Wellesley High School (WHS) last year launched the Challenge Success initiative in an effort to broaden the definition of what success means for the Wellesley educational system and community. The approximately $12,000 program and accompanying travel expenses were covered through the financial support of the WHS Parent-Teacher-Student Organization (PTSO) and Wellesley Education Foundation (WEF). The idea behind the Stanford University-directed collaboration is to make a place in the WHS curriculum to teach resiliency, and explore methods to better engage students both at school and at home. About 130 schools throughout the United States — including those in nearby systems Dover-Sherborn, Acton-Boxborough, Concord-Carlisle, and Medfield — have used Challenge Success.
A team of two Wellesley Public School administrators, three teachers, two parents, and two students went to Stanford University for three days in Fall 2017 to attend a conference on Challenge Success. Then in January 2017 the WHS student body in their advisory meetings took part in the Stanford Survey of Adolescent School Experience.
The 30-minute survey was designed to measure high school students’ perspectives on homework, extracurricular activities, sleep, physical health, stress, parent expectations, academic engagement, academic integrity, and teacher support. Over 80,000 students from more than 70 schools have taken the survey over the past several years. Part of the cost of the program goes to the survey data crunching Stanford provides on what students see as stressful and challenging, as well as supportive, within school. Survey results also guide schools in their efforts to make changes in areas requiring improvement. The idea behind WHS students taking the survey was that the results would help WHS administrators identify areas of focus to better support student well-being and gain insights into students’ overall school experiences. The results of that survey helped shape the WHS – Challenge Success partnership.
Now that all the theory work has been done, I sat down with Jamie Chisum to ask him how Challenge Success was coming along in practice.
The following is a condensed version of my conversation with Principal Chisum about the Challenge Success program and what it looks like at WHS. When it comes to topics close to his heart, all Chisum needs is an opening and he’s off to the races. Here’s what he told me:
The Swellesley Report: How is Challenge Success going at WHS? I understand that you’ve identified three parts of students’ high school experience that have been a challenge for them to balance: technology, workload, and sleep.
Principal Chisum: I’m really happy with the way Challenge Success has launched this year. We’ve been working on clarifying what we’re doing and what does it mean and what does it not mean. We chose the theme of balance this year because it’s what we really want to get across. Balance is what we’re trying to achieve with Challenge Success.
I think there might have been some fears from people that we’re just trying to make high school easier or we’re trying to clear all the hurdles away from the the kids and they need those because the world is difficult and the world is challenging. We know that college is challenging, and they need to achieve. We want kids to face challenges, but how do we find the right balance place? How do we teach kids, especially teens at the high school level, to do that for themselves? That’s what we’re trying to do in everything we do at the high school. We’re trying to make them independent learners and gain the skills that they need to be healthy, productive adults.
The three areas we saw the most need were in technology, workload, and sleep. Each of those has a complexity to them, and so we are tying to have those complex conversations with kids. We started the year talking about stresses. We’re not trying to eliminate stress, we want kids to have the good stress. There’s good stress and there’s bad stress, and the thing that kids need to know is how to tell the difference.
With the technology part, most families have the experience like we have in my family that even the second grader wants to be on the i-pad at dinner. Well, that’s a no for us, you’re not doing that. But everybody’s got their limits of where technology is ok. You see different families making different choices and that’s good, as long as they are making choices consciously and saying what’s enough, what’s too much. I know with my kids (an 8th grader and a 2nd grader) there are times when they are on the i-pad or on the phone (they don’t have their own phones) and when we try to get them off, we get cranky kid. They get upset and it’s a problem, and it just doesn’t feel good.
We know from the high school kids that they are generally on their phones or some kind of social media while they’re doing their homework. Well, it takes longer to do homework when you’re also chatting with kids. It’s complicated there too, because sometimes they’re working on school, but then they’re also chatting about whatever else they want to talk about. So where do you figure that out? So the best way to do that is to have conversations about that, so we’re using advisory time to have those conversations.
The Swellesley Report: How did the first few days of school go?
