Creating a Culture of Belonging through Affinity Groups, Advisories, and Adult Learning

May 17, 2023

Nicole LeBlanc

Principal, KIPP King Collegiate High School, San Lorenzo, CA

This profile is part of the Follow the Leaders project, an ongoing series from Relay Graduate School of Education to share insights and inspiration on leading for equity, wellness, and achievement. Subscribe here.

Executive Summary

A principal addresses an alarming increase in offensive and intolerant language among students by creating intentional opportunities for the school community to affirm their identities and learn ways to respond.  She did this by:

  • Using student-focused spaces, such as advisories and affinity groups, to support identity and teach strategies to disrupt derogatory language and bias; 
  • Including this issue in the school’s strategic plan, with explicit roles and responsibilities, enabling structures and systems, progress metrics, and; 
  • Providing professional development for adults to model the practices and lead the student activities that support identity and challenge intolerant behaviors.

The Challenge:

A Post-Pandemic Increase in Intolerant Language

After students returned to in-person learning at KIPP King Collegiate, a diverse, high-performing high school in Northern California, Principal Nicole LeBlanc observed students using racist and homophobic language “in ways I’ve never seen as a school leader—some targeted and some just in passing and casually being thrown around.” While this reflects a nationwide trend of hostile student behavior that began before the pandemic, student interviews conducted at KIPP King in Spring 2022 revealed that this was a growing problem at the San Lorenzo school, at times exacerbated by teachers who did not know how to address student behavior. (See student comments from the survey below.)

While LeBlanc had several key academic priorities for the upcoming school year, the principal knew addressing this issue would be a critical—but challenging—task that would require just as much of a focus.  She reflects, “This stuff is really hard, but it gets in the way of teaching. Culture and instruction go hand in hand. We can’t teach if kids are throwing around [hurtful] words in class. We have to do this work together.

The Solution:

Create a Culture of Belonging from the Top Down and From the Bottom Up

With in-person student activities resuming following the pandemic, LeBlanc saw an opportunity to shift the school culture through structures found in many high schools—advisory periods and affinity groups for students of different identities.  “Once we determined that was going to be a strategy we were going to really focus on, it became thinking about the enabling systems that already exist,” LeBlanc says.

The principal believed that these structures represented moments in the life of the school during which students could regularly affirm their identities and learn ways to safely challenge intolerant language voiced by peers.  At the same time, LeBlanc recognized the adults in the building needed structure and training to effectively lead these activities, and that both strategies would be needed to actively confront the negative impact of these hurtful behaviors on school culture. 

The Strategy

‘Interrupting Inequity’: Building Identity with Advisories, Affinity Groups, and Teacher PD

LeBlanc and her leadership team made addressing these incidents a clearly articulated priority for the 2022-23 school year. The team used KIPP’s mission statement to define four overarching strategies for the year, placing academic and cultural priorities on an equal footing. Specifically addressing intolerant behavior—framed as “interrupting inequity”—was one of four priorities for the year (see chart, below).

To “interrupt incidents that arise on campus that can cause harm to the community,” in a planning document LeBlanc and her team identified specific roles for all members of the school community:

  • Students: Students build empathy and a respect for difference by engaging in activities and exercises that bolster their social emotional health, support their own identity development, and allow them to build relationships with diverse community members.
  • Staff:  Staff actively engage in personal DEI work that builds understanding of difference and empathy, and teaches how to actively disrupt conversations that reflect racism, sexism, homophobia, or other elements of hate.
  • Leadership team: Team members actively engage in personal DEI work that builds understanding of difference and empathy, and monitor progress in order to identify areas of inequity so we can close gaps in equity.

The principal reflects: “The planning document was our North Star—it spelled out who needs to do what. Then we started to think about the enabling systems.”

Professional Development to ‘Do the Work as Adults’

The first enabling system involved ensuring that adults were prepared to lead meaningful student discussions about identity and address student behavior in advisories, affinity groups, public spaces around campus, and their own classrooms. “Teachers have a million things to think about, and when something happens in the moment, a lot of times it’s difficult to even know how to react,” says Marina Hernandez, the school’s dean of culture. “Sometimes we don’t have the skills or the language to be able to do that.”

To build these skills, LeBlanc and her team developed the professional development calendar for the year to give interrupting inequity the same importance as the school’s other three strategic priorities. 

Over the summer, LeBlanc and Hernandez used scenario-based professional development to prepare teachers to address inappropriate behavior in class. Scenarios included discussions of how to react and respond when students sang lyrics which included racial epithets, made comments about Asian American students and academics, or questioned the value of using the correct pronouns for each student.  The focus of these sessions, LeBlanc says, was “to do the work as adults first so we can lead it with students. If we want kids to think about how their identity impacts them and how it impacts others and the language they’re choosing to use, we as adults have to do that. So we’re practicing interrupting those situations with kids.”

As the school year began, the focus shifted to ensuring that advisories and affinity groups became effective spaces for this work. KIPP King’s weekly 90-minute afterschool professional development sessions were aligned to the four priorities in the strategic plan, meaning that strategies to interrupt inequity and build community through these spaces were addressed in depth twice monthly. Administrative meetings also were aligned around the four priorities. 

This explicit focus was essential, LeBlanc says, because “there’s a predictability to it so folks can internalize and personalize this work.”

Advisories: ‘Prides’ as Places to Explore Identity

Advisory periods were not new to KIPP King, where they are known as “Prides.” But as in many high schools, they had previously been a mixed bag, with individual teachers determining each group’s focus and structure. 

Some teachers just want to teach math. They were not as bought in at moving the needle as other Pride leaders,” LeBlanc says. “Not having a structure in place has prohibited us from getting to the nitty gritty in many ways.”

In response, the leadership team built a curriculum for advisory periods. Based on the Sown to Grow social and emotional learning curriculum, advisory lessons are focused on community building and issues  of identity. “Giving each other the security and safety of that space is a way of interrupting inequity,” LeBlanc says. For example, a Pride lesson plan on cyberbullying includes group discussions of personal boundaries and scenarios that illustrate ways to address issues that arise on social media with empathy. 

The explicit emphasis on community and identity has helped students understand and relate to peers with different identities within their Prides. “It gives us a chance to connect with other students,” says junior Joycelyn Liang.

 A Pride advisory class at KIPP King.

“Ninth graders sitting and listening to each other talk for almost 30 minutes straight is pretty powerful,” LeBlanc says. 

To support teachers in leading these carefully planned and facilitated conversations, afterschool PD on interrupting inequity often focuses on the advisory curriculum. However, lessons and activities are framed as recommendations so teachers can internalize and tailor them to the dynamics of each group of students. “That way, Pride leaders who know their groups best can decide what works best for their students,” LeBlanc says.

KIPP King also paired new teachers with more senior staff members in some Prides. Although this resulted in larger advisory groups, the added support for teachers less comfortable with these topics has been essential, according to LeBlanc. “The stuff we’re working on is nuanced, and we have to get it right,” she says. 

Affinity Groups: A Space to Cultivate Belonging and Challenge Students' Thinking

KIPP King has a wide range of student affinity groups, including those for students who identify as Black, Latino/a/x, LGBTQ+, Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI), and with descent from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). As with the advisories, professional learning on affinity groups has focused on encouraging faculty sponsors to move beyond identity by creating  “a space where there are shared experiences—and a space where raw and difficult questions are explored and ideas generated,” LeBlanc says. 

A graphic from a staff professional development presentation on affinity spaces. 

To build the ability of faculty sponsors to guide the groups in this way, LeBlanc added time to the professional development schedule for  affinity groups for the adults in the building. These groups have modeled the kinds of challenging conversations intended for within the student groups. “We’ve been able to call each other out on things about privilege,” she says. “We’ve had groups work because we established that rapport and relationship.”

