You Belong Here

You Belong Here

In July 2015 I was given a gift I didn’t know I wanted or needed. I had completed my 13th school year at one of the best places I’ve ever worked. The school where I was principal was positively humming with a strong culture, deep community support, dedicated school staff, and impressive student data. My work family was at that school—we shared our life events and created true personal connections. I loved that school!

That summer I was on a hiring committee for three elementary principal positions in our district. The interviews were to be held on one long day and we would select a few candidates to recommend to the superintendent. As the interview day proceeded, we were impressed by a few of the candidates and commented how they might be a good fit for one or another of the three vacancies. At about midday, a senior staff member on the committee noted one of the vacant positions was at a school considered one of the best in the school district. He said he thought we should consider moving a veteran principal to that position rather than hirin someone new. Long story short…by the end of the day I was chosen to move to that school as the new principal (and good news…my AP at the time would become the principal of the school I was leaving).

I was definitely not looking to go anywhere at that time, but the move was a chance to gain a fresh perspective. I was assigned an assistant principal who was new to the district and new to school leadership after having served three years as a teacher. We met for the first time at the school board meeting where his hiring was approved. Both of us being new to the school proved to be both fantastic and challenging. The school was in its 8th year of existence, and I was the 5th principal. The staff were hard-working and successful, but they had not had the experience of longevity in leadership. There was a culture at the school that neither of us knew about before we started. We had to get to know each other and learn to use our talents to create educational magic in our new setting.

One of the most striking things we noticed about the school was the lack of an identity. There was no “brand” that set the school apart from others. Elementary schools are often connected to a specific place. They are built in towns, communities, subdivisions, on specific streets, etc., and they are part of those communities. Our school was a lovely modern building on a street surrounded by subdivisions with wooden privacy fences creating the border to our playground. We were not inside any of those subdivisions. In addition, if you know the San Antonio area you know there are several small independent cities adjacent to or surrounded by the city of San Antonio. Our school was located on the last street of Universal City, and directly across the street was the city of Converse. Our students came from both communities along with some who were on the edge of the city of Live Oak. We were in an odd geographical spot!

The AP and I decided right from the beginning we had to create a special “place” for our school. We needed to build a community identity and brand that distinguished us from the other schools in our district and city. Our school would become a destination campus—one parents and students were proud of and that people from outside our area picked as their school of choice. We began by creating a social media presence, predominately on Facebook. We highlighted the great things happening at our school. We were deliberate about our postings. Each week we posted something academic, something social, and something community-focused to represent all the good stuff happening. We also started highlighting our school in district-level media, and we made sure our events and activities were promoted and covered on their website.

Most importantly, we wanted to ensure our students and families knew we were focused on them and their experiences. With the help of talented and engaged staff members, we developed a lens to guide our thinking. In very simple terms, we wanted to create the message to our community that “You Belong Here”. The idea was to provide students and families experiences that connected not just their interests but also to things they didn’t know were their interests yet. Throughout the years, these included clubs and activities that were academic (Spelling Bees, 24 Club), artistic (Art Club, Choir, Ensemble, Talent Show), athletic (Running Club, Jump Rope Contest, Field Day), and community-focused (Environmental Club, Food Drives, Animal Shelter Adoption). Right before the pandemic shut down schools for the 2019-2020 school year (literally we were going to start right after Spring Break), we created a pilot program for 1st grade students to have a club period in the academic day with staff members sharing a passion of theirs—we had a yoga club, gardening, sports, etc. ready to go.

Returning to school from the pandemic, the You Belong Here philosophy became a more schoolwide idea to help provide students with experiences they missed during the closure and subsequent re-opening. With the help of an outstanding and enthusiastic (small) group of PTO parents, we started a program called First Friday. The first Friday of each month we provided a schoolwide activity to give kids exposure to something they didn’t experience every day. For example, the first experience was a Back to School Carnival with a foam machine, food trucks and vendors, and easy community interaction. In October we celebrated Indigenous People’s Day with a visitor from a local community who did a demonstration of Indian culture with artifacts. In November we made s’mores together, in December our holiday extravaganza included activities, music, cooking, and a walk-through light tunnel area. All First Friday activities were designed purposefully to provide students and families memorable experiences.

In the summer of 2023, I retired from public education and presented a session at the TEPSA Summer Conference. While I was presenting about You Belong Here, I had an epiphany. I told the audience that You Belong Here gets its strength from highlighting each of the words as follows:

  • YOU Belong Here: The focus is on YOU. Each student should have the opportunity to experience and develop their interests in a place that is dedicated to their growth and development.
  • You BELONG Here: The focus is on BELONGING to our school community which challenges us to accept students for who they are now and who they are to become. It challenges students to accept each other as members of our school community.
  • You Belong HERE: Our school is the place for you. We are challenged to provide a place that is safe, purposeful, and engaging for our students. Students can feel embraced by being HERE at our school.

The most satisfying part of having implemented that philosophy was how it became part of the school culture. I was moved on several occasions after retirement when the PTO lead let me know that First Friday and “schema building” events were still being planned and provided for students and the community. In addition, having shared this philosophy with others, I was especially grateful when a colleague in Montana showed me the banners he made to begin the school year. The banners read: YOU Belong Here, You BELONG Here and You Belong HERE. Pretty sweet when a simple, powerful idea takes flight!



Long-time educator Martin Silverman recently retired as principal of Salinas Elementary in San Antonio. He currently serves as a consultant/coach and hosts the podcast "The Second Question" which highlights and honors educators.

Back to blog