Winnetka, News

New Trier affinity groups cultivate belonging, enable student success, program leaders tell School Board

New Trier High School officials have made it a priority to make every student within its walls have a sense of belonging.

And at the school’s regular Board of Education meeting on Monday, March 20, board members and the community received another update on how those efforts are progressing.

Superintendent Dr. Paul Sally said creating a culture of belonging is one of the goals of New Trier 2030, the district’s strategic plan.

“What we know is that if students don’t feel like they belong, they won’t be able to reach their academic potential, they won’t participate in extracurriculars to the extent that we really would like them to, and they won’t really feel like they have a place at New Trier,” he said.

Sally added that the district wants all students to be successful and feel they belong regardless of “race, religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability” and other differences.

One way in which New Trier has been working toward those goals is by offering affinity groups to its students.

Pat Savage-Williams, a school psychologist and one of the district’s equity liaisons, said affinity groups “are meant to be safe spaces for students who share an identity to come together and share support for each other. It’s a safe harbor for them.”

While her comments primarily focused on groups for racially diverse students, Savage-Williams said New Trier offers a variety of affinity groups, including for students in the LGBTQ+ community. According to the school website, at least 14 affinity groups are available, including Black student alliance, Jewish affinity group and Skittles (LGBTQ+ community).

“For students of color, much of their experiences at New Trier are immersed in the dominant white culture, and an affinity space can provide a space and a place for the to be included, to be validated, so that the dominant culture and pressures that they’re experiencing can be processed by them and their peers,” she said.

During the meeting, New Trier students shared with the board positive feedback on t how the affinity groups have impacted them, stating that it’s important for them to have a space to not only talk about their experiences, but also connect with other students with similar backgrounds.

Dr. Chimille Tillery, director of curriculum and instruction, said the academic departments also contribute to the goals of equity and creating a sense of belonging.

Every department creates equity goals, which Tillery said the teachers regularly have meetings about to see that they are implemented.

“The school should ensure students feel a sense of belonging by making certain students see themselves in the curricula of their classes,” she said.

That includes “develop(ing) lessons that celebrate diversity and build a larger sense of community within classes,” as well as implementing the school’s monthly observances into what is being taught.

Every month, New Trier recognizes a different community — whether related to race, gender, ethnicity or ability — with displays throughout the school and programming.

Besides internally within New Trier, Savage-Williams said she has been working with all the schools in New Trier Township about their own equity plans and how to implement them.

“All the districts want to have a community where our teachers, staff, students and families feel they belong,” she said. “We want them to belong in this township.”

Additionally, Savage-Williams said a township equity summit is being planned for this summer, which will be for faculty and staff at all New Trier Township schools.

“We’re looking forward to this opportunity to learn together and create more equitable systems, inclusive environments, and foster a sense of belonging for students, staff and families,” she said.

Board members praised the staff and students for how the school’s equity plans are moving forward.

“We are in the process of becoming critical thinkers, and we are seeing state-of-the-art (results) from that in our student body, thanks to you all,” board member Avik Das said.

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Peter Kaspari

Peter Kaspari is a blogger and a freelance reporter. A 10-year veteran of journalism, he has written for newspapers in both Iowa and Illinois, including spending multiple years covering crime and courts. Most recently, he served as the editor for The Lake Forest Leader. Peter is also a longtime resident of Wilmette and New Trier High School alumnus.

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