Torrey Pines’ Challenge Day helps build a more connected campus

Challenge Day returned to Torrey Pines High School Oct. 2-6, a week in which 450 students went through a social and emotional workshop to help them connect with others and reflect about themselves and their choices.

“This event made me feel rooted to our campus and connected with our students in a way I hadn’t felt prior to today,” said new Assistant Principal Robbie Shockney, who has been on the campus since May.

Challenge Day ran on campus for several years before being replaced with an in-house program, Falcon Fest, for the last three years. Don Collins, teacher and Peer Assisted Listeners (PALS) adviser, said an event like Challenge Day is essential to the school’s mission of student well-being and connectedness and helping to make the campus a safer, more supportive place to be.

He said it wouldn’t happen without the support of the administration, counselors and staff, but especially the Torrey Pines High School Foundation which funds the program.

Challenge Day leaders Chris Heinze and Roanna Cooper said the week is about seeing fellow students from “the inside out” and learning that people are a lot more the same than they are different. In the gym last week, they encouraged compliments, respect, kindness and building empathy to act as a bridge to connect with others.

Principal Rob Coppo said by learning to see others from the inside out, students they pass in the hallway every day become more than just some random person.

“The more we know about each other, the more we take care of each other,” Coppo said.

Many at Challenge Day were experiencing the event for the first time as new Torrey Pines students.

“I love how accepting it is and how it gives people a chance to open up because the average person doesn’t have the opportunity to open up,” said Katelynn, a junior who is new to the school and to San Diego after moving from Las Vegas.

“Challenge Day was touching,” echoed Jayden, a freshman. “I didn’t expect the day to be as emotional as it was and I ended up forgiving an old friend which felt really good. It was great to have this place with no judgment. I feel like today really changed me and I want to come back next year and be a leader to show the new freshmen what’s possible. I see I am creating my reality, and I want to be more caring toward people I don’t know and a better friend to the ones I do.”

The day included powerful small group discussions with adult leaders, listening and learning, writing thank you notes to people who made an impact in their lives, games and dancing.

“My family group shared deeply and I was so impressed with the empathy and concern they showed for one another,” said Assistant Principal Shockney.

Freshman Talia said it was “eye-opening” to learn what others were going through and how different their lives were. As a freshman, she said she liked being able to meet older students and put names to familiar faces she sees every day.

One of the most meaningful activities the students participate in is “Crossing the Line.” The facilitator reads aloud a situation and if it applies to the student, he or she crosses the line.

Students crossed the line when asked if they experienced situations like being teased or bullied about anything from their appearance to their religious beliefs, the loss of a loved one, divorce, homelessness, if they had ever been victim of violence or if they have ever felt alone.

“How is it possible to be surrounded by so many people and yet so many people acknowledge feeling alone or afraid?” Cooper asked. “The truth is it really is just this easy to break out of the habit and just connect with somebody. Somebody reaching out to another person could be something that saves their life.”

Many students crossed the line when asked whether they are regularly screamed at or yelled at or if they felt an extreme or painful pressure to win or excel. Too many kids crossed the line when asked whether an adult had told them they were stupid or that they didn’t have what it takes.

“It’s a lie,” Cooper told those students. “You have what it takes to succeed. You can make your life what you want it to be.”

Jack, a 14-year-old international transfer freshmen student, said at first he was a little shy during the activities but later in the day he felt himself coming out of his shell.

“The second part of the day I saw that we all struggle and it was interesting that while we are all unique we also are not alone,” Jack said. “I don’t have as many struggles as the some of the other kids, but I saw that nobody crossed the line alone and there was a lot of love and respect shared with our silent hand signals. I think a lot of kids maybe would have feared sharing these vulnerable parts, but there was a lot of respect given so I think it shows kids on campus understand and would be there to help each other.”

As Cooper told the students, they can control making their school feel like a place where everybody feels at home.

“It has such a huge impact on school climate,” said Louisa Triandis, a parent volunteer. “It gets kids to lower their guard and also connect with somebody different from themselves and that goes so far to making everyone feel a part of the school community.”

In a presentation to the San Dieguito Union School District board last month, Principal Coppo spoke about how Torrey Pines has worked to be a leader in the county in supporting student wellness and connectedness.

“Torrey Pines is focusing on wellness this year like never before, not just because of the tragedy we suffered last year, but because it has become part of our culture over the last several years, and it is increasingly helping students,” Coppo said. “Students today are juggling more than previous generations thought possible. The consequences is that our students are showing signs of stress and it has become imperative that schools support the whole student so they can develop as resilient adults.”

Stan Collins, the suicide prevention expert for the San Diego County Office of Education, recently identified Torrey Pines as one of the top schools in the county for its work around wellness and student connection. At Collins’ request, TPHS students were the featured panel at the county’s suicide prevention training last week.

Challenge Day is just one of the many efforts the school makes toward ensuring TP students take pride in themselves and each other.

“Even if you don’t have anything to say, it’s still a great experience to be there with everyone,” said sophomore Andre, who participated in his first Challenge Day. “People say you go and just talk about your feelings, but it’s more than that, you get to understand the people around you better and you get to understand yourself better. So that’s pretty cool.”