Relationships Make Schools Sacred Spaces

Posted by Sharonica L. Hardin-Bartley, PhD PHR on 11/22/2022 11:00:00 AM

2022 Pumpkin Carving Family

Sharonica Hardin-BartleySchools must be vessels of love nurturing our students, staff and families. When they are, they become more than their walls and their people - they become sacred. Last month, I felt firsthand the rich intensity of what learning and thriving in schools can mean for a student during the greater span of a lifetime. On October 14, we welcomed dozens of alumni of all ages, professions, and backgrounds back to University City High School to induct 11 of their peers into our Hall of Fame. 

It was the first time that we hosted the event in the school’s lobby and the auditorium instead of in a hotel ballroom. We worried a little bit. Was the high school fancy enough? Did we have enough room? Of course, our guests loved it! They were so joyful to come home to what was clearly their sacred space. One guest from the Class of 1977, a woman who runs the nation’s largest shipyard, giggled as she asked permission to run up to the band room by herself. Others snuck off to their own favorite spaces -  just for a minute or two of quiet, personal reflection.

On the stage in the auditorium - the literal stage of their later childhood - our alumni talked about key connections and moments that changed their lives and sent them out of the nest to places like Princeton University and the Peace Corps and the U.S. Army. I like to think they have a collective heart that beats from their profound memories and connection to University City High School. And no surprise, their experiences were rooted in relationships. Relationships matter!

Ten days later, the lives of a student and a teacher were violently taken in the sacred hallways of a St. Louis Public Schools high school just around the time everyone was settling into second period. My connection with St. Louis Public Schools is deep. I have relationships with many leaders and staff connected with Central Visual and Performing Arts High School (CVPA). I am not alone. We quickly learned that the web of harm and hurt extends to all parts of our region. Educators are particularly connected in our area. And, because students attend so many schools around the region, our collective youth had direct and indirect links to CVPA and the adjacent Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience High School.

There is no silver lining to this. We are in an age when the children and the adults aren’t well, and our public spaces, even our sacred ones, are vulnerable to harm and rage. Fear is a reasonable response, as is anger. And yet, I have been heartened by the conversations since.

At a district strategic planning meeting held just one day after the shooting, there were certainly concerns voiced about building safety and resources - which we continue to address. More profoundly, our parents, caregivers and other guests gravitated to our second strategic priority in the District’s strategic plan: Well-Being and Joy.  

There was worry for our teachers and students - were they really OK? Were we really doing enough for those in most distress? There was a general consensus that as much as we strive to strengthen locks and fortify doors, the real solution in keeping our spaces safe, well and sacred lies in further strengthening the relationships and support within our community and in our schools. 

One parent asked, “How can we combat a misperception that our focus on [well-being] takes the focus away from academics? And I can only say that learning - and safety -  is best fueled by healthy, authentic relationships. They are everything.”

In early November, I attended the annual Missouri School Boards Association conference in Kansas City along with members of our Board of Education. Much of the talk again centered on building safety and precautions. And yet, the Superintendent of St. Louis Public Schools, Dr. Kelvin Adams - my dear mentor - was present. He stood in front of his educational peers just days after a tragedy and spoke not of loss but of hope. He said the power of relationships is the ultimate form of prevention and education, and that is something we can all build together regardless of resources.

Mr. Fred Rogers, known more familiarly as Mr. Rogers, got it right about the beautiful people in neighborhoods - including schools. He said, “The greatest thing we can do is to let people know that they are loved.” I continue to be both joyful and sad in this world. Joyful for the love we show and I see shining bright in our students, staff, parents, caregivers and alumni, and sad that our love is not shining bright enough to be a salve and support to those youth and adults who are unwell. Let’s be clear, we must persist with our academic efforts so that our students are fully prepared for their post-secondary journey. And I firmly believe that, as the late educator extraordinaire Rita Pierson once said, “No meaningful learning happens absent a relationship.” 

We need to keep on loving and building connections with the spirit of children and learning in our heart, so that, one day, when we ask, And how are the children?, we can respond without hesitation, The Children are Well. UCity Community, please continue to keep our CVPA and Collegiate school communities in your thoughts.

Sharonica Hardin-Bartley, PhD, PHR
November 22, 2022