On Thursday, October 17th, Byram Hills High School held its first Community Book Read. In an effort to make the student experience more positive, the District has worked closely with Challenge Success, an organization that collaborates with schools with an emphasis on student wellness and engagement. During a spring workshop, other districts mentioned the success of holding community book clubs. A popular read at other schools was, Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be - An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania by Frank Bruni. The Challenge Success Steering Committee thought that it would be the perfect book for the Byram Hills community.
“The book choice dovetailed nicely with several of our district-wide initiatives,” said Greg Quirolo, Byram Hills High School Guidance Counselor. “Our work with Challenge Success supports activities that allow our students, parents, and staff to reflect on how we engage our students in the most comprehensive and healthy college exploration experience.”
The format of a book club discussion was new for many participants. “This is the first book club that I have had time to attend,” said Byram Hills High School Principal, Mr. Christopher Walsh. “I liked reading this book knowing we would be discussing it and debating back and forth.” Some members of The Challenge Success Steering Committee, an organized group of parents, teachers, administrators and students, helped guide the discussion by choosing relevant quotes from the book to explore. The attendees were responsive, engaged and enthusiastic as they shared stories and asked pertinent questions.
“This is an important topic in our community,” Mr. Walsh continued. “It is not a one size fits all in the college admissions process. This book expands the realm of possibilities for our students and makes the process transparent.”
The theme of the book ties into the work of Challenge Success quite closely. When collaborating with BHHS, Challenge Success hit on three relevant areas that could improve the overall student experience. The first opportunity lies in examining the community expectations around the college admissions process. The raised awareness and conjecture about colleges is embedded in a student’s DNA from an early age. The second opportunity aims at tackling the pressures caused by curricula that the faculty do not control, such as advanced placement classes and Regents exams. The third opportunity addresses the dynamics related to the new pressures students face due to social media and changes to communication. Although the book focuses only on the college admissions process the other two points are closely connected in the Byram Hills community.
Debra Goldman, member of the Challenge Success Steering Committee and parent in the community said, “The book was an important reminder of what is truly important about the college search and application process - helping parents and students realize how flawed the system is and reminding us that what is most important about a healthy and successful college experience, goes so much beyond the name of the school they choose.”
The evening was filled with lively conversation and many different points of view. Mr. Quirolo said, “My biggest takeaway was a greater appreciation for the diversity of opinion that exists among different stakeholder groups in our community. In addition, the book and follow-up discussion affirmed my opinion that student-centeredness drives our District's mission.”
There were many highlights of the book and the evening but as Mr. Walsh reminded the group, “There is no set formula and no equation for 100% certainty that students will get into the school of their choice.”
Maybe students need to look at their approach differently? The Guidance Department is introducing a new idea this year by presenting a different school once a month to expose students to colleges and universities they may not be familiar with but could potentially fit their needs. This might help expand the often narrow list of schools that Byram Hills students apply to.
The audience was left with a great deal to think about after an evening of enlightening dialogue. “It was such a pleasure to have an open and thoughtful book discussion with other parents and with our BHHS faculty and administration. Such a rare opportunity to hear so many different perspectives in one room,” Mrs. Goldman said. “We all shared our collective frustration with this process, but most importantly, it is clear how each stakeholder shares the same goal - the happiness and well-being of our kids!”
The intent is to continue book clubs in the future and to choose challenging, thought-provoking books that generate curiosity and conversation. “I am always interested to find out what people are reading and learning about books that help us as a community,” Mr. Walsh said.
Please join the next Community Book Read on January 23rd at 6:00 pm in the Byram Hills High School Library. The book is Permission to Feel by Marc Brackett from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.