A Treasured Tradition

A Treasured Tradition

Thursday, May 7, 2020

Several fourth-graders stood off to the side, anxiously watching as the rest of the lower school walked in and settled down on colored carpet squares placed in rows on the floor. Soon after, they took center stage and began their skit, a reenactment of the book “A Bad Case of Stripes.”
 
Buoyed by the crowd, the actors hit their stride, driving home the book’s themes of peer pressure and self esteem. “I was nervous at first,” recalls Mariah Savoy, who played the main character. “Afterward, I felt happy, thankful, and proud.”

She was equally proud minutes later, when she watched several of her classmates stand up one by one to receive commendations from teachers for living up to the School Creed: one student had helped a classmate, another had overcome a challenge, and a third had set a good example in class.

It all took place during Harlem Academy’s Community Meeting, one of our oldest and most cherished traditions.

Steeped in Shared Values

Started in 2005, with just 26 first- and second-graders gathering together with teachers, Community Meetings have grown along with our school. Now held weekly in both the lower and middle school, with families invited to join on Fridays, the meetings offer a sense of togetherness, stability, and shared values to everyone in attendance.

“Community Meetings serve as an entry point for students in every grade to engage with the School Creed in a consistent way,” says Assistant Head of School LaShonda Davis. “Take the skit Mariah was in. She and her classmates now share a new, deep connection to the line, I chose to do what is right, even when it is hard or no one is watching, that they can draw from as they navigate similar situations. The rituals of the meetings, from the initial greeting to the final reflection, ground our school in its core values.”
 
From Giving Thanks to Giving Praise
 
Every Community Meeting begins with our School Thanksgiving and continues with a weekly message presented by a staff member that examines a part of the School Creed.
Students shaking hands as a 2013
Community Meeting nears its end.
These reflective messages bring our Creed to life in a different way each week, inspiring students to live as caring members of a community.
 
“Another central component of every meeting is the giving of commendations,” notes Head of School Vinny Dotoli. “A teacher from each grade commends one or more students for a specific action they observed that connects to a line of the School Creed. This is an opportunity to put a stamp on demonstrations of growth that are replicable by all students.”
 
Developing Leadership
 
Students in the highest grade in lower and middle school have a chance to lead a Community Meeting on a topic of their choice, with subjects running the gamut from Latinx culture, to African-American inventors, to issues such as bullying. Working in small groups, students develop a message about how to incorporate the Creed and Pillars – initiative, integrity, compassion, determination – into our daily lives. They share the message with their audience through performances, selected readings, or guided discussions – an experience that develops leadership and presentation skills.

“It was my first time leading a Community Meeting,” says Mariah. “I remembered watching the previous year’s fourth-graders lead the meeting, and I couldn’t wait to do it too. It’s important for kids to be leaders. Through our skit, I got to teach people about the Pillar of integrity. In the story, the main character, Camilla, realizes that you should be true to yourself.”

For classmate James Merchant, who led a different session last year, Community Meetings are beneficial whether he’s presiding over them or not. “I had never done anything like that before, and leading the meeting made me feel more confident in myself,” he says. “I always learn an important lesson at Community Meeting too. My favorite one was when we talked about the book ‘The BFG.’ It taught me that being compassionate is very important. Even when somebody hurts your feelings, you shouldn’t be mean to them. Instead, communicate how you feel. This is something I now try to do in my own life.

Ties That Bind

To close the meetings, everyone shakes hands, recites the School Creed, and then shares a quiet moment of reflection. “These meetings are one of the first ways our students engage with the Creed, opening the door to deeper and more meaningful methods of engagement over time as they mature,” says Mr. Dotoli. “More importantly, these gatherings bind us as a school community through values that stay with our students long after they leave our halls.”

Alumnus RayJon Grayson, who came to Harlem Academy in second grade, couldn’t agree more. “I was able to experience Community Meetings for seven years and they helped to instill leadership in me at a young age,” he says. “What really stayed with me, though, was the strong sense of community I gained. Those meetings made everyone feel closer to one another.”
 

 
 
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