Tonalea Principal Dave Priniski

Tonalea Principal Dave Priniski fist-bumps one of 100 students who participated in the school's first Challenge Day.

“Congratulations, you made it!” Dr. Dave Priniski, Tonalea K-8 principal, said as students piled into the gymnasium last week at the southern Scottsdale elementary school.

Thirty adult volunteers were lined up into two long lines, facing one another, as they high-fived the 100 students who made their way to the circle of chairs.

They spent the next six-and-a-half hours in the gym taking part in Challenge Day.

“It’s going to be one of the weirdest parties you’ve ever been to,” said one of two high-energy Challenge Day facilitators Katie Salvage.

Challenge Day is a school program created over 30 years ago. 

It’s designed to create trust and connection, get students to step out of their comfort zone and champion compassion, anti-bullying, and positive change. 

“We thought it’d be a good fit for our vision this year and especially for our kids. It’s not only anti-bullying but [also] student leadership and having kids gain more confidence in themselves and in some of their social interactions with their peers,” Priniski said.

On hand with the students and 10 Tonalea teachers were 20 other adult volunteers, including: Dr. Steven Chestnut, Scottsdale Unified School District executive director of support services; Mitch Armour, Coronado High School coach for boys basketball, and boys and girls track; and Governing Board members Patty Beckman, Allyson Beckham, and Jann-Michael Greenburg.

Salvage and her co-facilitator Enrique Collazo led the students and adults in group activities, games and exercises that encourage participants to examine the impact of bullying, oppression and violence on others as well as help them find a sense of belonging.

“All of us in here, we believe you should be treated with respect,” Salvage told the crowd. “We don’t want anyone left out at all.”

Both Priniski and Assistant Principal Justin Firehawk said Tonalea held its first Challenge Day last week to focus on mental, emotional and social health.

“The thing is, especially with middle school [students], they really struggle with being appropriate with each other and realizing people’s differences and being able to accept those,” Firehawk said, adding

“This has been a no-brainer from the start as far as bringing it in, building those relationships with the kids and with our adults as well. And then also having the kids build relationships with each other, just to see that they can accept people for their differences instead of making fun of them.”

Tonalea implemented two new social-emotional programs: Sanford Harmony, designed to foster communication and connection; and an “intervention block” addressing group behavior 30 minutes each day, four times a week.

“We call it ‘family time.’ For 30 minutes once a week, we do restorative circles, we implement Sanford harmony and we really just make that classroom your family,” Firehawk said.

“Last year was an all-academic intervention period. This year, we’ve dedicated 30 minutes of that week strictly to social-emotional,” Firehawk added.

Challenge Day has been held in 2,200 schools and communities across 10 countries for 1.5 million student and adults.

According to studies published by U.S. Centers for Disease Control, Youth Risk Behavior Studies, Child Trends Data Banks, and the 2014 Census Bureau, 47 percent of teens have experienced some form of physical assault, 30 percent feel sad or hopeless a lot of the time, 28 percent are bullied, 20 percent live in poverty and 17 percent have thought seriously about attempting suicide with 8 percent attempting suicide.

Challenge Day aims to develop important leadership and social and emotional skills.

“We talk to communities about what they’re dissatisfied with, what they do not like, what they wish were different, Collazo told the group. 

“We hear things like the rumors, the gossip, the drama, how young people don’t feel safe at their schools; sometimes they hate coming to school. We’re hearing things like homophobia, violence, addiction, racism, school shooting after school shooting after school shooting. We’re here to remind you that you have power and that you have power to change certain things.” 

Priniski added: “We’re starting to see an increase, not only in our school but nationwide, for the need for schools to respond to the social emotional needs of our kids.”

One impactful Challenge Day activity is called “Cross the Line,” where students and adults line up and step forward whenever they – or anyone they know – have experienced a mentioned situation like bullying. 

They then face those who have not experienced bullying.

Julie Jimenez, Tonalea speech language therapist, remarked, “What struck me is how many kids were crossing the line for all these different reasons: for poverty, for ... suicide. At such a young age, they’ve experienced a lot of trauma in their lives, and it really brings everything into perspective how some of these kids act like they’re fine and you don’t realize what’s going on behind the scenes.” 

Following Challenge Day, Tonalea staff identified potential leaders in the group.

“Our goal is, after this day, to facilitate being the change and having groups with the students working to keep this going campus-wide,” Jimenez said. “The action is the key part. It continues on throughout not only the school year, but [also] through their daily lives.”

Tonalea also recently started implementing an alternate method of discipline called “restorative justice” in which the staff works with students to come to a solution rather than simply handing down punishment.

“We have been training our staff, and we make a focus that when we hire people that they love kids and they can be forgiving and give kids a second chance and a third chance every single day they walk through the door,” Firehawk said. 

Firehawk explained that this approach gives staff more responsibility as far as “repairing the harm that’s been done so students may make mistakes.” 

“Instead of going automatic to suspension or the traditional consequences for school, we will do restorative conferences with our teachers, with our students, Firehawk explained, noting:

“That doesn’t mean we don’t still use traditional consequences, but that that does mean that instead of [the students] getting off …they need to work it out and we need to figure out a way to coexist and be respectful to each other for the rest of the year.”