By Ginni Spencer
Heather Galante, principal of Bedford High School, welcomed an audience composed of parents, teachers, and students to a meeting on November 6 in the high school auditorium. The purpose of the meeting was to introduce a new program from Challenge Success, a research-based organization affiliated with Stanford University Graduate School of Education. The evening meeting followed an all-day professional gathering where the program was rolled out to high school faculty. Galante expressed her enthusiasm for the initiative and her hopes that it would become the beginning of a broad, inclusive conversation among teachers, parents, and students about new ways to help establish “balance, joy and happiness” in the lives of Bedford students. “We want our kids to build a life, not a resume,” she said.
The mission of Challenge Success according to their website (www.challengesuccess.org) is to partner with schools, families, and communities “to embrace a broader definition of success and to implement research-based strategies that promote student well-being and engagement with learning.”
Challenge Success was founded by Dr. Denise Pope, Senior Lecturer at Stanford University Graduate School of Education and Dr. Madeline Levine, described on the website as “a nationally known psychologist with over 25 years of experience as a clinician, consultant, and educator” and a former classroom teacher. Both have written extensively on the subject of student stress and its impact on learning and healthy emotional development.
Pope authored “Doing School”: How We Are Creating a Generation of Stressed Out, Materialistic, and Miseducated Students (Yale University Press, 2001) which was awarded Notable Book in Education by the American School Board Journal in the year it was published. More recently she was co-author of Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Healthy, Successful Kids. Pope, too, is a former classroom teacher.
Dr. Levine wrote a New York Times best-selling book The Price of Privilege and a follow-up book titled Teach Your Children Well.
Bedford’s interaction with Challenge Success began with a presentation Galante made to the School Committee last year on progress being made under the School Improvement Plan. Some of the actions coming out of the plan were to seek a greater focus on student health and wellness. Ann Guay, School Committee member, was familiar with the Challenge Success program and suggested Galante explore working with them. Galante did so and was impressed enough with what she learned to make an application to the program on behalf of Bedford High School which was subsequently accepted. The scope of work covers three years beginning with an initial assessment in year one; implementation in year two; and an assessment of impact in year three. Earlier this year, Galante led a team of seven people (including two students, three teachers, and one parent) to an annual conference at Stanford sponsored by Challenge Success to learn about current best practices in education and how best to implement school reform. Other area towns that are also working with Challenge Success include Concord-Carlisle, Weston, Westford and Medfield. Each is at different points in the three-year process and the program for each school is tailored to the needs and issues of that particular school.
Jon Kleiman from Challenge Success, School Program Director for the Northeast Region, spoke next about the problems their research indicates students face and some possible solutions. He began by asking audience members (primarily parents) to call out keywords or phrases that they considered characteristics of a successful person. Happy, confident, joyful, love what they do and self-sufficient were some of the answers. He then reported typical responses given by students to the same question: making money, getting high test scores and getting into college. His conclusion was that many students are just “doing school,” meaning they are not really engaged with the learning process or feeling joyful or curious about their work but seeing it entirely as a means to the ends of getting into college and/or obtaining a good job.
Kleiman also spoke about current research on the importance of adequate sleep for teenagers; ideally, this would be at least nine hours per night. Most young people experience demands on their time that make such a recommendation impossible to attain including school, sports, and extra-curricular activities, paid work, family and friends, chores, and yes…social media. Failure to get enough sleep extracts a high toll academically and is reflected by disengagement from learning, lack of creativity, less willingness to take risks, and diminished ability to solve complex problems. Health-wise, Kleiman reported that lack of adequate sleep is associated with less resilience to illness, anxiety, and depression, higher incidents of bullying (likely arising from increased irritability) and at the extreme end, drug abuse and other more dangerous behaviors.
One of the first steps in the Challenge Success process is a survey for high school students about their perspectives and beliefs regarding their health and wellness both at home and school. Students respond anonymously and while participation is strongly encouraged it is not mandatory. This survey was completed on November 28. The results will be analyzed by a team at Stanford and will indicate areas of focus for the Challenge Success program in Bedford. An executive summary of the results will be made available to the School Committee, students, parents, and staff.
Principal Galante said that after the results are received and the areas of focus are determined committees will be formed to further the work. There will be at least three committees – one made up of students, another of faculty, and a third of parents. “We need all stakeholders to be part of this work in order to help our students and children find balance and purpose. A strength of this partnership is that it brings our community together in order to help our students live their best lives.”
Challenge Success receives no funding from Stanford and is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization.