4 steps to creating a family “Welcome Committee”

As school leaders, it has been rewarding to witness our elementary school community shifting over the years, becoming increasingly diverse and reflecting the richness of Toronto. With this shift, our responsibility as leaders has also evolved. We now feel an even greater imperative to ensure all families feel welcomed and included – especially those who are new to our community. While approximately 90% of our families already have established relationships within the local community, we are deeply committed to drawing in the remaining 10%, ensuring that they also feel they belong.

Particularly as we’ve welcomed families back after the pandemic, we’ve been asking ourselves: Who are the families we don’t see every day? Who may not yet feel comfortable walking through our school doors? This introspection prompted us to launch a Welcome Committee to invite in families who join our school mid-year, complementing existing programs for families who join us at the start of the school year.

Previously, introductions to our school community for incoming families might have been limited to interactions with our secretary during registration. Then, students would be sent to their new classrooms, leaving their families feeling lost in the shuffle. Now, with the help of dedicated staff members and sometimes even current students, we have transformed the onboarding process into an experience of warmth and connection.

Our families and staff have shared that our Welcome Committee makes a huge difference in our school culture, and we wanted to share the steps that have made this process successful for us.

Step 1. Gather input.

Our first step in creating our Welcome Committee was to ask our community what they needed. We asked families what they wished they’d known prior to their children’s first day of school, and we also asked staff about what felt most important to know when a child first shows up in their classroom.

Step 2. Invite staff to join the Committee.

Since our Welcome Committee was volunteer-based, we asked our staff if any of them felt passionate about the work, and four volunteered. They now rotate through the welcome duties as new students join our community.

Step 3. Co-plan the experience.

Develop a packet of information to deliver. With our staff volunteers, we created a packet of essential information that Welcome Committee members could share with families. 

This includes all the essentials of what it means to be part of our school community, from how to sign up for a pizza lunch to filling out field trip forms. We shared that we have access to using an over-the-phone interpreter service available to families who weren’t English speakers, along with a list of staff members and email addresses with the emphasis that we want to connect with them.

We also developed a plan to pair new students with current students, especially focusing on opportunities to pair students who share a home language. For example, many Ukrainian students joined our community this school year, and we were able to match them with peers sharing their language and experiences.

Develop a plan to gather information. In addition to imparting information about our school community, the Welcome Committee members discussed how to learn important information about our students that could then be disseminated to staff.

In the past, there had been times when a student might come into our school, and we’d learn on their first day that they had a medical concern. With the Welcome Committee initiative, we set out to proactively gather essential information about students and families so we can support them holistically from day one.

Step 4. Build on the connections formed by the Committee.

Because of this investment, each incoming family is more visible to us school leaders. Right away, we know who students and their families are. In the past, there were many times when a family would start at our school, and unless we happened to see them registering with the secretary, we didn’t really know who they were. Now, we are able to recognize a new student if they’re sitting alone on the playground, and we can go over and greet them by name. The work of the Welcome Committee serves as the entry point we need to strike up the conversations that ultimately lead to more meaningful connections. 

How our Welcome Committee fits into our large inclusive culture

We’ve received feedback from new families that the Welcome Committee made a difference for them – and our staff members say the same. But of course, this is just a foundation: As students and families spend more time in our school community, we want their feelings of belonging to grow.

Both of us are very focused on building an inclusive school culture and identifying individuals who might feel marginalized. We’ve worked hard with our staff to embrace the idea of providing windows, mirrors and bridges throughout the curriculum, so every student sees parts of their own identity represented in their learning. As leaders, we also try to take concrete steps to signal that everyone is welcome, even in the little choices we make about what hangs on school walls and the flags we fly. One family told us that they knew they’d be safe in our community because we flew a Pride flag, for example. There are so many ways that small-seeming choices weave together to form the fabric of an inclusive community.

One of our big goals has been to develop connections that lead to joy. We want our students to learn joyfully, and it’s hard to feel joy when you don’t belong. Each of these investments moves us closer to understanding the lived experiences of our students and their families, so they can feel embraced fully – and experience that joy.