The setting was gorgeous and the weather was beautiful. But there was much to accomplish in two short days filled with intense, thought-provoking work.
Just as the new school year began, an eight-member delegation from Byram Hills High School left the familiar setting of Armonk to attend the Challenge Success fall conference at Stanford University.
The cross-country trip was part of the high school’s continuing effort to redefine success for stressed-out, GPA-obsessed high schoolers by balancing rigorous academics and high expectations with overall student wellness and meaningful academic engagement.
Eight members of the Byram Hills Challenge Success Steering Committee were among peers from 50 high schools from across the country who gathered at the conference in northern California on September 14 and 15.
“It was a terrific venue for the conference, and the fact that we were on the other side of the country allowed us to really focus on the important work at hand,” Principal Christopher Walsh said. “It is comforting to know that there are other very high performing schools around the country like Byram Hills that see opportunities to create a healthier balance for students.”
In addition to Mr. Walsh, the other members of the Byram Hills group were: Assistant Principal Kristen Sautner, school counselor Gregory Quirolo, science research program director Stephanie Greenwald, ninth grader Eliza Goldman and her mother, Deborah Goldman, and senior Evia Mascaro and her mother, Maria Mascaro.
“It was an intense conference,” Mr. Walsh said. “It was planned out in a way that allowed us to take a deep dive into trying to understand our overall student experience.”
A highlight was the keynote address by Marc Brackett, director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. The members of the Byram Hills group split up to attend three breakout sessions of their choice, and also swapped ideas with peers from other schools aimed at improving the student experience.
The group came together to work with the school’s dedicated coach from Challenge Success, a nonprofit organization that helps schools and families create a more balanced and academically fulfilling experience for students.
With the coach, they discussed the results of the Challenge Success student survey that Byram Hills students in grades six through 12 took last year. The survey found that more sleep, a greater balance and more purposeful engagement would help students.
“The really heavy work for our group was the one-on-one coaching session with an expert from Challenge Success who helped us look at our student data and uncover the roots of all of the issues we see coming to fruition,” Mr. Walsh said. “We felt really comfortable at the end of our session that we had discovered the roots of the negative aspects of the student experience for our Byram Hills students.”
The roots of those issues, Mr. Walsh said, are high community expectations around the college acceptance process, the pressure of state and national curriculum standards and teacher ratings, and the constant self evaluation related to social media and other social pressures and peer comparisons.
To help fix the roots, the Steering Committee will examine factors like academic engagement, sleep, academic workload, parent expectations, teacher care, extracurricular activities and academic integrity during the school year ahead.
The committee will be enlisting community support to help make lasting change, and will continue working with the Challenge Success coach once a month. “That will help keep our compass pointed in the right direction,” Mr. Walsh said.
The Byram Hills students who attended said the conference was a good experience that left them optimistic that high school can become more enjoyable and engaging - and less stressful - for students.
Evia said she hopes the conference will lead to an improved high school culture for the students coming up behind her, with a better balance between work and downtime. She wants to help keep “our youth youthful” with time for simple things like playing outside, watching a soccer game and spending time with family and friends, without always feeling tired, overworked and rushed.
“It was an eye-opener to see how much stress our students are facing, but I was hopeful for the future to see change,” she said.
Eliza learned that Byram Hills wasn’t the only school dealing with the same issues.
“I’m very optimistic that our school can bring about this positive change because everyone there was very determined and excited to see what will come with Challenge Success,” she said. “I liked that we as a school laid down all of our problems and were able to see directly what we needed to do to make the change.”
To continue the mission of nurturing students at Byram Hills, Jon Kleiman, the Challenge Success northeast region program director, gave a talk titled “The Well-Balanced Student” to the community on October 17, and Challenge Success cofounder Denise Pope is due to speak to students and families on February 4.
As the work continues, Mr. Walsh noted that Byram Hills will maintain its high expectations, “but we feel it doesn’t have to be at the expense of students’ wellness.”
Byram Hills High School thanks the Byram Hills Education Foundation for sponsoring its ongoing work with Challenge Success.