My name is Adriana Toles and I am a freshman counselor here at Cesar Chavez High School. We have ninth grade to twelfth and a little over 2,700 students. My role on campus is strictly freshmen.
Our kids are the greatest people you’ll ever meet. They have experienced great trauma, great pain, they come from broken families, they come from violence, all of those things that make life in general very hard. But despite all of that, they are relentless and they refuse to use it as an excuse to not succeed. They refuse to use it as an excuse not to do well. And even experiencing that level of pain, they still have the biggest hearts and want to change the world and they want to make a difference not only on campus but in their homes, in their communities. So I’m definitely grateful to serve our students and our families.
This is our third year with Challenge Day. And I remember the first one, I think I was working with Jennifer, I want to say. It was funny because prior to being a counselor, I taught 7th grade writing for 10 years and I used to watch Challenge Day on MTV back in the day and so – I remember even as a kid I was crying in my living room. So I was like, “Man, that would be so amazing.”
Where I used to teach, we never had extra funds for anything, like everything we wanted, we had to fundraise for. So we never were able to do anything like Challenge Day on our campus.
Then I came [to Cesar Chavez] and I just put in an inquiry and Jennifer contacted me and we immediately clicked and bonded and we were both crying on the phone and so she was like, “Whatever you need, I’ll help you. If you need money, fundraising ideas, or help,” she was super loving and kind. And then from there, it kind of just kicked off. I presented it to our admin team and we presented it to the district. And everybody loves the concept of Challenge Day, loves the time that we get to spend together. I’ve shared with every single person on our campus and it has just been really an amazing experience, especially going from the fear of wanting to bring it but not knowing how to present it or if we’re going to have the money for it to now, this is our third year. So it has been very exciting in all of the different stages.
Like I said before, I was a teacher prior to this. And as a teacher, you build relationships with your students and your families but there are certain things that you just don’t know because you’re not a social worker or you’re not a counselor. You’re kind of just in your little bubble. And then coming over here to Chavez and being a counselor, and learning that we have like 38 group homes where kids feed into us.
Now, I’m learning about our kids who are pregnant after 10 years old, 14 years old. Now, I’m learning about our kids who just exited the juvenile detention center or hospitalization because of suicide. That first year of counseling was a shock for me. And when you have 2,700 kids, it’s like, “What do I do to even help? Where do I fit in this equation? And how can I help them?”
And so that’s why I definitely wanted to go the route of Challenge Day, seeing it and experiencing it has just been life-changing.
I would definitely say Challenge Day is unlike any other experience. And we have this organization on our campus called Elevate and they kind of do similar lessons throughout the year and they have even shared, “Man, what they can do in Challenge Day, what they can do in 6 hours takes us all year to get to,” I don’t know how you guys do it but you created a curriculum to where those walls are dropped and we are in a safe space and we are a community. And it’s no longer like he is over here, this population is over there. We work together. And that’s something that you don’t just learn. Nobody teaches you that in your classes. That’s not the curriculum that you learn. Having that safe has been powerful for a kid.
In addition to that, as a result of our first Challenge Day, we created a Be the Change Club and that had been going strong for the last three years. We have 40 kids involved. We are super heavily reinforced community service so we’ve done a lot of community service both on campus and off campus.
I don’t know if you guys read Mr. Brown’s statement but Mr. Brown, he had said that every single Challenge Day opportunity he is going to participate in because he is not only a better change from it but a better man and a better father. When I read that, I just started crying. You know what I mean? Because we don’t have those opportunities to learn and grow and be in that space, so we are forever grateful for the curriculum you guys do and just the opportunity that is provided.
What surprised me the most? I would probably say the fact that we can all come together so quickly in such a short amount of time. Coming from the classroom and now into a counseling role, kind of like what some of our teachers had said like how is it possible that in 6 hours we get all of this information on our kids and for some of those kids who are very closed-off, who have learned to protect themselves and self-preservation mode, the fact that they are able to be honest, the fact that they are able to cry in front of people, some of which who have never cried in front of anybody because they bottled it all up. So I think that’s probably the most surprising, just the fact that that space of safety and protection and love is created so quickly.
