Students clamoring for Challenge Day at all high schools

Posted: Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Thunder Mountain High School students recently had the chance to participate in Challenge Day, and now students in Yaakoosge Daakahdi and Juneau-Douglas High School are asking for the opportunity.

Challenge Day was offered three days (students could choose which day) as a highly intense focus on behaviors and ways to implement changes they wanted to see and to ascertain why certain behaviors were present. Students interacted with teachers and members of the community in very personal connections exploring deeper emotions.

Kathy McCasland, coordinator for bringing Challenge Day, and Christine Culliton, another involved with the event, spoke to the school board about the results. Chulliton said there are students who participated who didn't want to go to school because they perceived the climate in the school negatively, and now they are comfortable going.

"A week later, is there a change?" she asked. "There is. This really was a single event, a single day that changed our community."

Culliton told the school board Tuesday the community needs the program and needs it again now. Community groups like United Way were highly supportive and the Alaska Association of School Boards sponsored the first Challenge Day in Juneau through a grant from the Alaska Division of Behavioral Health.

"The community has asked, 'How can we help?'" Culliton said.

Board president Mark Choate said he was impressed with the program and said students are just like adults. Their problems and deepest concerns are the same as those adults face.

"We're all very similar," he said, adding he hoped there was more outreach and connectivity in the future.

She asked the district to put Challenge Day in the budget, at least to fund the application fee. Culliton said her group that helped bring it about is willing to solicit sponsors for the bulk of the cost.

"It allows the community to buy in," Culliton said.

She also showed a couple large colorful posters students signed.

"Basically all of these say, It changed my life," Culliton said. "And they meant it."

Meanwhile, Culliton said she has received several phone calls from parents appreciating what the first Challenge Day has done and by students who want the opportunity.

Several board members participated in the event, and Culliton noted people from the governor's office and others in the community also took part.

"There wasn't a section of the community that didn't participate," she said. "They said, 'We'll come back.'"

Culliton asked the board to start each school year off with this program at all three high schools.

She also urged the board to fund it for this year for the other high schools. She said it will cost $12,000 for both schools. Culliton said every day they wait, the longer it will be before the program can be brought back. She said the schedule is already out through February.

Board member Destiny Sargeant said they have to look at this for this year. She said she's worked with people who have been affected by tragedy and suicide.

"Some of those kids would be alive today if we had this," she said. "For $12,000, that's peanuts. I'll give up my board meal if necessary."

Superintendent Glenn Gelbrich said he was holding the line on $8,000 and $15,000 expenses in the last budget process, but this was $12,000 he would push for.

"We've had very few conversations where we haven't talked about culture in our schools," he said. "Some kids feel like they aren't welcome, they aren't valued. This gets to the heart of changing the culture."

Both JDHS and Yaakoosge principals also asked the board to support it for their high schools.

"Our school always is trying to achieve a sense of community," said Sarah Marino, Yaakoosge's principal. "I think we do a pretty good job. I see this taking it to the next level. Challenge Day is laid out where staff members are able to participate. We tend to facilitate and not be partners with the kids."

JDHS principal Ryan Alsup agreed.

"Relationships are what drives a school and what drives education," he said. "It sounds like a fantastic opportunity for our kids and our school community."

A woman who works with Delta and AWARE (Aiding Women in Abuse and Rape Emergencies) programs said the event was hugely impactful and powerful and has potential to change the climate and culture of the school. She encouraged them to focus on the after affects and hoped they would provide adequate follow-through. She hoped for a yearlong program with guidelines and said Delta and AWARE would love to be a part of the strategizing.

Please see Thursday's Empire for more on Tuesday's school board meeting.

• Contact Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at

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