Principal Chisum: We think they went well. You can’t always measure everything, but the freshman liked being in the building for a period of time without the upper classes. We did that for three hours this year, where in the past it’s been done for an hour and a half.
They got to know their advisory a little better, and when the upper classes came in they got to spend more time with their advisory and do more community building activities. Every class tried to build a little community in the beginning instead of rushing into curriculum on the first day. Let’s establish the classroom as a safe place for students to be so that they can take academic risks. Am I willing to raise my hand if I’m not sure of the answer or volunteer for this experiment? We want students to take those risks even if they don’t get the answer right. But we have to make it safe to do that. If the spaces are safe, kids will learn better and they’ll achieve more if they feel comfortable talking to their teacher or the other kids in class and they don’t feel like they’re going to be picked on or ridiculed
The Swellesley Report: You went to Stanford in Fall 2016 to learn about Challenge Success. What did you bring back to Wellesley?
Principal Chisum: I took advantage of my time out there and booked an appointment with the Assistant Dean of Admissions. One of our teachers Craig Brown, who also travelled out there, was in on the meeting too, and we just asked questions.
The Swellesley Report: How did you learn about Challenge Success?
Principal Chisum: I’d heard about it from other principals, and also one of our teachers lives in Sherborn, and she saw the program in action in Dover-Sherborn [Regional High School] and said, “I really think this is good, and that our kids need it as much as Dover-Sherborn kids do.”
So I looked into it some more and didn’t disagree. What I like about Challenge Success is that they have lots of areas that they think you should look at but they don’t tell you what to do. Most of what we did out there was take a look at what other schools were doing. It was the opportunity to learn from our peers. Palo Alto is even more stressful in Wellesley. It sits literally across the street from the entrance of Stamford University. Metaphorically, you just can’t get away from it there.
It’s so high stress there that in Palo Alto they have volunteers who sit at the train tracks 24 hours a day to make sure that no one jumps in front of the trains. They had so many student suicides there [a 2015 Atlantic Monthly story covers the suicide clusters in Palo Alto]. They’re there to guard against that happening. It makes an impression.
We do feel the call to arms because we have a lot of kids who just report that sometimes they just want to survive high school. I don’t remember that being what high school was like for me. The world is challenging but they’re still teenagers, they’re still kids, they’re still forming. We’ve got to support them enough so that they don’t become overwhelmed. So how do we figure out the balance point?
Thats what we took away from Challenge Success while we were out there. They’ve got ideas and the research to back up why they think these ideas are good for kids. From there we decide what will work within the context of WHS.
The Swellesley Report: What are the stresses that kids say they face at WHS?
Principal Chisum: None of it would surprise you: school, parents, peers, academics, social, college.
The survey we gave to our students is given to thousands of students across the country who are involved with Challenge Success. The data is collected and used by Challenge Success to determine the student experience among schools that are involved in the program. We’re a self-selected group to be in this survey, and that’s all the more reason that the data is poignant.
The Swellesley Report: What is an example of what the data showed?
Principal Chisum: The data showed that our 9th graders’ transition to high school was more disconnected than the transition of that same population at schools in our demographic. We were compared to schools of about our size, about our socioeconomic level, and at about our level of achievement. Our 9th graders reported more struggle with transition to high school, more stress, less sleep than other 9th graders in our demographic.
How much did the Challenge Success program cost?
Principal Chisum: The first year it was $12k to be a part of it. That included the Fall and Spring conference, coaching. and the survey. They analyzed the data for the survey and sent all the data back to us. We also got a presentation from Denise Pope which was very well attended. WEF and the PTSO gave us grants. We don’t pay for the program anymore.
The middle school is also going to participate in Challenge Success. In October 2018 both the middle school and the high school are going to administer a parent survey. Wellesley is part of a Challenge Success pilot program for administering a survey to parents, and because we’re part of the pilot we get to do it for free and get the data from the survey results.
We’re close on a definite date for the survey’s launch. We need a high participation rate.
The Swellesley Report: Thanks for taking the time to talk, Jamie.
Principal Chisum: You’re welcome.