I’ve always been an empathetic person. But hearing the stories and the pain of our kids and having that space, even like in the small family groups, it takes time for them to open up and feel like they can trust me with that information. So without Challenge Day, I would never have met or built that relationship with a senior because that’s not my student or with that junior.
My first year was the first year that we had Challenge Day and was also my first year being a counselor. And in my small family group, was a senior. I had three seniors, a junior, and then a freshman. So without that time and space, I would have never made those connections with those kids. I was able to help them – our seniors, I was able to help them fill out their FAFSA and their post-secondary goals. So without that time and space, I would not have been able to build those relationships. And that’s not just with my small family group but everybody who is there.
And teachers too, like I said, it was my first year so I didn’t know or connect with teachers yet either. So that allowed me to have that time and space to build community with my peers as well.
You can never compare anything to being like in-person. That experience is like – that’s special, something like you kind of take with you your whole life. I was kind of worried to be completely honest with you with the virtual. I was worried number one, because of confidentiality. I didn’t know if certain kids were going to say something and then I have to do something about it and then they’re at home. So that was kind of scary. And then I was also nervous because it’s a one hour session. So I’m like, “What could they really do in one hour?” Right? I love them and I trust them but one hour, it’s going to be so fast.
But I loved how even though we were virtual, we were still connected. And I loved how you guys still did the raise hand if, I think that was super, super powerful. We did a school-wide student survey and we asked students for their opinion, how’s virtual learning going, how are you feeling, what can we help you with. And one of their highest areas of concern was anxiety and not feeling connected.
So after we had Challenge Day and then those students wrote their thank you cards and everything like that, the greatest growth was feeling connected. Even though it was virtual, it was still a time and space for us to connect and a time and space that we would have never had if not for Challenge Day.
And real quick too, with the staff that it just brought to my attention, so we also have the staff self-care. And before that session was even over, teachers were like, “OK, so when is the next one? So what are we doing next? Where is the follow-up?” And I’m like, “I don’t know yet!” We started brainstorming and now, we have a little Challenge Day team. We presented some things for our Principal in moving forward and our Principal is all about Challenge Day too. So definitely the need is always there and both staff and students, every single time after the session are like, “OK, when is the next one? What are we going to do next?”
We did a staff self care workshop because everybody was exhausted. This year has been rough for everybody, having to work and parent and doing everything from home, learning new systems. It was just hard. It was hard all the way around. So we knew that our staff needed something.
From that session, staff were able to learn practical tools to help them in our profession and in self-care in general. And everybody absolutely loved it and it’s definitely something that moving forward, we are really considering each year. So we are thinking about making it kind of like a landmark for us.
One more thing I want to share and I shared this with the team after we had our staff Challenge Day was number one, you guys are incredible. You do amazing work. But in addition to that, I follow you guys on social media and I saw one of your programs for – it was like a caregiver self-care workshop so I was like, “Ma, you should sign up!” Right? And my mom is very reserved herself. She doesn’t really open up especially quickly so she was like, “All right. I’ll give it a shot.” Right? So she gets on there and then as soon as it’s done, I’m like, “Mom, you have to call me as soon as it’s over.” So she calls me and she is raving about it. She absolutely loves it. She said, “I felt so comfortable.” And she says, “And you know what? I’m going to sign up next time and I just might turn my camera on,” which is like for us, it might not be a big deal but for her, it’s huge.
And then I shared with Katie that last session and then they were like, “So what’s your mom’s name?” And then I let them know her name and she won a session with Pam. So I’m like, yay! Now my mom is also setting up her session with Pam too so she can start taking care of herself. You guys are amazing. I absolutely love what you do and not just for our kids, not for our staff, not just for our community, but at our work because we need it especially right now.
My name is Michael Steele and I’ve been the Challenge Day Coordinator at Franklin High School since 2011. At Franklin, I coordinate the Challenge Day program. I also teach Math, specifically AP Calculus. I coach mathletes, I used to coach baseball, and I was the 2009 Sacramento County Teacher of the Year and a finalist that year for State Teacher of the Year.
We have a 9-12 grade high school with roughly 3,000 students. Socio-economically, we run the entire spectrum.
Our campuses had a number of difficult situations over the last few years. We’ve had suicides and we lost a number of students. Challenge Day has been a part of the fabric of the school since probably more than the last decade. So any time I think about some of the situations that we see on campus, I like to think of Challenge Day immediately as part of the fabric that allows students to move past those hard situations, to grow with them, to learn from them, and to connect with each other in really difficult times.
Challenge Day actually predated my arrival at the school by a couple of years. We had a counselor who brought it in tandem in the late 2000s when it first began and then a teacher that I knew from when I was in high school actually took over the program. I decided to become the coordinator after my third time attending Challenge Day, the coordinator walked into my room and said, “I can’t do this anymore. I need you to do this now. Can you do it now? Please tell me you can do this now.” And so, I became the coordinator and have been the coordinator ever since.
I would say that one of the biggest reasons that I want [Challenge Day] there is how it impacts and informs the culture on our campus. It’s definitely not some invisible hidden thing that lives in the shadows of campus. It’s something that’s out there. It’s visible. Our team, as Trish knows, wears vibrant, bright colored shirts as our sort of team uniform. Our programs are advertised well. So it’s not something that’s just kind of out there. It’s something that’s visible. And not every student gets a chance to participate just because we don’t have the facilities to host the Challenge Day every single day of the year much as I might try.
I get to see that impact firsthand. I see these students go from sort of feeling reserved or uncomfortable or unsure of how to interact with each other or how to handle difficult situations and suddenly become people willing to walk into a room full of complete strangers whether peers, volunteers from the community, teachers that they may or may not know well or may or may not get along with well in a setting and suddenly be willing to speak honestly, openly, and to do it intentionally, to really think of themselves as models for all these things.
I was a high school student at one point, and I think about what routine sophomores or student leader teams do because of their experience at Challenge Day versus what I could do as a high school sophomore and how difficult it was to really navigate emotions and interactions with other people without the benefit of a Challenge Day. I just want that opportunity for as many students as possible. I want it to be part of that culture.
When we dealt with three suicides in about 19 months, Challenge Day was honestly part of the healing process. It’s not like the [Challenge Day program] happens and, “Oh boy! We’re good now! We’ll just move on and our grief will never return.” We’ve experienced this loss and yet, we are moving forward. We are celebrating this person. We are remembering this person. But we are also trying to acknowledge the difficulty that it is moving forward without these individuals. Just my vocabulary talking about grief has improved because of the programs but so has our campuses. It’s just informed so many little things as well our culture on campus.
This last year has been sort of its own animal. I think Challenge Day definitely plays a role as kind of an engine, a driving force in our campus for this.
But I look at the way students and staff talk about mental health on our campus and again, its benefit to the entire world, to our students, to our staff that this has become a conversation point. But when I first attended Challenge Day in I want to say 2010, that was not a topic that came up in discussion. It wasn't a phrase that really to my ears meant anything yet. It’s weird to say as an educator today but I don’t think I was really aware of mental health as a problem, as a challenge, as something that people dealt with. I didn’t have a vocabulary for even describing this sort of feeling like I knew about depression, I knew about psychological conditions and learning challenges and all those things. But I wasn’t aware of mental health as just this thing that people deal with all the time. I didn’t have a vocabulary to describe this thing that was a widespread issue facing so many different people across the campus community.
So I think just the vocabulary and the ability of our campus to acknowledge that, not just on an administrative level, because our staff administration have been talking about mental health for a while but in student’s abilities to talk about mental health and to be aware of mental health and to be willing to be a support to each other in a different way. You can just see it. And again, it’s not just like every student has attended Challenge Day but having 500 students on campus at a time that had attended a Challenge Day just sort of sends out these little feelers of knowledge and awareness and then it forms the vocabulary for students or it can be sometimes really visible or can be really visible in different areas of campus, different groups, different teams, different programs.
And because of that, you get more people talking with this common shared vocabulary, this shared awareness and it reaches all over campus. It helps inform the conversation as well because students that develop this vocabulary see it reflected, supported, and acknowledged by their teachers and I think that spread into the community, not always smoothly but it does totally spread out into the community, which is really helpful and important for developing that sort of awareness.
I saw the MTV series when I was in my teacher credential program that interviewed what Challenge Day was. I think it showed at Hugo City High School, if I remember right. And they played the video and I was like, “Cool!” A little tear went down my face silently but that’s fine. And then the teacher who was in charge of that happened to be the counselor of Franklin High School for my credential program and she invited me to attend at one point and I was like, “No, it’s OK. That’s fine. I would not go.”
The idea of going to a program that induces this amazing emotion out of people and this connection, it wasn’t that I didn’t want connections because I definitely wanted connection, I just didn’t want anyone to see anything coming out of my face. And so – and to be fair, I was a lot like the students like I constantly tell our student leaders when their program is coming up, “Let’s go counter this talking point of Challenge Day is the crying thing.”
I had a 6th grade student that sat right next to my desk in a class of 41, his mother was a teacher on campus in my department and he one day said, “I think Mr. Steele, you should come to Challenge Day.” And I found plenty of excuses quickly to tell Kyle, “I’m probably not going to be able to do that.” And then I got the email from our previous coordinator and was like, “We are really short. We need some male adult facilitators. We are just having trouble.” And then Kyle asked me again and finally I was like, “OK, fine.” I’ll just say yes and just get it over with because how bad could it be?
And so I went to the program with a number of my students who were freshmen at that time and I did the program. And even having that impression in my head of this is going to be an emotional exercise didn’t really prepare me for one, how quickly it found me, not only my own emotions because it wasn’t just about me suddenly opening up to the world. It’s about listening to students in my group, including the student leader that was in my small family group, talk openly about one difficult situation after another and going, “I’ve met him before. I never would have thought that before.”
I left the program that day, just drenched and exhausted by emotion and yes, tears of course and I just went, “Well, I’m never not going to do that again.” Like I immediately wanted to do that again and I immediately had in my head a list of 25 students from my classes and from baseball and all these different things that I wanted to get involved and to kind of share this experience with.
Pam Dunn was one of the facilitators that day and I felt like everything she I could connect to it even though our experiences were so very different. I felt connected with Pam. I saw students that were in my class visibly connecting with Pam. When we have those opportunities to reach out to somebody, some of these students that I was just getting to know really for the first couple of months that I would spend the next four years with and shape all these things were running up to give me a hug and I wanted to give them a hug too. Like it was this shared experience.
And again, I keep coming back with phrases like shared experience and it’s really hard to say exactly what’s happening when you’re there for the first time but that’s kind of the beauty of it is you just get swept up in this wave of openness and authenticity and it’s just so beautifully done. Not to mention the polish of the program but also the way that student leaders reinforce and model this stuff.
I come down at the end of every Challenge Day with this immense respect for how well-orchestrated all of that is but also with that feeling that so many of us have something sitting in the tip of the tongues or on the edge of our heart that we really need to say out loud.
Rich used one of the mini trainings, I think it was the Teacher’s Day, and talked about scars in our heart and that has been kind of the thing that’s there is that these scars that are in my heart and on the student’s heart, and everyone’s hearts are that are always there and we feel them. And if we don’t talk about them, we just kind of feel the scar. But as soon as we talk about them, we can acknowledge that they are there. We can accept the weight a little bit differently and we can also be kind of proud of ourselves. We are moving forward through them rather than just have this lingering, festering in the back of our mind that’s sort of there waiting for us in the shadows.
And I think the Challenge Day is refreshing in that way every single time. I’ve never walked out of a Challenge Day – and I think I’ve done 18 Challenge Days – without a shared experience. You’re just constantly reminded how human every single person is.
[Doing a Challenge day program] is not just investing in the students that attend or in the staff that attend the program that day, it’s an investment in your school’s culture as a whole.
And from the student’s perspective, we have no way of knowing what’s happening inside of students’ heads. We don’t know what’s lingering in the back corners of their mind. We don’t know why they are distracted. We don’t know why they are struggling to get to school on time. We don’t know why they are concerned about something or why they jump when we call their name. There are just so many things that are unknowable to us. And Challenge Day gives them an opportunity, a release valve, to potentially let something out there and sort of explore and expose sort of what else is going on.
I think that’s a huge thing to be able to offer to someone, like attending Challenge Day is a gift. And financially, it is most definitely a gift because it costs money for us to put it on. But I think emotionally it’s more than a gift. It’s just this opportunity. It’s literally just here like it’s here for you. If you choose not to, that’s fine. You’re still going to get the pizza at lunchtime. You’re still going to get a chance to like spend the day with us and run around and play party games and dance and sing to music and yell out the theme song from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. You just have the opportunity to take it. And so I think that alone is powerful right there for any student to have the opportunity whether they take it or not. But offering it to them is really a gift.
And from the staff perspective, being beautifully, painfully, and inspirationally aware of how human all the people around you are and that you are here in this community of people who you see as a student, co-worker, custodian, security guard or vice principal and then to suddenly be reminded that all of these people are people and they are people that are more or less like you, that have gone through difficult things, that have difficult experiences, that have struggled with things, that have struggled to know how to act or how to support somebody, that have lost somebody, that have just seen things that we don’t have to be aware of in our day-to-day lives.
I can talk about differential equations for an hour and not necessarily have made one human connection during that moment. But in an event like [Challenge Day], I’m reminded that those people that I’m discussing Math with or those people that I’m bumping into or working with or waving at every day are people just like me. .
In a sense, it just kind of finds a way to get that message into your head in a way that we have it there. It’s always there. But we are not always aware of it or conscious of it all the time. And I think the Challenge Day amplifies that feeling so that that way it can carry forward into the students, into the school culture, into the community, all of those things. I think Challenge Day is a catalyst for a lot of those powerful changes and shifts. Maybe not even changes, shifts, that we are looking for in the world.
I believe I’ve done four different Virtual Challenge Days and the impact was still there. It’s still something refreshing. I think that’s the best word that I could use to describe it. It’s something that my team echoed as well. It’s just that this is refreshing.
It’s giving an opportunity for some connections and activities. It’s as clean a portion of the full Challenge Day to a two and a half hour Virtual Program as you can possibly want. And it sort of sent the message to me or at least it did a couple of times that connection is still possible through this virtual medium.
Something like those virtual Challenge Day events reminds us that it is possible that small little things, whether 10 minutes, 2 hours, half an hour, whatever they are, these small little things echo forward and have powerful impacts on people. It’s a different impact.
It’s really hard to convince yourself when you’re used to 7 and a half hours Challenge Days full of emotion, activity, excitement, dancing, crying, and all these things. You think, “OK, well, this other thing is just so different. It can’t possibly have an impact.” Well, no, it’s not the same. We can’t possibly say that it’s the same but it doesn’t change the fact that it makes a powerful difference.
And it’s weird to step back and go, “How could 7 minutes on a Tuesday, how could a 23-minute activity on a random Monday make a difference?” But at a certain point, one, it’s because small things matter, and two, it’s because who cares why? It worked. People got connections out of it. They felt seen. All of those things were so important in a thing where you can be invisible all the time if you really want to.
You told me that there’s a 2-and-a-half-hour program that can bring out these feelings and emotions and experiences from people and connect them with each other and show them small ways to connect even in a really dry and sterile virtual setting, sign me up. It’s exactly what many students need to take them outside of their academic world for a little bit and let them connect and have fun and laugh and just think about some other things.
For me, it is definitely something that keeps me going forward as well. It was cool connecting with whoever was there. I think Rich was our facilitator the last time we had a Challenge Day. But then looking forward and going, “I can’t wait until the next one. Maybe I’ll be able to get this person that I shared a classroom with to come to this next event or maybe so and so’s little sister who is coming out we will be able to get her into this first program and we will get a chance to share this thing that she has been hearing about since she was like 9.”
Like there’s nothing that sends the message that this is important more than having another one on the calendar, another one in the works and people talking and looking forward to that next one.
That phrase, “if you really knew me,” was like the skeleton piece to unlock a bunch of different things. It just transforms the way you see every situation. It allows you to connect with people in a different way like connect authentically. If someone asks me to give three reasons I am the person I am, Challenge Day is in the top 2 and it’s probably number 1 or 1A and 1B.
And I would say that the fact that I am an AP Calculus teacher, sort of known as the emotion guy, the one that listens well, and all these things. It’s sort of a foreign concept for people. The fact that I routinely do shed tears in class talking about things that I orchestrate emotional – social and emotional learning activities for my classes amidst the ridiculous and extremely challenging curriculum is a testament to the fact that this program taught me not only that it’s important but that it can be done.
And I think that that more than anything has – that has shaped the way that I look at things too because I’m easily discouraged. If some things are not working, I get frustrated. I want to lash out to the world for not allowing me to solve the problem. I just want to solve the problem. And Challenge Day reminds me that not every problem can be solved the same way and that the most important problems are the ones that you chip away slowly over time. You try to make a tiny little – the tiniest step towards making it possible.
So, this whole thing of me talking like this is me trying to be grateful to this program and to the people that put it on because I know what it does to our students and I know what it did for my dad, he has come four times, someone that never showed a single emotion or shed a single tear when I was growing up for the first 30 years of my life, who asked when the next Challenge Day is all the time now. But also for me, I can only really truly know how it impacts me personally because of what I know in my own head. Like I said, the point that rerouted my entire life was attending the first Challenge Day.
My name is Lauren Peterson and I’m the Lower School Dean of Students at Leadership Public Schools in Richmond. I have been working with Challenge Day for the past four years in my role. And our school is located in Richmond. We have 600 students, 150 per grade level. We are a 9-12th grade school.
Challenge Day had already been a thing at our school prior to me getting there. So I wasn’t the one who brought it to LPS. But the first year that I got to the school, we had tried a different program and everyone was like, “We need to go back to Challenge Day. This is nothing like Challenge Day. We need it back.”
So when I got the role, I heard that feedback loud and clear, and brought Challenge Day to the school and we’ve been doing it every year since. And I think for our purpose which is our freshmen retreat, Challenge Day is the perfect program because our students are coming from lots of different middle schools, some of them know each other, some of them don’t. And we really just want to start off the year with everyone being on the same playing field, everyone getting to know each other and building new relationships and just really being vulnerable with each other so that everyone has a great chance to meet new people and make relationships. And it kind of establishes the feeling of LPS for us, which is just like a sense of belonging and really feeling like they matter in our community and so we just feel like the values of Challenge Day really matched the values of our school.
From what I remember, someone at our school had been to a different school that had Challenge Day and mentioned it to our the Dean of Students at the time and said, “I think this is a really awesome program. I think we should bring it to our school.”
The one grade level where we didn’t do Challenge Day, we always talk about how they are the group that didn’t do Challenge Day. And it has resulted in just a really different class culture. And I’m sure other factors go into why their class culture is different from the other ones. But I just think that something we really try to show our freshmen when they enter our school is that their experience at LPS is going to be different from their experience at any other school. We want them to feel like they’re stepping into a place that really cares about them as individuals and is going to support them in every aspect of their lives. And I think when students first experience our school they are like, “Oh wow! This place is different.” And that kind of carries through for the rest of their four years.
The change that we’ve noticed in our students is we have very, very little cases of bullying at our school. We really have an incredible culture where students are supportive of one another. They stand up for each other. They don’t put each other down. And it just makes for a really comfortable and safe place to go to school every day. And I think that experience where everyone’s bars are kind of lowered and everyone is sharing their truth allows for that to happen. Challenge Day definitely impacts our culture a lot.
The group that did Challenge Day virtually, we still have not met them in person yet. And so, it’s a little bit hard to say how it has impacted the culture because we haven’t seen them as a whole group of 150 on campus together yet, so we don’t quite know how they’re going to interact with one another. And we are even contemplating potentially doing another one this fall with all of our students just because we want to set that tone coming back in person.
But what I will say is that I think it was very important for us to still do Challenge Day virtually for incoming 9th graders. Even though we are virtual, so many teachers comment on how incredibly close they feel virtually and how they still managed to make relationships with one another, they still are supportive in a virtual setting in classes. And so I think it still made a very similar impact virtually and we can really see that in individual classes. We haven’t seen that at the grade level all together as a whole yet, but in classrooms, it seems to have still had a similarly positive impact.
I’m always really impressed with the facilitators. I think they do a really great job of getting all students out of their comfort zone and keeping the energy high. I remember thinking, “This is going to be 6 hours. How are they going to keep 9th graders who have never met each other entertained for that full time?”
And it’s amazing to watch. And as someone who is putting the program on, you’re always a little hesitant of how they are going to react. Are students going to start leaving in groups to go to the bathroom because they are not going to be engaged? And I was just so pleasantly surprised the first time to see that those hours flew by and students did not want to leave the room because they were so engaged.
I was also surprised with how well every activity was framed so that students really did feel comfortable sharing their vulnerabilities and being honest. When I think of 9th graders, they just want to put up their walls, they want to put on their masks, they want to hide in every way that they can and not stand out in any way. And so the fact that we have students who are getting up in front of the group sharing their story or crying or like crossing the line for different statements and not just like hanging back with their group of friends was just amazing. I think 9th graders are hard to get them to do things like that. So the fact that each activity is so well-scaffolded and framed was really impressive to me.
Challenge Day affects our new teachers in the same way that it affects our students, which is like, “Wow! I can’t believe that we are doing this on the first day of school. The school feels really different to any places that I’ve worked before.” So I think new teachers are really impressed with the program and how much they get out of students right off the bat and themselves. They are sharing a lot about themselves as well.
And I think people always remember who is in their Challenge Day small group and I just always hear teachers saying like, “Yeah, I know this student really well because they were in my Challenge Day small group.” So I think it just really helps to build relationships right off the bat and those relationships continue during the year. It’s just nice that students have a staff member on campus who knows their story and has heard them be really vulnerable.
It also just speaks volumes that our whole staff does it. No one opts out. No one is in their classroom setting up because they’re too busy to do Challenge Day. Everyone puts everything down and comes and participates in Challenge Day, and I think that that’s really powerful because it’s the beginning of the year and we all have a million things to do but everyone commits to doing this and puts everything into it. And so, I think there’s just very few opportunities that we get to do that as a school community so I think it just is a very powerful experience for the staff to see every single member of our community participating and being there for our freshmen.
For me personally, it’s a great reminder to start with socio-emotional support for students. As the Dean of Students, I’m always thinking about rules and expectations and when they come in, they need to – the first thing they need to know is like this is how you walk down the hallway and this is how you should enter a classroom. It’s a really nice reminder for me and my role that the first opportunity should just be to get to know our students and make them feel really cared for and valued before we get into all those other details and specifics. So it’s so nice for me to have that as my first experience with the new class of 9th graders and really get to know them before we go into all those other logistical details.
And I think it’s just an incredible experience to start to get
I’m Candice Dagnino, I am the proud principal of Alliance Patti & Peter Neuwirth Leadership Academy. I’m in my 8th year as a principal and this is my third year with the alliance. My most favorite part of the work is connecting with young people and making sure our kids have the circumstances, the relationships, and the community in which we can make learning most conducive. My desire has always been to support communities similar to the ones I grew up in. We serve about 95% Latinx, first generation immigrants, and children of immigrants.
