touched on that very subject. He, along with students Jonathan Diaz and Shasmeerra Jadhav are veterans of DOOL, which stands for Designing Our Own Learning. It’s a group of teachers and students who meet, play games, discuss topics, and learn from each other. Alan, along with educators Sylvia Hadnot and Tymmony Keegan all acknowledged that it’s teachers who traditionally have all the power. By sharing, listening, and getting to know students better, teachers are sharing their power. In DOOL, everyone is on a first-name basis. Renton student Shasmeerra Jadhav enjoyed DOOL (once she got used to calling her teachers by their first names) and the greater sense of connection she got from it.

Developing a sense of belonging in schools empowers students.

All panelists have pushed for their schools to include and expand their ethnic studies’ programs. Tymmony Keegan who teaches Black Studies at Cleveland High School stated that the “hidden history” that is brought out into the open gives Black students not only a sense of enlightenment and empowerment, but the ability to empower others. Mina Huynh agreed and has urged teachers to incorporate different cultures in their lessons. She said, “Seeing myself in lessons made me excited about learning.”

While at Ballard, William Souza-Ponce noted a tiny percentage of  students of color in Ballard’s STEM program. He did some research and found that students who see and learn of persons of color in the sciences dramatically increases STEM participation from students of the same.  William is striving for more ethnic studies to be incorporated into STEM.

“When you create belonging, lives change.” – Sylvia Hadnot of BELONG Partners

“When we as educators are able to create a sense of belonging for our young people and ourselves, we are also supporting young people in going on to support more belonging after they graduate. Belonging can travel,” continued Hadnot.

Communicating, willingness to listen, learning about others, and creating situations inside and outside of the classroom that foster belonging are powerful tools to create a more equitable society.

RARE would like to thank its guests from BELONG Partners and the NAACP Youth Council for sharing their experiences in exemplifying these principles and making for a better educational experience for students. Thank you for being part of an enlightening Open Discussion.

For more information about BELONG Partners and NAACP Youth Council, visit their web sites: