The Importance of Community in Schools

Class of 2022 high school students wait for their little buddies on the first day of school.

Our youth can say the sweetest things. As children learn to properly articulate their thoughts, there is a special truthfulness that always rises to the top. In January 1972 words from O’Neal’s students were printed in the program for its first-ever Monte Carlo Benefit. The section was called “Why I Like Wallace O’Neal School”. Fourth-grade student Clairice Peterson wrote, “If you pay close attention to the song ‘Born Free’, it really means it at this school.”

We celebrate 51 years of O’Neal on September 7th, 2022. After hearing that Episcopal Day School in downtown Southern Pines would no longer offer the fourth grade, a special group of parents gathered to brainstorm how they might form a new school to serve those fourth-grade students and those in higher grades. In September of 1971, The Wallace O’Neal Day School became a reality. There were early years when the future of O’Neal was dismal, but with strength of community, the School has persevered and now stands as a strong, healthy reputable educational institution for the Sandhills area.

O’Neal’s tagline is One Community. One O’Neal. Almost everything that is held as a value at this School has a flavor of community. Community has a purpose.

The Learning Community Provides Four Basic Needs

In the ASCD Blog post “Creating a School Community”, the author Eric Schaps addresses four basic needs of students that schools should be equipped to meet.

  1. Safety: Students should feel accepted, confident, and comfortable with their surroundings.
  2. Belonging: Supportive relationships between peers, teachers, and even students of different grade levels that provide a connection to others.
  3. A Voice: Everyone needs to be heard. The ability for students to have a say in different aspects of student life is essential.
  4. Accomplishment: Students need encouragement that they are capable of learning.

By human nature, one tends to bond with the people and institutions that help them satisfy their needs. Community is important in serving these needs.1

The Power of Relationships

Past parent and former Trustee, Army Lt. Col. John Samples, wrote a past blog entry titled “Why O’Neal”. He had several various deployments and reassignments while his children attended O’Neal. He states:

“ ‘Why O’Neal?’ For any parent that hoped their children would do what is right in their absence, for any parent that hoped they have raised them right, for any parent that wishes and believes in the fantasy of a community: O’Neal is that community.  O’Neal is a community of like-minded people who share one undisputable goal: we want our children to change the world by living to their potential.  The O’Neal community expects more of each other.  The O’Neal community holds each other accountable.  The O’Neal community empowers us to reach higher.  The O’Neal community is there in your absence.”

Lt. Col. John Samples

Supportive relationships are the center of community. O’Neal has been privileged to have a strong military enrollment in recent years. With that, a great diversity of families from all over the nation choose O’Neal for their children’s education. Community support and the cultivation of relationships between students, teachers, and parents are important.

Sharing Common Values

O’Neal has a leadership and character development program through which each school division has a student leadership organization where students must apply and be accepted. These groups meet routinely and plan activities for their division that meet certain goals the group has established in line with their purpose.

Unique to the area, O’Neal Middle and Upper School students are governed by an honor system. The Upper School elects a student-run honor council, and all middle and upper school students and teachers sign the Honor Code. There are no locks on lockers and students are educated on personal responsibility when it comes to writing papers without plagiarizing and taking tests using their learned knowledge.

When the school community has a grasp of its core values, it provides a foundation for daily interactions.2

Freshman high school students sit on the Camp Caraway sign on their class trip.
Freshman Class Trip to Camp Caraway 2019.

The importance of community in schools starts with bonding and relationships. Class trips for O’Neal’s middle and upper school students happen in the fall of every school year. Each grade travels to a specific destination along the East Coast. They are scheduled near the beginning of the school year and the main purpose is to provide an environment to encourage peer bonding as well as to strengthen relationships with advisors. The more a teacher knows about the student outside of the classroom, the better equipped they are to teach them.

Service Learning

Campus clean-ups have been the newest item on O’Neal’s service list. From pinecone pickup to cleaning the windows on the buses, it is an experience to behold when the entire school community pridefully joins to clean up its beautiful campus.

