Jocks. Nerds. Theater geeks. Preppies. High-schoolers have labeled themselves for years. But with growing alienation as demonstrated by the student shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado and by the recent movie “Thirteen,” the need to break down stereotypes has become more pressing.
Since last school year, Oakton High School has been grappling through the issues of teenage isolation and aggression with a series of in-class workshops and daylong events. One event, “Challenge Day,” aims to promote acceptance and inclusion by breaking down the barriers among students. The other events are in-class workshops that Oakton will hold throughout this school year, to build on the principles learned during Challenge Day.
The four principles, according to Challenge Day literature, include the following: Create a safer school environment and prevent youth violence and aggression; address and prevent social oppression such as teasing, alcohol and drug abuse, violence and suicide; encourage community through leadership, service and compassion; and discover the commonalties between people by building relationships and reaching out beyond one's comfort zone.
"People have a lot more in common than they do in difference," said Oakton High principal Charlie Ostlund. Students "were forming connections with kids they've never spoken to before."
Oakton began offering Challenge Day last year, after a former teacher told school administrators about the program. Although dozens of schools nationally have participated in a Challenge Day, Oakton High School is the only school in Virginia to create a Challenge Day for students.
Since last fall's offering, Oakton has had six more Challenge Days, including two this past October. Over half of the school's 2,284 students have participated in at least one Challenge Day.
During Challenge Day, students and teachers come together on team-building exercises to discover what makes them alike. In one exercise, all participants, regardless of age, are told to cross a line if they fit into a category, such as if they've been bullied or experienced racial or gender discrimination. By finding out the hurts and joys that other people have also experienced or shared, the exercise promotes an appreciation of others.
"I had a lot of things happen to me, and [it was good] seeing other people have the same experience," said senior Dennis Uriarte of Oak Hill.
"A lot of kids were telling us this was the greatest day of their life," Ostlund said.
While Oakton doesn't have any more Challenge Days planned in 2003, they will have monthly in-class workshops where student facilitators will expound on what they had learned on Challenge Day. The first such workshop is “What Counts,” which will help students explore what they can do to improve the social climate at Oakton High.
"One of the fundamental themes is loneliness," said Oakton parent Steve Farber, who's helped bring more Challenge Days to Oakton. "From that day can come a sense of connection."
Student facilitators will lead their seventh-period class through three questions: What do they notice about how people treat each other at Oakton? Of the things they noticed, which are the most significant? What actions can individuals take to improve the school climate?
"Our class is very opinionated, so hopefully they'll keep on talking," said senior Emily Latimer of Oak Hill, who agreed to be one of the student facilitators.
At a preparation session for the facilitators, participants discovered that many shared some negative observations about the school, such as the existence of cliquishness, put-downs, racism, gossip, verbal abuse, sexual harassment, stereotyping and distrust between students and adults. Positive observations were respect, helpfulness, and general open-mindedness.
The participants were to determine what actions to take to prevent those negative dynanmics with their seventh-period classes.
"It's important for us to establish our norms and how we're going to interact with one another," Ostlund said.