Capistrano Unified School District Encourages School Connectedness Through Student Support

Empowering students to communicate openly.

Holding schoolwide activities.

Providing opportunities for students of all levels to develop friendships.

These are a few of the many ways Capistrano Unified School District is fostering school connectedness on its campuses as the initiative improves student health and academic achievement.

School connectedness is the belief held by students that the adults and peers in their school care about their learning as well as about them as individuals. Research reports that students who feel connected to school are more likely to have a number of positive health and academic outcomes, including higher grades and test scores, have better school attendance, and stay in school longer.

“Whenever students are engaged, that’s when they excel in the school setting,” said Rebecca Pianta, Coordinator, Counseling and Student Support, Capistrano Unified School District. “Once students know that they’re truly cared about, they become more committed and involved, and they do better in their studies.”

To encourage school connectedness, Pianta said one such practice is building a sense of community in the classroom and the school. Students and staff sit in a restorative circle and explore different types of issues. It’s an opportunity to hear each other’s voice and get to know one another.

Another way is having students become involved in various communities and clubs where they relate to classmates with similar interests.

School counselors play a critical role in helping students facing a significant grade transition – specifically students graduating from fifth to sixth grade and eighth to ninth grade, Pianta said. Middle schools run new student groups and host games where incoming classes get to know staff and connect with classmates who also are new to the campus.

Such an example is WEB, which stands for “Where Everybody Belongs,” a middle-school orientation and transition program that welcomes sixth graders throughout the first year of their middle school experience.

This school year, staff and 60 eighth grade students at Bernice Ayer Middle School in San Clemente invited incoming sixth graders during an orientation on campus grounds. The leaders help incoming sixth graders get to know the school and each other and continue to provide support throughout the year. The program is designed to make sixth graders feel welcome at a new school and see a few familiar faces on the first day of class.

For those starting high school, Pianta said Link Crew is a high school transition program that welcomes freshmen and makes them feel comfortable throughout the first of their high school experience.

Mentors from junior and senior classes become Link Crew Leaders and help guide freshmen to discover what it takes to be successful during the transition to high school.

Pianta started the Link Crew program at San Juan Hills High School as she observed separation anxiety amongst incoming freshmen. Link Crew provides the structure for freshmen to receive support and guidance from upper classmen who have been through the challenges that high school poses, she said.

San Juan Hills High School former Principal (now Assistant Superintendent) Jennifer Smalley said the environment created by the school is an essential piece of school connectedness. Administrators and students alike promote a connected school with the message, “Ride for the Brand,” a set of expected school wide learning objectives:

Balance academics, activities, and social/emotional needs.

Respect and include those from all backgrounds, cultures, and perspectives.

Apply higher-level thinking skills to a broad range of college and career contexts.

Nurture relationships with their communities and positively contribute to society as a whole.

Dedicate themselves to setting and reaching meaningful goals.

Smalley said the campus also implemented a “Five Star” incentive, meaning that students earn a point for each time they participated in school wide events. Through a phone app, students scan into the event and once they reach five points, they receive a special prize.

San Juan Hills also holds “Gold Games” and “Gold Performances” where staff selects an upcoming game and arts performance, labels them “Gold,” and asks for more student attendance to cheer on their classmates.

With such measures, 85% of students are involved in a club, sport or artistic endeavor, Smalley said.

“We’ve taught students chants and cheers for pep rallies and we’ve seen incredible participation from our newest freshmen class,” Smalley said. “This freshman class wants to be involved in everything and we have the highest number of freshmen participating in the half-time show.

“It’s those kinds of things that lead to students who want to become all the more involved on campus,” Smalley said.

CUSD officials believe engaging students in meaningful, challenging, and innovative experiences leads to greater social emotional, behavior, and academic outcomes.

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