A giant wall of paper hands spelling out “Welcome” greets visitors at Boston’s John F Kennedy Elementary School, the first in the state to fully engage in HRC’s Welcoming Schools program, a multi-year program aimed at creating a school community in which all students and families feel included, respected and valued.
The school was celebrating earning the Welcoming Schools’ Seal of Excellence. In front of a packed auditorium, Principal Landing read letters of congratulations from the Mayor of Boston, Senator Elizabeth Warren and the Governor. A group of second and third grade students sang a moving version of “Read All About It.” The fifth graders premiered their very own video about what it means to feel included.
Earning the Seal of Excellence is no easy task—it takes time and focus, and involves the entire school community. Principal Landing made the commitment to become a “Welcoming School” in 2013, after several teachers and families shared their concerns about name-calling and bias among students. With Landing's unwavering leadership and support from HRC’s Welcoming Schools staff and trainers, the school embarked on a three-year process of professional development and coaching for their staff, using lesson plans about family diversity, being an ally and navigating differences in all of their K-5 classrooms and community-wide activities to help build connections, find common ground and celebrate the diversity among students.
During my tour of the school, I asked teachers whether there is a noticeable difference in how the students treat one another and how they tackle issue related to individual differences. Every teacher agreed that there is now very little if any bullying behavior, that the students have a much stronger grasp of what words are hurtful and why and a greater sense of empathy toward one another. In addition, the teachers feel more equipped to be helpful if they see or hear unkind behavior and to help students think more critically about their motivations for hurting or excluding certain students.
I could feel and see the welcoming spirit of the school during my brief visit, and hope that other Boston elementary schools will follow in the pioneering footsteps of Principal Landing and the John F. Kennedy elementary school.