Schools as Sanctuaries

Note: In her book, Fierce Conversations, Susan Scott recounts a conversation with her young daughter who excitedly exclaimed that she had experienced an ‘apostrophe’ in school that day.

I find Thanksgiving to be a reflective time. It wasn’t always so. For too long the day was defined by turkey and football. Then not too long ago I had what Susan Scott’s daughter called an ‘apostrophe’. I didn’t get knocked off my horse like St. Paul or anything like that. My apostrophe came when I was struck by a flash of the blindingly obvious… any successes I’ve had in my career were due largely to the hard work and commitment of those around me. They inspired me, but for too long I was too self-absorbed to say “thank you”. I’m still working on my “thank you’s” and Thanksgiving now serves a dish far better than turkey and football… a time to be quiet (not easy for me) and reflect on the gifts I’ve been given.


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In the midst of this year’s reflection I received such a “gift” in the form of a reflection shared by a local NJ superintendent that spoke to me with a grace and eloquence that has been missing in most of what I’ve been reading lately. I asked if she would mind if I shared it with you here. I hope her words will speak to you and touch your soul.


Much has been written recently about the debate over “Sanctuary Cities”.  This back and forth has politicized the word “sanctuary” in a way that changes the context of its true meaning.  I would like to take some time this month to return to the pure and essential meaning of sanctuary and the important way that it connects with our schools.

The term sanctuary is described as “a sacred or holy place; a place that provides shelter or protection”.  By its very definition, it aligns with the founding principles of public education.  As Thomas Jefferson, Horace Mann and John Dewey envisioned, public schools were designed to provide all students equal access and universal educational opportunities as a way of developing an active and engaged citizenry in our democracy.  In public education we welcome and educate every student who enters our doors.  We value the diversity and the unique contributions that each student brings to the classroom. In order to nurture, encourage and respond to the needs of each student, it is imperative that we design safe and inclusive spaces for learning.  We must create sanctuary.

Within this sacred space, teachers and students strive to create a respectful, caring community of learners. Teachers build trust with their students by modeling kindness, vulnerability, and risk taking.  Students, in turn, are encouraged to wonder, to try new things, and be willing to make mistakes.  Challenges are undertaken.  Accomplishments are celebrated. When schools and classrooms are considered sanctuaries our students feel safe enough to fully express themselves and begin to see their interconnectedness to each other and to the world.

As adults, we share the same desire for safety and acceptance.  We, too, search for and create places apart from the world.  Within the busyness of life and the hectic pace of a 24/7 world, we yearn for our own sanctuary, a place of refuge, in which we can pause, breathe, and rediscover clarity.  Some of us find solace in a walk through the woods where we can stand in the cold fresh air and reflect under the tall pines. Others take comfort in escaping to a quiet room with a cup of hot tea and a good book.  Many seek communion in more traditional ways, relying on the guidance and wisdom provided within a church, temple or mosque. Wherever we find our sanctuary, each one of us needs a place that allows us to feel a sense of peace, practice forgiveness, learn to be more compassionate, and become well acquainted with the freedom derived from cultivating a mindset of acceptance.

Educating our children is sacred work.  My hope is that every classroom in every school becomes a true sanctuary for our students to learn, play, grow and thrive.  We want all of our children to come to school and feel a sense of belonging, to love the challenge of learning, and when they leave us, to enter the world and the rest of their lives as confident, compassionate citizens.  Collectively, we will do everything possible to create safe spaces for our students to succeed.  For ours is a vocation of love.

Kathie Foster, Superintendent

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