O’Dea High School Creates Space for Belonging

June 7, 2023

In Catholic schools, community and connection are important—not just for the students, but for the parents as well. At O’Dea High School, a belonging workshop centered around parent experiences is helping strengthen community ties and open channels of communication.

“We are always thinking about ways that we can engage our teachers, students, and parents in our community,” said Assistant Principal of Academics Lucas Dobbs. “This workshop allowed us to bring parents in and ask them about their experiences, to see how they relate to the school. These points of connection are important because we all need a place, we all need somewhere to belong.”

The event, sponsored by O’Dea, was led by Alana Bell, the Fulcrum Foundation’s Becraft Scholars director. Alana acted as a consultant for the school, helping them create an event where parents and families could feel like they had a voice. The event was attended by O’Dea parents, students, and staff.

“When a school welcomes a child into its community, they also accept a family,” Alana said. “If schools desire to cultivate cultures of belonging, it’s vital that schools begin by extending an invitation of radical welcome to all families.”  

“If parents feel like they belong, they are going to be more engaged in how their son is doing at school and encourage their son to engage in belonging activities as well,” said Rory McNulty. Rory is the director of O’Dea’s innovative House System, which forges peer-to-peer connections and community, as well as mentorships between teachers and students. “Parents are the first educators. Our parents need to feel that we’re listening to them so that they’ll know we’re caring for their child. It’s imperative that parents feel like they’re being heard, that we care about them and their experiences.”

Kit Soldato, a school counselor and one of the organizers for the event, said, “These parents have to support their child through their four years here. If the parents don’t feel connected to our community, how are they supposed to reach out to the teachers? To other parents? If they don’t feel connected, how can they feel like they belong? That’s what it comes down to. We are all a part of raising these kids.”

One of the big takeaways from the workshop was the importance of personal touchpoints from the school to the parents, said Lucas. “Originally, we only had five people sign up for the belonging event. And then one of our teachers personally reached out to some of the parents and we reached 30 sign-ups in one day.”

Ryland Brown, a math teacher at O’Dea, took it upon himself to invite families to the event. “I believed that the personal touch of inviting people would make the difference,” he said. “I think schools do a great job of sending a lot of information home, but sometimes there has to be a distinguishing factor, something that tells you why you should come to this event in particular, why it’s important.”

Ryland, who is also a mentor teacher for the House System, knows firsthand how important it is to build belonging as a community. “I’ve had great conversations with my families about their sons’ time here. We just have to make sure we include everyone, not just the parents who are loud and upfront. Everyone has an equal stake in this. That’s why it’s so important to intentionally create space for the voices we don’t always get to hear.”

The workshop was attended by parents, students, teachers, and administrators. The feedback from the parent attendees was positive. “I loved the event,” said one attendee, replying to an anonymous survey sent out after the event. “I recommend doing more events…Building community takes time and takes space. We will be there and we will promote! Thank you so much!”  

“I wish more parents were present to share their experiences, to continue the important work of making connections and building relationships to support the school diversity and equity team so this sense of belonging can be felt with each student and parent,” said another attendee.

The workshop was the latest in a long line of belonging-centered initiatives at O’Dea, including the House System and “Character Strong,” a direct social-emotional learning program that involves every member of the school community.

Lucas said O’Dea plans to build on the success of the parent belonging workshop and will continue seeking new ways to engage all members of the school community. “We’re getting to imagine what this work will look like and where it will take us in the future. It’s very exciting.”

“My aspiration is that I want the students and parents themselves to understand, believe, and engage in our belonging work. I want everyone to have a deep understanding that belonging is the foundation for everything great we can do at this school,” said Rory. “We can’t provide pastoral care and help our students grow in faith if the students don’t feel faith that they belong. It’s incredibly hard, but it’s more than worth it.”