School Story: A More Open and Comfortable Campus

This article was originally written for The Piedmont Highlander newspaper and published in October of 2015.

Eleven representatives from Piedmont attended the Challenge Success Fall Conference to discuss the social and academic climate at participating high schools on Sept. 25 and 26 at Stanford University.

Of the 11 representatives from Piedmont, there were two administrators, two teachers, four parents and three students, allowing for an extensive range of experiences and insight into Piedmont’s education system. They participated in a variety of activities, including a keynote speaker, discussions with representatives from other schools and workshops on issues such as school engagement and homework.

Challenge Success, a research-based organization in its eighth year, helps middle and high schools develop strategies to create a fulfilling and balanced school experience. Multiple schools and educators convene at the Fall Conference to collaborate on issues prevalent in schools today, according to the Challenge Success website.

“We used to think Piedmont was an isolated bubble,” English teacher Mercedes Foster said, who attended the conference in 2014. “It was enlightening to see that we were dealing with the same issues as numerous schools.”

Principal Brent Daniels started the partnership with Challenge Success two years ago with the observation that students were performing at relatively high levels while simultaneously reporting high levels of stress.

“We joined Challenge Success to trade research with other schools and find strategies to improve the climate at Piedmont,” Daniels said. “We wanted to learn which practices to replicate and grow, and which to shift away from.”

This year with Challenge Success, Daniels is focusing on replacing busywork with meaningful homework, creating coordination between teachers’ test schedules and establishing equal ground so that every student in a course is receiving the same amount of challenge despite having different teachers, he said.

Although Daniels is looking at specific ways to improve students’ experiences, he is still working under the same fundamental question that prompted him to first join the Challenge Success program: How can Piedmont provide a safe environment focused on the combination of academic and social emotional growth? His simple answer was community.  

“Being able to build strong community allows students to share their different experiences and build connections,” Daniels said. “Through those connections, students tend to make better decisions and have a healthier school experience.”

For Challenge Success representative senior Laine Ratzer, the way to build a stronger community within Piedmont is through greater school pride, which can create a sense of unity. Ratzer discussed the role of ASB in a school’s climate as well as methods for sparking students’ enthusiasm in school events at the conference.

“I wanted to attend the Challenge Success Conference because I wanted to learn more about other schools’ student bodies, and especially how we can make ours better,” Ratzer said.

Senior Chris Machle, who attended the conference this year, sees another perspective on how to improve the environment at Piedmont High. Through his participation in Site Council, Machle realized how students’ attitudes towards failure increased stress in both the academic and emotional climate in Piedmont.

“There is a belief that everyone needs to be the best at whatever they do, and because of that there is no room for failure,” Machle said. “The biggest change I would like to see is acceptance of failure as a pathway to growth.”

Both Daniels and Foster saw the huge amount of stress in students’ lives as an effect of the fear of failure, as well as an opportunity to learn about how to deal with stress through social emotional learning.

“Students were reporting high levels of anxiety, especially from school,” Daniels said. “We know that stress is a part of life, so we wanted to implement programs that allow students to deal with stress in an effective way.”

Foster said she notices students contributing to the culture of self-doubt and stress when grades become the forefront of their conversations. Instead of continuing the pattern of comparing oneself with other students, she hopes to increase empathy on campus as a source of well-being for students, as well as a way to help students grow intellectually and emotionally.

“We cannot have a functioning, happy society if the members can’t truly put themselves in the shoes of other people,” Foster said.

Since she started working in Piedmont 12 years ago, Foster has seen Piedmont undergo a large shift from a stressful and clique-y environment to a more open and comfortable campus through efforts such as Challenge Success. Foster, along with the teaching staff and the administration, hopes to see the improvements in the school develop even more.

“Ultimately, it will take students, teachers, parents and administrators working together to create indelible change,” Daniels said. “Whether you’re a freshman and have been in high school for a month or you’re a senior and have been in high school for four years, we want to hear your voice.”

Foster continues to participate in activities that will improve the climate at Piedmont, hoping for lasting change in the school.

“I don’t want to make things easier so that people are more comfortable,” Foster said.  “I want to make people more comfortable so the challenge is worth it.”

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