Encouraging a Sense of Belonging at Vaughn Elementary School

Staff and students at Vaughn Elementary make a next-level effort to support each other.


Principal Abbie Barabe returned from winter break with a game-changer in mind. In addition to supporting the Peninsula School District goals for school improvement, as stated in the policy and strategic plans for the district, Barabe wanted to take some extra steps to improve the learning environment at Vaughn Elementary.

The Month of Belonging project was created to do just that. Building on the “sense of belonging” theme for the district, the Month of Belonging aimed to celebrate the uniqueness of individuals, connections with other students, and an overall connection with PSD.

“There is a feeling that we are separate, but we belong — we are part of the district,”

Barabe said. “I don’t want my children to feel any different. They’re a part of who we are at Peninsula. That connection with Peninsula High School is so powerful. 

To reinforce that connection, seven PHS students, past graduates of Vaughn, created videos shown at the beginning of the program to help launch the Month of Belonging Jan. 29.

The Vaughn Elementary webpage features Barabe giving viewers an overview of the close-knit culture of the school. The video introduces viewers to the staff, PTA, and Communities in Schools participation, and the emphasis each day on respect, responsibility and safety.

Studies show that when students feel safe and secure, they can achieve more academically. With the help of Kristin Winters, the Communities in Schools site coordinator for Vaughn, and school leadership team members, three weeks of positive and engaging learning were planned.

Barabe said, “I’m trying to reach 77% of students, that means students feel they are valued by adults, peers and everyone. We looked at data and as a team we built the Month of Belonging.” The project engaged students in vocabulary, writing skills, listing characteristics, and giving names to actions. Barabe sends parents a weekly newsletter each Sunday evening, helping to prepare families for the week. The Month of Belonging was featured in the newsletters.

Each lunch hour during the three-week project, a different adult reads aloud to the student body. One reader was visitor Assistant Superintendent Dan Gregory. “I don’t often visit the elementary schools; this has been a treat.”

“Many of the kids are really looking forward to the reading each day,” says Barabe.

The three-week program is multifaceted. Classroom time and teacher effort were not impacted. The PTA provided support by creating paper hearts and handouts, and Communities in Schools provided rewards and snacks. All activities were done at lunch recess and all supplies were provided and ready to go.

Week one introduced the idea of students celebrating themselves as unique and valuable people. Week two encouraged connections with other students in the school. Celebrating others is supported by students writing on Husky Paws to notice other students (the school mascot is a husky).

“I think one of the greatest things was celebrating others the second week,” Winters said.

“The Kindness Wall is part of the lunchtime focus. Kids could get heart-shaped stickies and put someone’s name on the wall, someone who had been kind. They started with friends and then expanded out to others. Amazing to watch kids recognize others. Kids wanted to participate. Kids take a second to pause, think, and take action.”

“The Month of Belonging means we don’t bully; we take care of ourselves and take care of other people. We make sure that all people are happy and not sad,” said student Allie.

Week three emphasized the connection with the district at large. A giant tree is constructed at the entrance of the school, made of the hearts students had made earlier.

“Kids are loving the tree made of hearts; the Sense of Belonging Tree,” Winters said.

Students received a bracelet at the end of the project with the words “We are Vaughn, I belong.” The seven high school students returned to hand them out.

The project saturated the school with the Belonging theme beginning with a schoolwide Zoom video, letting students know what the challenge for the day was. In addition, all students read the same books each week, reflecting on the theme of belonging. Books and writing about the books were displayed in hallways.

“Month of Belonging has been a celebration of kindness and making sure that every student knows they have a place at Vaughn,” said fourth-grade teacher Beth Stitt. “Even though we try to practice these principles every day, it has been great to see kids take initiative. Celebrating is so important, and this month we celebrated kids, which is a beautiful thing.”

“We are a quiet, steady school, not often recognized,” she said. “Our reading scores should be at 60%, we are at 108%.”

“The goal is for students to know that each one is unique and special — to have kids value kids and that peers have strengths like them,” Barabe said.