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A sense of community is viewed to be an important phenomenon in individuals' overall well-being. This concept is defined as having 4 elements: membership, influence, integration and fulfillment of needs, and shared emotional connection (McMillan and Chavis, 1986). Membership involves a feeling of belonging or a sense of personal relatedness. Influence refers to the feeling that one matters in the group and that the group matters to its members. Members should also feel that their needs will be met by the group in order to feel as though one belongs. Finally, a shared emotional connection includes the belief that individuals have a common history and experience.
Sense of community or belonging is viewed to be an essential basic human need (Baumeister and Leary, 1995), and individuals are motivated to satisfy this need. As such, individuals seek interactions with others in order to feel a sense of relatedness. Because of its essential quality, human beings who do not have a sense of community or belonging might experience negative outcomes, such as stress or maladjustment (Baumeister and Leary, 1995).
Given the importance of sense of community in psychological functioning, researchers are interested in the role of sense of community in educational processes and outcomes. In fact, schooling is described as a social process (Dewey, 1958) where learning occurs in students' relationships and interactions with others in their environment, specifically classmates and teachers. Hence, Dewey (1958) argued that school administrators and teachers are responsible for facilitating a sense of community to help students achieve positive academic outcomes. Although sense of community is important for youth's academic achievement, schools pay less attention to the socioemotional needs of students and give priority to students' performance on standardized tests (Osterman, 2000). This is particularly true for large urban school systems that have many schools placed on probation for students' low test scores and are at risk for closing. School systems consequently emphasize individualism and competition in order to improve students' test scores, rather than community and collaboration (Osterman, 2000). Further, the typical pedagogy of high schools promotes competition. For example, social comparison techniques are used to evaluate students, such as tracking students by ability level and using class rankings (Eccles et al., 1984). High school classrooms are also characterized as less personal than elementary school classrooms and students perceive less support from teachers (Eccles et al., 1993; Reyes et al., 1994). Overall, the practices that are employed in schools are based on a set of beliefs and values that promote achievement and mastery (Osterman, 2000). It is often believed that students' emotional needs are met outside of the classroom and school. Consequently, there is less emphasis on fulfilling the basic need of sense of belonging in school.
In order to understand the role of sense of community in school processes, researchers have examined how sense of community is related to a variety of academically-related outcomes, including academic performance and motivation. Gonzalez and Padilla's investigation (1997) of Mexican-origin high school students revealed that sense of school belonging was the only significant predictor of academic performance, even when other variables were included, such as supportive academic environment and cultural loyalty. A national longitudinal study that followed diverse students beginning in their 8th grade and again in their 10th grade showed that students with low academic grades tended to report low levels of sense of belonging (Smerdon, 2002). Research on middle school students shows that sense of belonging is positively related to grades (Goodenow, 1993a, b; Hagborg, 1998; Roeser et al., 1996). However, Roeser et al.'s study of 8th grade, mostly White (87%) students found that sense of belonging had small, positive effects on year-end grades after prior academic achievement was controlled for in the analyses. The authors suggested that psychological indicators, such as sense of belonging, are likely to have stronger relationships with other important school behavioral outcomes, such as motivation.
Researchers are interested in academic motivation because, as Goodenow and Grady (1993) pointed out, sense of belonging is discussed by motivation theorists as having priority over needs for knowledge and understanding. Hagborg's (1998) research of White middle school students revealed a positive relationship between sense of school belonging and motivation. Goodenow's work (1993a,b) also demonstrated a positive relationship between sense of school belonging and motivation, as measured by expectancies for success in and intrinsic value for a specific academic subject, among diverse samples. Moreover, Goodenow and Grady (1993) conducted a study with Black, White, and Latino 7th to 9th graders and found that sense of school belonging was positively correlated with students' intrinsic value, expectancies for success, and academic effort. Interestingly, sense of belonging seemed to play a greater role for Latino students compared to the other racial/ethnic groups, such that the relationship of Latino students' sense of belonging to academic outcomes was strongest. Goodenow and Grady suggested that the strong relationship for Latinos might be due to their communal values.
Research demonstrates that a sense of school belonging predicts other academic outcomes in addition to academic performance and motivation. Sense of belonging is found to be positively related to academic self-efficacy and positive school affect (Roeser et al., 1996), academic effort (Goodenow, 1993b), educational expectations (Smerdon, 2002), and amount of time spent on homework (Hagborg, 1998). Overall, the available research shows that students' feelings of belonging in their school environment promote positive school behaviors.
An interesting pattern that has emerged is gender differences in students' sense of belonging and its relationship to academic outcomes. Researchers found that girls reported a greater sense of belonging than boys (Goodenow, 1993b; Goodenow and Grady, 1993). Further, research shows that the relationship between expectancies for success and sense of belonging is stronger for girls in middle school than for boys (Goodenow, 1993a; Goodenow and Grady, 1993). Even research conducted with high school students illustrates a similar pattern. Smerdon's (2002) longitudinal study showed that high school females reported a greater sense of belonging than their male counterparts. Goodenow explained these gender differences by referring to the varying socialization processes of girls versus boys. Gilligan (1982) argued that relatedness and connection with others is more important for girls, whereas competition is more central for boys.
The findings regarding female students reporting a greater sense of school belonging than male students …