MERIDEN — The idea was simple: students would write their names on different colored pieces of paper about the size of a post-it note. Then they would write a short pledge on each piece.
The pledges were also simple. Students pledged to “invite someone I don’t know to sit at lunch with me,” to “smile more” and hold a hallway door open for classmates.
The pieces would be joined together as links for a larger “Promise Link” that ultimately included around 1,300 pledges — all from students. That paper link then was hung along the front facing window of the school’s main hallway.
It was just one activity out of several that Maloney High School Student Council leaders and their co-advisors came up with to bring their community together this past September — a few weeks into the school year after full in-person learning resumed.
It was part of a much larger effort, called “Start with Hello Week,” which had been developed by the Newtown-based non-profit group Sandy Hook Promise, which was formed after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012. The program’s aim is to teach students to be more socially inclusive and to foster connections with one another.
Sandy Hook Promise’s leadership recognized the efforts by Maloney’s student council. Last month Maloney learned it was one of nine schools, out of hundreds nationwide, to receive a “Start With Hello Week” award from the organization, applauding their initiative.
Sandy Hook Promise, in its announcement of the awards last month, described building reconnections with peers as crucial to students’ success as they re-entered school “facing some difficult changes.” Excessive feelings of isolation can lead to other mental health and social challenges, including bullying, violence and depression, the organization noted.
“Sandy Hook Promise’s Start With Hello Week 2021 award-winning schools showed just how powerful social inclusion can be to help address these challenges,” the organization’s announcement stated.
The organization praised students’ and their advisors’ efforts focusing on kindness, which it noted “they went big on … when you walk into the lobby of Maloney, you’ll see a large banner that states, ‘We’re Happy You’re Here’.”
Maloney’s student council leaders said it was important to foster a feeling of togetherness in their school after a more than a year-and-a-half-long stretch that often felt isolating due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Students were separated into cohorts, attending class in-person every other day.
While social distancing and other measures were in place to keep students and staff safe, It often felt isolating, explained Izzy Valentino, 17, a senior and member of the student council.
“We were six feet apart. People weren’t even talking to their friends. It felt very alone,” Valentino said. “School was a place to learn six hours a day. That was it.”
It was taking its toll on the well being of her classmates at Maloney. So for Valentino and Brianna Skeen, also 17, and another senior member of the student council, it was important to re-establish the school’s sense of community and inclusiveness.
For Skeen, Valentino and other council members the goal was to make sure their classmates knew: “You’re part of our community. We’re back together,” Skeen said. “That was important for us — to make a big impact.”
Sarah Regan is a math teacher at Maloney. She co-advises the student council along with Gabby Ciotto, who is a member of the school’s world languages department.
Regan explained through activities like the Promise Links and another effort, called “Chalk the Walk,” the council sought to foster a sense of belonging in their classmates.
“If you are giving people a place to feel safe and feel welcomed, it’s a starting point,” Regan said.
In Chalk the Walk, students used chalk to scrawl messages and drawings in the large squares that make up Maloney’s sidewalk. Students estimated about 50 of their peers joined in on the effort.
Amid drawings of rainbows, and sunshine, were affirming messages students wrote to one another: “You are important”; “Smile”; “Stay on the path to success”; “Even masks can’t contain my smile”; “You got this” and more.
Maloney Principal Jennifer Straub said she is proud of the council’s efforts.
“I thought it was remarkable and a really noteworthy effort,” Straub said, adding that being recognized by Sandy Hook Promise was an affirmation of how noteworthy those efforts were.