September 15, 2016 | by Jennifer Ciok

Building School Community From Day One


As the 2016/17 school year kicks off across our 12 core partner schools, we asked Umoja's Social Emotional Learning Specialist at Sullivan High School, Jen Ciok, to tell us about the unique first week Sullivan students are experiencing - where the school has chosen to start the year off by building community within the school before anyone even opens a textbook…

"I wouldn't change anything! It was great!”

“I like Sullivan, the teachers are nice.”

“I liked the ice cream and assemblies."

These aren't normally the words that you hear from students after the first week of school, but last week at Sullivan High School the freshmen were singing the praises of their new home for the next four years. 

IMG_1939.JPGFor the second year in a row, I had the privilege of supporting the Sullivan staff and students in what is called “Connections Week.” During this week, the teachers suspend their "regular" academic curriculum to do community building lessons from the Umoja curriculum focusing on Sullivan's core values of Family, Integrity, Service and Tenacity. The goal is to start building the social-emotional capacity of students from day one to ensure that  all students know that the staff cares about them as people and want them to succeed. For you see, this is not something just for incoming freshmen; but all students from ninth to twelfth grade are engaged in this learning. Activities during the week included community building circles, sharing goals for the future, writing letters of gratitude, recognizing their advocates and learning how to advocate, and creating class chants. They learned how attendance predicts success, organizational strategies, how to calculate GPA, and got a tour of the school. Students were charged to think about success not only in terms of academics, but also in being involved, serving others, and being their best selves. 

Even on some of the hottest days of the summer, in a school without air conditioning, it was great to feel the energy and excitement of the students. As I watched students become more comfortable throughout the week and saw teachers learning not only student’s names, but also little nuggets of information to tuck away, I realized again how important it is to start school in a meaningful and intentional way, not jumping in with curriculum, but by learning about the family you are going to spend the next year with. 

Jen Ciok has been with Umoja since 2015. She brought with her over a decade of experience in the classroom and a passion for improving education by fostering mutually-supportive student-teacher relationships and a belief that a true community can help all students succeed.