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By Andi Bourne

Teaching Acceptance through Challenge Success

Breaking Down Barriers


SEELEY LAKE – Seeley-Swan High School (SSHS) continued their implementation and training for the Challenge Success program. A team of ten students, faculty, staff and parents attended the second training for SSHS at the end of April at Stanford University. For the students, the training reaffirmed their direction for the program and narrowed their focus for what can be effectively implemented at SSHS.

Challenge Success partners with schools and families to provide students with the academic, social and emotional skills needed to succeed. The program is under the direction of the Stanford University Graduate School of Education, which is ranked number one in the country.

“The whole goal is to improve the school system and make it a safe environment that makes kids want to come to school,” said SSHS senior Bradley Miller who thinks Challenge Success helps push his peers to learn for the sake of learning, not just for a passing grade.

Miller also said that creating a safe environment at SSHS is important because many of the students have a bad home situation.

“If the school is not a safe environment, then they don’t have anywhere to go and they don’t want to go to school,” said Miller. “By making kids accepting and getting everyone to tolerate everyone, be nice, say hey to someone you don’t usually talk to and be kind then hopefully more kids will want to come and enjoy it.”

At the start of the school year, the SSHS student body and staff did a “My Voice” survey.

“It really reinforced what we knew,” said SSHS Principal Dr. Kathleen Pecora. “We aren’t a very diverse population but we have all these cliques of kids that like to associate with each other and they don’t go outside of that very often.”

At the end of September, seniors Trinitey Bartlett and Miller attended the first training at Stanford with parents Charity Townsend and Carrie Sokoloski, Missoula County Public Schools (MCPS) Instructional Coach Seena Demmons, SSHS teachers Katrina Stout and Mary Stone and Dr. Pecora. They came back with a lot of new ideas to try at SSHS to help break down the diversity barriers.

This winter the team hosted several activities where they targeted diversity and appreciation for each other’s differences during what they called Diversity Week.

They split the students into two groups. One group watched a three-minute video entitled “All That We Share” available to view at

The other group discussed the video and made signs to put up on each other’s lockers that are were quotes or words written as affirmations for their fellow students.

“After the video, kids were more aware of themselves and there was less bad talk about certain things that we were trying to get at,” said Miller. “There wasn’t as much bad-mouthing each other. It was just a healthier environment.”

“I thought it was great to see some of them express how they felt pressured to conform, even kids you wouldn’t expect,” wrote Sokoloski. “Change is slow, but I think it’s begun with a little bit of enlightenment. I have personally heard my kids and their friends talk about things discussed.”

They also changed up the lunchroom. The lunchroom was a place that the team identified as a place where people were being excluded. The intent was to take students out of their comfort zone and talk with someone they don’t normally associate with.

The first day, the tables were all put in a circle and the rule was students couldn’t move the tables. Day two, no more than six people were allowed at a table. Wednesday, the students were required to sit in pods based on their birthday months. The final day, each table could only have three boys and three girls sitting at it.

Junior Ibby Lorentz said that there were skeptical students when they started the Diversity Week. However, she felt the activities really brought to light the separations of social groups, different classes and different interests.

“It was really cool to have everyone mix up a little bit and blend together,” said Lorentz. “Now it is definitely different in the lunchroom. There used to be just two tables where there would be 20 boys crammed around one table. Now they have kind of dispersed a bit and are sitting with different people. It can be hard to sit with someone new [on their own]. Making people sit with different people lets people break out.”

“You could see in the weeks after the lunchroom activity that there were a lot more kids sitting with people that they wouldn’t normally sit by. There were also small things. Everyone was together more and they didn’t separate themselves from certain people because they didn’t know them or they hadn’t talked to them before,” said Miller.

Miller said after Diversity Week they did another “My Voice” survey. This was the first time 100 percent of the students said they had at least one faculty member to talk to if they needed help.

“I think by doing the activities, kids thought about [their relationships with their teachers],” said Miller. “Once we did the activities and the teachers were a part of it and they did them with us, they really realized they had at least one person in the school that they could go to if they had a problem.”

Dr. Pecora asked Lorentz and Sophomore Nate Samuli to join the team this spring to help carry the momentum of the program next year.

Lorentz said they shared the lunchroom activity with the other schools at the training. While the larger schools thought it was a great idea, they didn’t think it would work because of multiple lunch periods.

“I think it is pretty cool that we have such a small school that we can do something like that,” said Lorentz.

At the training, the students on the team identified the biggest difference between larger schools and SSHS is academic pressure to success versus social issues.

Miller said at the larger schools there is academic and pressure from home to be at the top of their class. In Montana everyone is accepted into a college.

“The pressure to get into a college isn’t as big and a lot of Montana kids don’t have the huge goals of going to an Ivy League school because their parents didn’t do it. I think our view of success is different and generally we are more laid back in Seeley,” said Miller. “I think their idea of success is going to college and becoming a doctor. Ours is you don’t have to go to college to be successful. We understand there are different ways to be successful and be happy with life.”

Miller said the spring training provided more ideas and things the group can do. He liked the idea that involved my hands-on projects as the test versus having the test following the project.

“When you do [a project] with a group of people and everyone is trying to solve a problem, that is where you really learn. You aren’t going to learn as much from a paper test because that is just memorization and making sure you get a good grade. The goal was to make [the project] the test and observe how the students learn and what they do. Everyone will have their own part and do something different, as long as they contribute to the group that is how they are getting it done,” said Miller.

The team decided they will start meeting monthly with Miller as the student leader until he graduates. Lorentz will fill the student leader role next year.

“It was really nice to hear [from the Challenge Success leaders] that we are the ones that make a difference. It’s nice to hear because, although we hear that sometimes, often the adults usually have the final say,” said Lorentz.

The team brought in Empower Montana that worked with SSHS to promote acceptance and diversity. They did several activities that helped students see what they had in common and identifying things that are said about various groups that the groups don’t like and how they cope with that.

“It showed that the groups always had something in common even though they might not be the same at all,” said Miller. “Everyone realized that we do have more in common than previously thought. We can actually be friends. We may not hang out all the time but we don’t have to butt heads all the time because we have more in common.”

Lorentz hopes to focus more on student buy-in next year. She said there were students that were resistant to the lunchroom activities because they didn’t want to be pushed out of their comfort zone.

“If we can have everyone understand that this is going to improve everything and it’s not just like someone coming in and telling everyone what to do. We are trying to address problems [that have been identified at SSHS] and work with everyone.”

The team has agreed to do a better job of informing the rest of the students about what they are doing and why they are doing it. Lorentz also feels the formal meetings will help because they can invite students so they can become a part of it.

“I think, overall, kids have become more accepting,” said Miller. “Doing the Empower Montana project, the video and the table project I think people think about what they say before they say it. It doesn’t seem like something that would be very noticeable but you can see it just walking through the hallways. It’s not as hostile of an environment.”


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