Challenge Day Promotes Positive School Culture

The interactive program inspired students to be part of the change. (Photo by Stephanie Faughnan)

  BARNEGAT – An invitation to join Challenge Day at the local high school earlier this month attracted 100 student participants – most uncertain about what the day would entail. Six hours after the event’s conclusion, the group’s overwhelming feedback was a collective expression of appreciation and gratitude.

  Challenge Day is a program designed to promote social and emotional learning, build empathy and compassion, and create a sense of community among school students. Sessions are led by a team of professionals who urged participants to embrace the mantra of “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

  School district staff members and community volunteers took part in a series of interactive and engaging activities, discussions, and exercises. Some seemed silly initially, for example participants racing to find seats like musical chairs.

Photo by Stephanie Faughnan

  Students were encouraged to connect on a deeper level, challenge their assumptions and biases, and essentially learn how to communicate more effectively.

  “It’s so uplifting to see how many of our students fully committed and participated in this program,” said Barnegat High School Assistant Principal Tracee DuBeck. “Our hope is that they are empowered to stand up for themselves and others and recognize that no matter what someone may be going through, that there is always a network here to support and guide them through it.”

  Challenge Day leaders limit observation of their activities so students can feel comfortable sharing their feelings and experiences. Often, the event includes the revelation of personal stories, engagement in trust-building exercises, participation in group discussions, and collaboration on team-building activities.

  The program aims to create a safe and supportive environment where students can learn valuable social and emotional skills to serve them well throughout their lives. As the event ended, the participants appeared eager to put their new lessons to work.

  “If you know you owe somebody an apology in this room and you would give it,” said Bobby, one of the team leaders. “And you didn’t have to do it on a microphone; would you please raise your hand?”

  Bobby then asked students to raise their hands if they thought someone should know how much they liked or admired something someone else had done. Finally, students were invited to walk around and pass on their messages without differentiating which questions had elicited affirmative responses.

  “You don’t have to repeat the hurts,” Bobby said to the students ready to apologize. “Just turn around and say I’m sorry and how things are going to be different. Then, walk around and show your appreciation.”

Allie Larsen, a high school junior, gave Ocean County Prosecutor Bradley D. Billhimer positive feedback about the Challenge Day program. (Photo by Stephanie Faughnan)

  The apology and appreciation activities came at the end of the day-long event. There were plenty of group hugs, and big smiles exchanged. Ultimately, all returned to smaller groups that had become their families for the day.

  Pam, another team leader, reminded the students that they’d all been able to return to their family group throughout the day. They could count on the small family group to validate them even when things got hard and emotional.

  The answer was evident when the students were asked if they felt different from when the day started. For one, they’d learned about trust and reaching out to cross over lines together.

  “The best part was connecting with people,” said Allie Larsen, a high school junior. “It was getting to see how different yet how alike everyone else is.”

  “Some of the other people’s experiences were insane and heart-wrenching,” Allie continued. “Some people who stepped over the line because of their circumstances shattered my heart. There were things you wouldn’t know just by looking at people.”

  Allie said the Challenge Day team leaders suggested using their experience to care for themselves and those around them. The message resonated with the high school junior and helped her gain a better understanding of others.

  The Challenge Day program has been around since 1987 and has been a popular event in Manchester High School for several years. An Ocean County Assistant Prosecutor knew of the program and brought it to Ocean County Prosecutor Bradley D. Billhimer’s attention. Barnegat High School was the first of the high schools sponsored by the prosecutor’s office for the program.

Photo by Stephanie Faughnan

  “We wanted to help our communities develop a sense of urgency for a positive school culture change,” said Billhimer. “We’re hoping that whatever the students learned here today, they’ll take back to the rest of the student body.”

  The Ocean County Prosecutor’s office also provided funding for Challenge Days at Lacey High School and Toms River North after Barnegat’s event. Billhimer said he hopes to make the program available for all high schools within Ocean County.

  Overall, Challenge Day turned out to be a powerful program in Barnegat with a huge impact on students, helping them to build resilience and develop a sense of empathy and compassion for others. And, if that wasn’t enough, the day concluded with visits from therapy dogs.

  “We are so grateful to the Prosecutor’s Office for making today’s event happen – we know how important and impactful programs like this are for our students,” said Superintendent Dr. Brian Latwis. “Our slogan is One Barnegat, and today’s event really drove that home. We are so much stronger when we lean on each other and I know that after today’s event, the students understand that even more. I’m proud of them for participating and giving it their all to better themselves and their school.”