Creating School Families

Creating School “Families”

Ellen Semel, elementary principal


Last year I found a 1st grade boy crying in the boys’ bathroom. He had gone there with a buddy, as all our children are instructed to do. However, some older boys had entered and locked him in a stall. Although Nick’s buddy had run for help, by the time he returned, the older

boys were gone. I took Nick from room to room, but he could not identify his tormentors.

As principal of a 600-student elementary school on Long Island, I was most disturbed by this incident. Although known acts of bullying and fighting at our school were small in number, I suspected that they occurred far more than were reported. Students were grouped by grade level, with four classes per grade. Students of the same grade ate together, played together, and worked together. There were no structured opportunities for positive interaction among children of varying grades.

And so, the big kids sometimes picked on the little kids. I had heard of a project undertaken by the Long Beach School District and contacted a former assistant principal in one of the schools there. They had instituted something called Family Day. I thought I would try my own version of this idea. Fortunately, an administrative intern, Sal Calderone, shared my enthusiasm for this

project and was willing to help me set it up.

We divided our school into 43 “families.” Each contained at least one student from every grade except kindergarten since we did not have a full-day kindergarten. A teacher or other staff member headed each family.

Setting Up Our “Family Day”

We looked at the school calendar and noted that each month had been assigned a pillar of good character by our site-based team. September and October were RESPECT and RESPONSIBILITY. Sal and I began to put together relevant activities that could be engaging

for students grades one through six. This was challenging.

We looked at our resources, borrowed from other school districts, and went on the Internet. We found some excellent picture books that had good moral messages and several role-playing scenes that led to discussion.

(For sources of children’s books that teach virtues, see Mary Beth Klee’s Core Virtues, Michele Borba’s Building Moral Intelligence, Character Education Through Story by Patty Smith et al., and the Heartwood Ethics Curriculum.) We made a packet of all our activities and had copies of the books available in the library. We gave out a packet to each staff member who headed a family.

Family Day, we quickly realized, needed a specific time. We decided to do it as a 40-minute event at the beginning of each month to help establish the focus on the monthly character education pillar. We scheduled it on rotating days so that students would not miss the same

normally scheduled activity on every Family Day. We talked to the faculty about the program, and they seemed very willing to try it.

Each 6th-grade student was given a master list of all the students in the school, which family they were assigned to, and the room numbers. We told them that they would be the student leaders of each family. As leaders, they had to pick up their 5th-graders, then the 4th-graders,

then the 3rd-graders, and so on, and bring them to their meeting.

Our first Family Day was a bit scary for me. Everyone was on the move. I also had a family and I was not sure how the students would react to each other. I suspected things were going to be okay, however, when I watched the students all enter my room holding hands.

It is January now, and we have been through five Family Days. The feedback from the program has been overwhelmingly positive. I know that there are still some instances of peer cruelty in our building. But last week I walked past the boys’ bathroom. There was a 6th-grade

boy coming out while a 2nd-grade boy was entering. They raised their hands up and gave each other a high five.

“Who’s that kid?” asked another 6th-grader. The first 6thgrader answered, “That’s Billy. He’s in my family.” I think the program is working.

Ellen Semel is principal of R. J. Lockhart Elementary School, 199 Pittsburgh Avenue, Massapequa, NY 11758.   E-mail:


Article is taken from the website of

the Center for the 4th & 5th R’s,   Cortland, State University of New York

Vol 11 Issue 2.   Winter 2005