Written by: Kaitlyn Burkhart
Any person who has served his or her four years in public highschool knows what a positive – or not – experience it can be. While the stories of teen depression, tech-savvy bullies, and even suicides increase, it seems as if authority figures in and out of the teen scene are at a loss for ways to answer the question, ‘How can we improve relationships between students?’ Two years ago, this question was passed to a handful of students in an Albany, Ore. high school, and as it turns out, they had a pretty good answer.
At the start of the 2009-2010 school year, West Albany High School health teacher Laura Blackwell asked this question of her service learning class, known as PEERS, a class designed to make its’ students socially aware of their peers, and to teach them how to be a part of and promote a healthy environment for the entire school. There had been long running curiosity on the benefits of a ‘Challenge Day’, a program centered around improving relationship amongst students with a six-and-a-half hour long workshop where students play get-to-know-you games, listen to several guest speakers, and then are divided into small groups for a guided discussion. When a body of students commits to the workshop, as is usually the case, it becomes and emotional, enlightening, and gratifying experience for every person involved. The idea was widely accepted between the two periods of PEERS classes, though they were not so keen on the idea of paying thousands of dollars for the Challenge Day organization to come for one day. They believed that they had the leadership capable of pulling off a Challenge Day of their own, and the PEERS classes entered the development stage of their own program.
A few months later ‘Impact Day’ was born.
On it’s test run in the spring of 2010, Impact Day pulled 100 students from the junior and senior classes for a day long workshop. Impact day loosely followed the outline of Challenge Day, though with games, speakers and presentation individualized to the West Albany High School students, as well as other games and activities that the school has been playing in pep assemblies for years. With the students familiarity with the leadership, location, and events, Impact Day was hailed as a success and slated for two more reappearances for the junior and senior classes again in the 2010-2011 school year.
After some small tweaks, the event concluded a three-run-strong test drive, and was brought before the Greater
Albany Public School board in the summer of 2011. After approval, Principal Susan Orsborn announced that for the 2012-2013 school year, Impact Day would be mandatory for all students, and made plans for four different event days throughout the year, each dedicated to a specific class with specific materials to cover the issues that each age group faces. So far this year, two Impact Days have passed, for the juniors and seniors it has made a big change. “You can see it,” says senior Lindsey Ridler, “You can see it in people’s body language in large groups, in the way they talk to each other one on one, in the atmosphere itself. You can tell that something changed, even if you can’t place your finger on the specifics.”
West Albany High School has since become a model for several other schools looking to improve the social health of their students, including South Albany, Lebanon and Crescent Valley High Schools, all centered in the Willamette Valley in Oregon.