Teachers and students attend Challenge Success conference

The Challenge Success team from ARHS and ARMS.Photo: courtesy of Sara Barber-Just

Challenge Success is an organization that has been focused on improving the lives of high-performing high school students they describe as “overloaded and underprepared,” for the past 15 years.

The Amherst Regional school district took an interest in this organization and the chance arose, thanks to a federal grant, for select members of the school board, staff, and student body to attend a Challenge Success conference, at Stanford University in California on September 14 through 16.

The conference was attended by nine middle school teachers and seven high school teachers including ARHS Principal Mark Jackson, ARMS Principal Patty Bode, ARMS Vice Principal Alicia Lopez, and ARHS department heads at the high school: Sara Barber-Just (English), Jane Mudie (Math), Nick Shaw (interim head in science). Superintendent Mike Morris, high school student Karrington Dowe, and his mother Georgia Malcolm, an administrative assistant at Wildwood Elementary School also attended.

The Challenge Success organization strives to not only help students be able to achieve great things in school and have a happy life outside of school, but also to “challenge the traditional notions of success,” said Mr. Jackson. The conference held 20 workshops on Saturday morning, many of which made an impact on Ms. Barber-Just and Mr. Jackson.

“Creating a Climate of Care and Community,” one of the workshops Ms. Barber-Just and Mr. Jackson attended, focused on the importance of strong student-teacher bonds and how they can be formed for all students.

One way that was discussed was having advisory leaders or mentors be teachers who volunteer (rather than all staff becoming advisors) for a daily mentoring program that allows for one-on-one check-ins. Although this cannot quickly be worked into our school community, it highlighted to teachers the building the importance of the relationships they have with students.

Another workshop Ms. Barber-Just was able to attend was called “Mindfulness: Enhancing Well-Being for Adults and Students” which focused on how to create an engaging, and low-stress classroom environment.

Ms. Barber-Just said the workshop was a mix of new learning and reinforcement of things she has tried and found helpful in creating a calmer classroom, such as playing relaxing music  while students write, dimming the lights, bringing artwork and plants into the classroom, and spending “time at the beginning of every class creating a community environment that’s an intentional,  productive, safe learning environment,” said Ms. Barber-Just.

This workshop moved Ms. Barber-Just to apply for a Parent Guardian Organization Big Ideas grant, which she was awarded, for $1,200, to bring a meditation and mindfulness trainer to the school.

Shalini Bahl, who runs the Reminding Project in Amherst will offer a whole staff introduction to the concept in early January and trainings throughout the year to staff interested in incorporating even small exercises into their classrooms. Bahl’s research and practice shows that using mindfulness practices in schools increases student health, well-being, engagement, and resiliency in school.

Karrington Dowe, an eleventh grader at ARHS, was the only high school student from Amherst who had the chance to attend the Challenge Success conference.

“I thought it was an amazing opportunity, I’m just really grateful I was chosen to go,” Dowe said. “What my group came up with was that building community in the ARHS community would really help, and students building relationships with teachers would really help.”

Participating schools are assigned a coach that keeps in contact for about a year. The ARHS group agreed to focus on student-teacher relationships, homework, the interworkings of our school schedule, and students’ feelings of connection or isolation from school.

The teachers who went on this trip have already began to discuss how they will implement what they learned and are looking forward to reconvening at the spring follow-up conference in Boston.