Students Need to Feel That They Belong

Leaders of the Pickerington Local School District want students and staff to feel that they belong in the community. Photo from PLSD

April 24, 2022

A recent survey of Pickerington Local School District (PLSD) students reported that grades 3-5 experience the highest sense of belonging among those surveyed with a decline in the higher grade levels.  

Dr. Michael Jackson, PLSD Director of Diversity and Engagement, told the school board on April 11 that the district has implemented programs to help students and staff feel more welcome.

“A sense of belonging not only meets our employees’ basic needs, it inspires their work and drives better results,” Jackson said. “There is a need for more diverse and culturally engaging experiences in our lessons and schools.”

According to a global study conducted by Qualtrics at the end of 2020 a sense of belonging emerged as the strongest driver of employee engagement. Employees who feel like outsiders engage in their work 20-percent of the time compared to the 91-percent engagement from those with a sense of belonging.

“Everyone has value and worth, and everyone in our world needs to feel that they belong,” said School Board Member Cathy Olshefski, “What can we do to make sure that they believe that? Regardless of skin tone, faith, beliefs, gender identity, special education, mobility, weaknesses and strengths – it doesn’t matter. That is who we are.”

Last fall, Pickerington Schools held its first “Night of Engagement”
Photo from PLSD

Olshefski praised Jackson and Howard but acknowledged that some community members may not appreciate their efforts.

“I am a big cheerleader of you along with Alesia, but more broadly what you’re doing,” Olshefski told Jackson. “It’s scary for some, it’s a waste of time for others, it’s about damn time for populations in our school, world, and local community. There’s been a lot talked about this concept both accurately and inaccurately in our country for a long time. We want everyone to belong and I’m so proud of where we’ve come in a year and the potential of where we can go, so thank you again.”

The administration has implemented several programs and initiatives during the 2021-22 school year.

Diversity & Engagement Liaisons

The district hired 16 Diversity and Engagement Liaisons who participate in weekly trainings and provide curriculum resources to their assigned schools, for example Black History resources in February, Women’s History resources in March and Asian Pacific Islander resources will be coming in May.

“They further promote the celebrations of heritage months within their buildings, and they engage students and faculty in this process,” Jackson said.

Family Liaisons

Pickerington area parents serve as Family Liaisons for the district.
Photo from PLSD

“When you have students from 73 different countries speaking 58 different languages, we need the kind of commitment and dedication we have in our five Family Liaisons who are also PLSD parents,” Jackson said. “These awesome individuals serve as bridges in so many ways to cultures that we are doing our best to serve each day. The more we are able to serve our EL (English Learning) population the more we are better able to serve the needs of all.”

The Family Liaisons support the district through visiting homes, assisting with enrollment at the Welcome Center, promoting parent involvement in school events, helping teachers and parents foster good study skills, encouraging parental involvement in their students’ education and familiarizing EL parents with American cultural norms, social services and the educational, legal and health systems.

Superintendent Chris Briggs said that while he is grateful for the help the Family Liaisons provide with school-related issues, “it was more heartening to see those liaisons working with our families on things outside of school. Really just survival – trying to figure out who to go to for what.”

Curriculum Additions

In kindergarten through fourth grade, the elementaries have utilized the Second Step program for social-emotional learning (SEL).

Students celebrate Chinese New Year.
Photo from PLSD

Per the organization’s website, “Second Step programs combine discussions with fun activities and family resources. The programs help children learn social-emotional skills such as responsible decision-making, working together to solve problems, managing strong emotions, and getting along with others. These skills can help children succeed academically and socially.”

At the junior high level both Ridgeview and Lakeview now offer social justice courses.  

Students at Pickerington Central can take African American literature, African American history, and Ethics & Culture through College Credit Plus (CCP). The district is engaging in talks with university partners about plans to offer similar courses at Pickerington North in the future.

Expansion of the Gifted Program to Reach Under-represented Students

To estimate reasoning and problem-solving skills, the district administers the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test to second graders. It is a non-verbal test that enables the school system to identify gifted students from homes where English is not the primary language.

“Night of Engagement”
Photo from PLSD

“Our EL and underrepresented students often use the Naglieri in grades other than second,” Jackson said.

This year, the district introduced the Talent and Individual Development Enrichment (TIDE) program for the third graders who just missed qualifying for the gifted program.

“We put them together during enrichment time and presented lessons that would expand their thinking,” Jackson said. “These classes reflected our student population more so than the typical gifted classroom. This will be expanded to lower grades next school year.”

The gifted department also proactively retests underrepresented students to see if they qualify for services rather than waiting for a parent to request retesting.

Hiring & Retaining Minority Candidates

“We are going to start focusing on recruitment and retention of teaching candidates, so we are putting teachers in front of our kids that look like our kids,” Briggs said. “Everyone in central Ohio is competing for the same pool of candidates to attract to their school district.”

From the Black History Month performance
“Where I Stand”
PLSD Photo taken by Pickerington Central Student Matthew Brown

One of the focuses for the Citizens’ Advisory Committee (CAC) was personnel and looking at recruitment data.

“What makes us different from the Westervilles, the Worthingtons, the Dublins, the Hilliards, the Southwestern City Schools?” Briggs said. “What can we do at Pickerington to do a better job of recruiting and retaining?”

The school district has a young workforce that will likely not retire soon, Jackson said.

“I want it to be known that we can put together a recruitment and retention plan for diverse applicants and employees, but this is a destination district. We have committed employees that are not inclined to leave. Our HR department in concert with myself are working to fill or at least present ourselves in such a way that we would attract a cadre of diverse candidates that want to come here. So, it’s going to take time and I want the community to know that. I appreciate their patience,” Jackson said.

He and HR intend to create sustained relationships with colleges of education to identify and hire qualified minority candidates.

To retain minority staff, Jackson worked with the district’s human resources department to create a plan for Employee Resource Groups (ERGs).

ERGs are voluntary employee-led groups whose aim is to foster a diverse inclusive workplace aligned with the organizations they serve. No different than special interest clubs and organizations that students may form with a similar committee approval process.

From the Black History Month performance “Where I Stand”
PLSD Photo taken by Pickerington Central Student Sophia DiCuirci

“I’m also working with HR to establish an employee recognition program which will not only support the recruitment of diverse candidates, but will also assist in the retention of our current stellar workforce,” Jackson said.

Staff Training

Staff are learning essential de-escalation techniques both for themselves and students. The human resources department has also provided training for teachers on cultural awareness, how to establish trust between home and school and the importance of direct communication.

Diversity & Engagement Committee

“The Diversity and Engagement Committee (DEC), formerly known as the Pride Committee is still going strong,” Jackson said. “Building and district-level leadership sit on this committee – the roles and responsibilities of which include vetting software, programming considerations to increase diverse perspectives among staff and students, and planning partners for community events like CommUNITY Day and the Night of Engagement. We will also participate in recruitment activities including interviews and job fair representation.”

“Where I Stand”
PLSD Photo taken by Pickerington Central Student Sophia DiCuirci

Let’s Talk About It

Let’s Talk About It is a way to reach our staff who want more insight and understanding around creating an inclusive educational space for their students,” Jackson said. “It provides approaches to learn more about the diverse cultures in their classrooms – a space to ask questions, to be honest and authentic in their questioning and to offer their insight of what has worked or not with their colleagues in a safe and respectful space.”

Community Events

Jackson partnered with the Teaching and Learning (T&L) staff to facilitate the district’s first Night of Engagement in which 18 families shared their cultural heritage with more than 400 community members.

Briggs described the Night of Engagement as “just the tip of the iceberg. We are just starting to dive into getting that engagement with our community.”

Jackson teamed up with T&L a second time for the live broadcast of the PLSD Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration.

“I’m also co-facilitating CommUNITY Day with Elizabeth Curtis, district EL Coordinator this month on April 30 which will be a fantastic community event,” Jackson said. “We invite everyone to come out and immerse themselves in the rich history and culture of our diverse community.”

“Night of Engagement” Photo from PLSD