We’re located in South Los Angeles and the socio economic status of our families is either at or below poverty. 100% of our students receive free lunch and most of the families are Spanish speaking. So when I joined Alliance, my reception to the school was just heartbreaking because of the trauma the community had endured given the very tumultuous transition in leadership that the school experienced. Our students had multiple principals in and out and at some point they didn’t even know who their principal was. It bred a lot of mistrust especially when I came in as another new principal. So I decided that Challenge Day was an opportunity for us to come together and to know more about one another.
The decision really stemmed from this dilemma we were facing and the trauma our students were going through. I really wanted an opportunity for them that was going to be developmentally appropriate, safe, and meaningful. We brought the program to our sophomores first because they experienced the most change and after Challenge Day it really opened up the doors to deeper connection and greater relationship building not just between the students and myself but also with the new staff members I had brought on.
It’s such a problem that we have toxic masculinity in the Latinx community especially since they were so accustomed to male leadership in school, as well as family dynamics and what they believe about women in leadership positions. It wasn’t until Challenge Day that they got to see who I really was, what experiences I’ve had, what similar traumas I’ve faced, or just seeing me as human. I think that made them feel safer to come to my office and connect with me. I don’t think the school had that culture before where a student went to the principal's office just to hang out, chat, or say hi, it was always a negative connotation that you were in trouble if you went to the office. Challenge Day paved a way forward to continue working on our community relationships, and I was able to make the tightest connections with the class I had the most disconnection from.
We’d experienced a lot of racism between our Latinx community and our students, family and staff and so we had these conversations and trainings so we could name them. We had staff speak up as much as they were comfortable about times they experienced racism from their colleagues on campus. I think because we developed the culture that is safe to be honest, it’s safe to be vulnerable, there isn’t going to be retaliation or you’ll be treated differently because of your shared experience--which I attribute some of that to Challenge Day--staff appreciated that and understood that was part of who we are and how we operate. And so again, it took establishing that culture first and bringing on orgs like Challenge Day to do our own work where we could have these conversations around race in our schools and classrooms.
Going back to my excitement of being the principal of this new amazing school that just needed to address some critical issues and have students trust again, Challenge Day created this opportunity where we could build that trust much faster. It was authentic and meaningful for the kids and it was great to interact with kids in the way that I’m used to, which was to be silly, and to have them see me as this normal person. It helped to kind of save my soul, because it was hard! It was difficult to feel like “this is my life's work” and to have your school community not really with you yet.
I’ll say our staff is pretty incredible, so many of them have committed their lives to restorative justice and doing the work that aims to have the same outcomes as Challenge Day. And having a team with the skillset and experience and ability to put on similar programming, it was so helpful to have an outside party come through and be so aligned with what we were aiming to do. And though we thought we could develop our own program, we wanted to be a part of it as participants which really changes the whole dynamic. We were able to get into some really deep stuff without the barrier of our positional authority, and when we’re there as participants, we’re really there with our scholars and experiencing it with them rather than doing it for them. Despite having the staff to be able to do similar work, it was really important that we were a part of the program. I’m just impressed at the consistency with which all your facilitators operate. I’ve gone through a Challenge Day multiple times and it still is such a unique experience for every group and it never feels disingenuous. I wondered if by the second or third time it would feel less authentic because I knew the stories the leaders were going to share but every time I am still so touched and it says a lot about how much of their authentic selves they bring to their work.
"There are many programs available which tell kids how and why bullying hurts. The genius of Challenge Day is the simple way in which the activities show kids that lesson.
The students see others who have experienced many of the same obstacles they have faced. They see peers who experienced even greater challenges."
Dwayne K. Newman
Superintendent, Colusa Unified School District, Colusa, California
"After the first Challenge Day we had a 50% drop in suspensions and another 50% drop the next year after the second Challenge Day, along with reduced disciplinary actions. This fall when school began, several upper class students, based on what they have learned from Challenge Day, decided to greet the freshman and welcome them to the school. It truly was the best start to any school year I have experienced ever."