School board challenges Challenge Day

Oakley Press, California/January 11, 2008

At the end of this month, every student and teacher at Deer Valley High School will experience Challenge Day, some of them participating in an intense, emotionally cathartic all-day session - despite concerns by several Antioch Unified School District (AUSD) Board members about the program and the potential legal liability in sponsoring it.

Challenge Day, a nonprofit organization based in Concord, has been presenting programs for the past 20 years in hundreds of schools throughout the county that challenge students to overcome stereotypes and eliminate abusive behavior. It's been featured on "Oprah" and other shows.

The program places 100 students in a room for 6½ hours with a couple of Challenge Day facilitators. In the morning, they play games to help them step out of their comfort zones, and are encouraged to express their emotions and feelings. In the afternoon, the students deal with the issue of social oppression. That program will take place on Jan. 28 and 29 and involve 200 students (100 each day) at Deer Valley High School.

The Challenge Day week continues with an after-school session for teachers on Jan. 30. And on Jan. 31, two assemblies will be held for all of the school's students.

The Dec. 12 AUSD Board meeting began with a positive presentation on Challenge Day. Shawn Burns, a managing partner of Schooner's Grille & Brewery, presented a $5,000 check from a golf tournament fundraiser to go with the $10,000 already collected for the weeklong Challenge Day activities at Deer Valley High.

Spearheading the Challenge Day effort at the school are PTSA President Linda Thompson and Mary Peinado, cofounders of Residents of Antioch for Improved Schools & Education.

"It's so great to be here to finally be making this happen," Peinado said to the board before introducing Burns. "After some very trying times at Deer Valley Plaza, he had expressed interest in trying to do something that really made a difference to reach the kids on an emotional level."

Burns told the board, "We've raised a lot of money for scholarships for the two high schools. I think what they are doing (with Challenge Day) is something special. It's what the community needs. Hopefully, other people will jump on board to see how important this is."

The board members also heard from Christian Bean, an 11th grader at Deer Valley, who participated in Challenge Day two years ago.

"When I first went to Challenge Day I didn't even know what to expect," she said. "But when I came out I was stunned because I was able to share some of the things that went on in my life with my peers. And they could relate like they understood my problems.

"I believe in my heart that everybody in this whole entire world should be able to experience a Challenge Day. Because it changed my life, and I believe it can change our lives and the world we live in."

There was applause for Burns after he presented the check. Board President Walter Ruehlig thanked him for his generosity, and he praised Thompson and Peinado for doing a "great job sticking with it for all these years."

But that ebullient, congratulatory mood changed to one of caution and concern a couple hours later in the meeting during the discussion of whether AUSD should match the city of Antioch's $8,000 pledge for Challenge Day in the high schools.

Earlier in the meeting the board had listened to a budget analyst warn of potentially tough fiscal times ahead, and they also had heard a plea from African-American students for funding help.

Board member Joyce Seelinger raised several questions regarding the Challenge Day funding request.

"One is: Where do we get the $8,000?" she asked. "Because we're talking about a shortage of money, and it has to come from somewhere. If we spend it here, then we can't spend it somewhere else. So if we pass this resolution and say, 'Yeah, we'll give (Challenge Day) $8,000,' what about the Black Student Union? They want money for their historical black college tour. I think that's a good thing, too. Can we give them $8,000?

"The second thing is: What about follow-up counseling for kids that we get into trouble? I didn't hear anybody say that they are doing some counseling. I have participated in this previously, so I know that some kids can get very upset. They spill their feelings to friends or people that they don't know. I know that sometimes you say, 'That kid needs help.' So where will you get the rest of the help? You can't just drop it."

The video on the home page of the Challenge Day Web site shows several students discussing personal problems during the session. One boy talks about a cousin with a drug problem who committed suicide; others discuss difficulties relating to their parents. Numerous students are shown breaking down in tears and being hugged or comforted by others.

The Web site states that the program is designed to "open up a can of worms." The video also shows two members of rival gangs embracing after one declares that they are not that different. In addition, a student who was bullied by others is seen hugging one of his abusers after the abuser apologized.

Board member Claire Smith said she's concerned about the lack of a background check for the Challenge Day facilitators. "We require background checks on every employee that we have, whether they come in contact with a student or not," said Smith. "I'm OK with that because I think our student safety is first and foremost. Parents send their children to us healthy and we want to return them that way.

"Now we are asking people to come in and enter the emotional (aspect of) our children's minds and their hearts. I just think it's really important that we know who is interacting with our students in that sensitive way."

Smith was also concerned that it would be unfair to give money to just one high school and not all four high schools in the district, and that the schools should be able to use the funding for other intervention-type programs instead of Challenge Day.

And she was worried that the funding request would return every year. "I'm just concerned that we opened Pandora's Box, and it's never going to end," she said.

Smith said it's important to support parent-led initiatives like this one, but it's also important for the officials at each school to make decisions on the school's direction and to put in place ongoing, in-house programs.

"A (Challenge Day) week is great, but then what happens three months down the road?" she asked. "The whole intervention piece has to be sustainable, not a band-aid. We're done with the band-aids. This has to be something that we as a district can sustain."

Board member Teri Lynn Shaw, who for years has mentored teenage girls, said to Smith, "I (so) support you that I'm like choking over here because I have to say this: Just like me having my organization, I'm held accountable when certain information comes out. In a case like that, you may have a child that it just becomes word vomit; they just start purging. Names can come about; family members can be implicated. We are liable once we have this information.

"That's a true statement because once a teacher becomes aware of a situation, they are liable," agreed Smith.

Ruehlig also expressed concerns about the $8,000 donation, pointing out that the district has become so fiscally challenged that it charges the Boy Scouts and other civic organizations $45 per hour to use a school room. "Most of them have left the public schools because of that fee," he said. "They now meet in churches.

"So, spending $4,000, $6,000, $8,000, whatever the case may be, I'm conflicted by it. We let this thing move so far along that we probably are committed to it, but I would do it with great reservations.

"I did have some doubts about Challenge Day - not about its goodness - just because I'm a kind of a Doubting Thomas, period. I like to ask a million and one questions. I have been encouraged to attend Challenge Day, and I will try my best to take time off to do that. But even after I attend it, I would still hold my mouth in check as far as endorsing it.

"My attendance means nothing without empirical data. And that is a concern I have about Challenge Day. I looked at the (Challenge Day) Web site, and a few schools have endorsed it. It was far different from Character Counts, which had 200 organizations endorsing it.

"In Challenge Day's favor, for those people who may doubt it, it has been around since 1987 and been delivered in over 600 schools. In my Web Google searching I could find only one negative article about it by a guy who is in the business of exposing cults. I would take it with a grain of salt after looking at what business he's in; he was a bit of an extremist. That was good: in 20 years, to find only that (one critic).

"But in the same breath, I wish there were more empirical evidence. I agree with those members of the board who said it would be great to find an embedded program that would be a part of the ongoing curriculum. But in lieu of all of that, I would be willing to give something, perhaps less than $8,000, for this year."

The only board member advocating spending the $8,000 was Gary Agopian, who pointed out that it's a one-time grant that can be shared among the district's high schools. He and the other board members agreed that it would not necessarily go for Challenge Day, however, if a school's principal preferred to use it for an alternative intervention program.

After further discussion, the board agreed to table the funding request after it was confirmed that Challenge Day has enough funding for the upcoming program at Deer Valley High.

Thompson and Peinado did not participate in the board discussion, as they had left earlier in the meeting, not aware that the board would be discussing the Challenge Day funding later on in the meeting.

In an e-mail, Peinado said that the funding pledge was made last April at a joint City Council/school board meeting during which "students gave an amazing heartfelt presentation on the need for youth intervention and how they believe Challenge Day would significantly help break down barriers among youth on our high school campuses."

She said the funding request was for $7,000 per year from the city and $7,000 per year from AUSD for a two-year period. This would fund two of the intensive Challenge Day sessions along with staff training and an all-school assembly for one high school.

RAISE's goal in the current school year is to offer the intensive Challenge Day sessions to half of the freshman class at Deer Valley High. Next year's goal is to expose the school's entire freshman class to Challenge Day - a total of eight sessions costing $25,600.

"Our dream is for all Antioch high schools to facilitate a successful Challenge Day program," said Peinado. "If there is interest at Bidwell, Antioch High School or any of Antioch's other high schools, we'd love to work with that school's PTSA and principal(s) to make their Challenge Day program possible for their students."

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