A United Front: Helping Students Navigate Difference 

To ensure that students experience different identities as well as their own, LeBlanc and Hernandez created the United Front, a student leadership group representing all of KIPP King’s affinity groups. “It’s really important for students to experience both affinity spaces and a space that’s mixed,” Hernandez says. “With all the different identities, you can see yourself in other people… and that creates compassion, it creates connection, and it creates an opportunity for students to see each other across lines of difference.

Students from different affinity groups work together in a United Front planning meeting.

 “It helps us understand other groups because we take what we’ve experienced, and we try to relate to the others, but also understand that we each have our own unique things that we go through,” says senior Victoria Martinez Aranda.

The day-to-day work of United Front is focused on identity and planning extracurricular events and activities—what LeBlanc calls “the joy factor on campus.” In the process, the group helps build leadership skills in students who may not otherwise have the opportunity to do so.

 “We have kids saying I’m leading something I never thought I could lead before, or I wouldn’t have imagined there would have been a space for me,” LeBlanc says.

Faculty sponsors also work to ensure that United Front “creates a touchpoint for students to interact and encourage them to unpack the dynamics” of different identities, LeBlanc says. “They are training kids on how to have those conversations with each other.

The ultimate goal, LeBlanc says, is for the group to evolve into “not just an affinity space, but allyship. That’s how we break down those barriers.”

Stepping Back: Monitoring Progress and Planning Ahead

Two-thirds of the way through the 2022-23 school year, faculty point to visible changes in the school culture. “One of the biggest things is when I hear our students interrupting inequity using the language that we’ve modeled for them,” Hernandez says. “Some of the students who have stepped up this year are the ones I never would have thought would. The fact they have a voice is a huge impact I’m really proud of.”

Importantly, before the school year began, LeBlanc identified metrics to monitor progress and help her team hold itself accountable for making progress towards the aspirational goal of interrupting inequity. The school uses existing structures, including regular student and staff surveys, to collect data, and the principal reviews them quarterly with staff along with the data for the school’s instructional objectives. 

The results to date have been encouraging in many ways—72 percent of students say they connect with most members of their Pride and 84 percent look forward to the advisories.  Large majorities of faculty agree that students value each other’s differences and that their leaders have encouraged the adults in the building to engage in learning around DEI and discuss their own identities.

And while nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of students agree that “most students at King speak out against hate speech and actions,” LeBlanc isn’t satisfied. She emphasizes with staff that this statistic has remained unchanged since the beginning of the school year as a reminder that more work needs to be done. “This isn’t something we’re going to be able to fix in one school year,” LeBlanc says. “My preference is that students would never have to interrupt inequity because it’s just not happening. But it’s really different when you’re having a conversation with a kid who is at least aligned on the thinking. And so I think these are tools for the bigger goal that we’re still trying to work toward.

Taking it Back to Your School

  • How do you monitor school culture? How would you know if intolerant speech or behaviors are increasing or decreasing in your building?
  • In what ways can you support faculty moving beyond their comfort zones to address difficult situations involving race, identity, and hurtful language?
  • What structures in your school provide opportunities for student leadership and identity? What are ways to ensure these spaces can become more intentionally focused on strengthening school culture? 

Nicole LeBlanc has been the School Leader at KIPP King in San Lorenzo, CA, since 2021. She has worked in education for over 20 years, and has taught in Boston Public Schools, New York City, and Santa Cruz County, where she taught both English and history. Nicole has spent the last 13 years at KIPP King, where she worked in several teacher leadership roles and eventually moved into administration seven years ago. Nicole was honored as a New York City Teacher of the Year in 2008. She has a BA in Journalism from The University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and a Masters in Education from Brooklyn College. In her free time, Nicole enjoys running, listening to her husband spin records, and riding bikes/playing trains with her six year-old son.


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