By Paul Hagen, Director of Student Well-Being

We are not well-equipped to do life alone. Humans are social creatures—we work, learn, and live better when we do it together with others. Connection is imperative rather than elective. This is one reason that—even though we could do school remotely and online indefinitely—we choose to come together each morning on campus to learn in a community full of curious minds and kind hearts. “School” isn’t just about curriculum, pedagogy, and classroom management. It is also—equally importantly—about community, connection, and collaboration.

One of the greatest challenges that the COVID pandemic handed us was that of staying connected—really connected—during a time of necessary remote schooling, quarantine, and isolation. Sure, the modern world provides ample access to technologies designed to help us communicate and keep in touch with others across town and around the world. But these technologies, ubiquitous as they are, have their limits. During remote schooling, students could still join their classes and complete their homework, but they couldn’t bump into classmates during passing periods, eat lunch together, or have an impromptu pickup basketball game on the Sport Court. Despite our best efforts to facilitate connections among students while remote—which included a virtual prom, online game nights, Advisory competitions, step challenges, and more—students struggled to connect in the same, meaningful ways that they find so natural, easy, and rewarding when we are all occupying the same physical space. The necessary separation that COVID brought was antithetical to the togetherness that community requires, and that EPS
so deeply values.

With the return of a more normal school experience this year, it didn’t take students long to connect and reconnect with classmates. And what a wonderful sight it was! Students gleefully greeted each other with smiling eyes in the drop-off line; classmates who were not close enough friends to be in regular contact when remote sat together during free periods to catch up; new friendships were made; old friendships were renewed; and everyone seemed happy to at last be together again. There’s magic in the hallways, Sport Court, art rooms, makerspace, dining hall, and classrooms of Eastside Prep—it’s the magic of community building.

While some of the best connections are made organically, and there is no replacement for the natural community building that takes place informally when in proximity with others, it is also important to intentionally design opportunities for students to connect. Our campus and program are built for connection. There are common areas with soft seating for students to socialize and collaborative spaces for students to work together on projects. Many classes prioritize group work, class discussions, and shared experience. We value connection and our approach to program and place reflects that value.

Our Advisory program, too, is designed with connection—and reconnection after remote schooling—in mind. Students in all grade levels work in Advisory to develop intra- and inter-personal skills. There are lessons on selfawareness, empathy, and communication; discussions about friendships and healthy relationships; and team-building activities designed to foster an environment of trust, mutual respect, and understanding. Our Advisory meetings are roughly divided into thirds. One third is dedicated to taking care of each student’s “school business.” This is where we work on preparing for student-parent-teacher conferences, for example, or reflecting on mid-trimester progress reports, or selecting academic electives for the coming year. The next third is reserved for Social-Emotional Learning (SEL) and includes formal lessons on teamwork, emotional regulation, peer relationships, and more. And the final third is given over to the important task of community building. This is time dedicated to the games and activities that are both fun and bonding and provide an opportunity for students to connect in ways they don’t in their classes. During any given day at EPS, you will encounter students and advisors engaged in check-ins, reflections, groups games, social-emotional lessons, and team-building exercises. Visit any Advisory location and you will see students and advisors working together to intentionally build the trusting, caring, and kind community that we all value and strive to maintain.

It takes thoughtful effort to put together an Advisory program that promotes genuine connection, and that effort is shared by many in the community. Advisors work with Grade Level Coordinators, School Counselors, Equity, Inclusion, and Compassionate Leadership Coordinators, and others to create experiences that build connections, strengthen community, and foster camaraderie. Students explore concepts of identity, collaboration, empathy, and belonging. We’ve always known that connection is important, but just as absence makes the heart grow fonder, our time apart as a community has made us appreciate our reconnection all the more.

“One of my favorite memories from Advisory time was in eighth grade, right before the pandemic. Our Peer Mentors had put together a waffle party for us. It was such a nice gesture—they even made sure there were waffles for people with dietary restrictions, like me. It was so much fun because 1) we got waffles, and 2) the Peer Mentors brought conversation board games for us to play, so that we could get to know each other better while eating waffles. So, when I became a Peer Mentor, I wanted to do something similar for my  advisees in the Middle School. We did cookie decorating before winter break and had fun little competitions—tallest cookie (an excuse for the middle schoolers to eat as much frosting as they could), prettiest cookie, etc. We have some hilarious photos and videos of the  results.”

-Diya, Class of 2024

“With my experience in Advisory, I have felt more of a connection with my friends and the EPS community overall. It has been easier for me to make friends because of how EPS encourages socialization and is consistent with it. I think it’s helpful that EPS emphasizes the importance of building a community and teamwork!”

-Suri, Class of 2029

“Peer Mentoring has given me an opportunity to connect with the Middle School students on a deep level and enhance my leadership skills at the same time. It has been an amazing experience and I love whenever I see my mentees in the hallway and get to have quick
conversations with them outside of the usual classroom setting.”

-Caroline, Class of 2023