There are countless activities throughout the year in serving the greater community. Food drives, hat/mitten drives, Habitat for Humanity projects, and other volunteer activities abound.

The community develops stronger relationships while also collaborating on how to accomplish the service requirements. Many also get to experience that great sense of satisfaction when meeting the needs of others.3

Opportunities for Accountability and Admiration

On Wednesdays, a group of middle school students travels down to the Lower School to read to kindergarten students…and the kinders love it! Like the young counselors at summer camp, the littles grow great admiration and respect for the older youth.

The Senior Buddies program has become a tradition at O’Neal.  Now in its 12th year, the senior class is paired with a grade level in the Lower School – typically 1st and/or 2nd grade, depending on the number of seniors. Seniors meet the lower school student as they’re dropped off on the first day of school. They get a t-shirt and the senior buddy walks with them to their classroom to help get them settled. Throughout the year, the buddies do special activities together. The little buddies escort their big buddies at the end-of-year Upper School Awards ceremony.

It’s been documented that Buddies Programs help to form strong cross-age relationships, teach important social skills and present a caring climate in the school. 4

All School Gatherings

The last week of September will be O’Neal’s Fall Spirit Week where all sorts of spirit-building activities are planned. One relished activity is the all-school Tic Tac Toe. Grids are drawn on the Upper School drive, and homerooms and advisories gather for rotations on human tic tac toe.

The all-school Tic Tac Toe game is one of the many points competitions as part of the Red/Blue Challenge. Homerooms and advisories learn their team color at Convocation which happens at the beginning of the school year. Throughout the year, there are many different competitions for points. At the end of the year, after the points are tallied, it is announced whether the Red or the Blue team wins. The traditional Field Day has become one of the culminating events for the points challenge.

The most authentic community experience at O’Neal is the Parents Association All-School Picnic. A tradition for decades, O’Neal families are invited to the annual picnic on campus where they are served hamburgers and hotdogs. The students enjoy all sorts of activities and parents have a chance to connect. It is truly an activity that involves the entire O’Neal community and has become a valued treasure for the School.  

As stated in the ASCD article: “A growing body of research confirms the benefits of building a sense of community in school. Students in schools with a strong sense of community are more likely to be academically motivated (Solomon, Battistich, Watson, Schaps, & Lewis, 2000); to act ethically and altruistically (Schaps, Battistich, & Solomon, 1997); to develop social and emotional competencies (Solomon et al., 2000); and to avoid several problem behaviors, including drug use and violence (Resnick et al., 1997). 5

Community Supports Purpose with Passion

As we look back on that day in January 1972, when the School was only open for four months and consisted of four mobile units nestled in a forest of pine trees, little Clairice Peterson carried a sense of independence and comfort. It was enough to compare her environment to the song “Born Free” by Matt Monro.

Here is the first stanza:

Born free

As free as the wind blows

As free as the grass grows

Born free to follow your heart

O’Neal considers the value of community priceless. It is the school community that provides such an environment that supports students as they journey through life, responsibly and purposefully while also following their hearts.


1-5: Schaps, Eric. “Creating a School Community.” ASCD, 1 Mar. 2003,

Solomon, D., Battistich, V., Watson, M., Schaps, E., & Lewis, C. (2000). A six-district study of educational change: Direct and mediated effects of the Child Development Project. Social Psychology of Education, 4, 3–51.

Schaps, E., Battistich, V., & Solomon, D. (1997). School as a caring community: A key to character education. In A. Molnar (Ed.), The construction of children’s character, part II: 96th yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Resnick, M. D., Bearman, P. S., Blum, R. W., Bauman, K. E., Harris, K. M., Jones, J., Tabor, J., Beuhring, T., Sieving, R. E., Shew, M., Ireland, M., Bearinger, L. H., & Udry, J. R. (1997). Protecting adolescents from harm: Findings from the National Longitudinal Study on Adolescent Health. Journal of the American Medical Association, 278, 823–832.

Leave a Reply