FALLS CHURCH, Va., April 3 /PRNewswire/ -- There were probably more hugs passed out around George Mason High School in Falls Church, Virginia, during two days last month than in the previous two years or longer. That's because almost the entire junior class at the school participated in two full days of special training, known as "Challenge Days" aimed at breaking down barriers to compassion and caring among the students, overcoming both hidden and overt forms of discrimination and disrespect. The program was made possible by funds from the innovative "Diversity Affirmation Education Fund" set up through the non-profit Falls Church Education Foundation and named for Falls Church News-Press owner/editor Nicholas F. Benton, who founded it with a large personal donation a year ago. The "Challenge Days" program that has been conducted at schools in the U.S., Canada and abroad for over 600 days a year, was brought to George Mason High for the first time in its history last week, and Assistant Principal Tim Guy told the News-Press he hopes it will set a tone for the entire coming year. "We chose to have this program presented to almost our entire junior class, our 'rising seniors' as we like to call them, in hopes that its impact will carry over when the students become seniors next fall, and will set the tone for younger students and the entire student body," Guy said. The program, he said, "did a good job" helping to establish "a strong, caring community within the class." The true test, he added, "will be how it plays out with the Class of `07." A student who attended one of the two days (half the class and faculty took part one day, and the other half the next), junior Ben Ballou, said the program "was useful for a lot of people" because it made them aware that more discrimination was going on at the school than they realized. "It's not one type of discrimination more than any other," he said, "But a lot of little discriminations that build on each other and lead to the formation of cliques and the exclusion of others." He said that while Mason High "does not have as much discrimination as some other schools," it is still there, and it was insightful for many students to see it, how much more prevalent it is than they thought, and to address it. Guy said the program leaders were adept at creating an environment of trust each day through the use of "a mixture of fun, silliness, excitement, relaxation and a sense of safety," enabling a more candid ability to engage in "more serious introspection" and to "deal with more weighty issues." It challenged individuals to reflect on the existence of "bases of power" and "those who get singled out." But it also sought to show the commonality between "power groups" and "marginalized groups" in their common needs to care about people. "It's hard to describe if you're not in the process," he conceded. Guy said he came into the session with no expectations, other than that he'd heard it is a good, quality program. "They delivered," he said. "Their message is: making a difference in the world takes the action of one person, and it can be done," he said. "The students are challenged to live life that way." "Some of the students were incredibly moved, some more moderately or less," he said. "But even for those who weren't moved as much, they could see how important the program was for their peers." A Mason High senior, who did not take part in the program but spoke with many who did and reflected on its impact with fellow students at the school in the subsequent week, told the News-Press that "everyone really enjoyed it and was impressed by it." He said that while some of the euphoria from the program might have worn off a bit after a few days, he sensed that there will be values that endure. "There's definitely been a change in the way students relate to some others that may have been picked on before," he said. "And that hasn't gone away." Guy said he personally favors having the program return next year, but hasn't discussed it with other administrators yet. After the session, he said there was talk that maybe if it returns next spring, there may be some students who went through it this time that may want to join with faculty members helping to lead the program. The "Challenge Days" was made possible by a personal grant from the News- Press' Benton, who used his contribution to found the novel "Diversity Affirmation Education Fund." The fund was formally established by a unanimous vote of the Falls Church School Board last spring. Benton says he intends to continue replenishing the fund with on-going special fundraising efforts. Benton said he was delighted by the reports of the success of the "Challenge Days" at George Mason High. In a statement, Benton said, "In the 15 years since I founded and I've done the Falls Church News-Press, my admiration for the Falls Church School System has only continued to grow. After creating a scholarship for GMHS seniors, donating an electronic scoreboard for the baseball diamond and sponsoring an annual 'Day at the Ballgame' every spring to honor students in the system, I was able a year ago to make my greatest expression of appreciation for the F.C. schools, which was to create the `Diversity Affirmation Education Fund.'" He added, "As a gay person, I have a personal interest in addressing the kind of taunting, bullying and disrespect for differences that make school days miserable for far too many, but I think it is a matter that should be of concern to everyone. Unchecked, such patterns can lead to lifelong self-esteem and related problems, if not to suicide and other self-destructive behaviors. I've known too many victims. I am happy to be able to contribute to at least part of a solution, and am thrilled at what it seems the `Challenge Days' has begun at George Mason High School." CONTACT: Jody Fellows of Falls Church News-Press, +1-703-532-3267, firstname.lastname@example.org.
SOURCE Falls Church News-Press