Lincoln Middle School students meet twice a week to build trusting relationships with their peers and adults. File / David Harry

PORTLAND — Ensuring that students feel valued and connected at school is seen as not only critical to their overall development, but also to their overall academic achievement.

That’s why it’s one of the key goals in the School Department’s new strategic plan, known as the Portland Promise.

That’s also why each school within the district is working toward implementing its own individualized approach to making students feel safe, welcome and supported.

At Lincoln Middle School, for instance, students take part in a specialized program called Lions’ Pride.

Twice a week students meet in small groups designed to give them a place to share problems and solutions and discuss any topics that might be on their minds. The students also participate in various teambuilding activities and work on creating a positive school culture where everyone is respected, Principal Suellyn Santiago said.

The school mascot is a lion, and because in the wild lions are part of a larger social group called a pride, Santiago said it made sense for Lincoln Middle to call its new advisory period Lions’ Pride. She said the advisory periods first began last academic year and were so successful that they’ll continue this year, as well.

Santiago said time is set aside each week during the regular school schedule for both students and staff to work specifically on building trusting relationships, with the goal of having every student feel there’s at least one adult in the school they can turn to and who is looking out for them.

Each Lions’ Pride adviser is also a direct contact or point person for a student’s family to communicate with regarding any issues affecting family or school life. Santiago said with the structure at Lincoln Middle each student can have upwards of seven different teachers, so having one person that students and their families can rely on is important.

Lions’ Pride “creates an opportunity to ensure kids are learning in an environment they know acknowledges their social-emotional needs and sees that making (strong) connections is imperative to academic learning,” Santiago said.

Each Lions’ Pride session generally includes a community circle time, ice breakers, fun contests and a chance for students to work on their academic portfolios, she said.

“(S)tudents are overwhelmingly positive about this structure and the relationships they’ve built with their Lions’ Pride advisor and peers,” Santiago said.

She said Lincoln Middle partners with Rippleffect, a nonprofit with a mission of promoting youth development and leadership, which has helped train staff to run Lions’ Pride sessions.  In addition, Santiago said school staff is trained on team building and “we also model strategies and activities during our professional development that they can use with kids.”

Santiago said the school measures the success of its Lions’ Pride program through an annual district climate and culture survey and a mid-year review that includes student focus groups in order to gather feedback about what works and what doesn’t.

“Our Lions’ Pride initiative dovetails with the whole student goal in the Portland Promise, (which) aims to provide all students with a well-rounded education that connects them to their diverse talents and helps them develop the skills, habits and mindset for success in life,” she added.

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