Challenger Middle School’s mindful approach to campus culture, innovative activities earn state recognition

Posted: Thursday, April 18th 2019

Challenger EcoSquad students and science teachers welcome SDSU Caribbean fellows

Students and teachers at Challenger Middle School know their school is a special place, and the campus is energized by a recent state distinction as a 2019 California Distinguished School. Challenger provides a wide range of activities to inspire and engage its students. Not only is the school meeting high academic standards, it offers unique opportunities including a mindfulness group, a school garden that helps stock the cafeteria, and even a Rubik’s Cube Club – just a few of more than 20 clubs and activities.

“Our school has been able to achieve great things because of the wonderful students, teachers, staff and parents that make up our incredible campus culture,” said Challenger Middle School Principal Kate Dominique. “We recognize the value in supporting the whole person and work hard to make sure that every student is academically strong, but also in touch with their mental, physical and emotional needs.”

On February 25, State Superintendent Tony Thurmond announced the statewide distinction for Challenger Middle School, based on the school’s high academic performance as well as its innovative initiatives aimed at building a healthy campus culture.

It's no secret that middle school can be a stressful place. Challenger established a Chillin’ Cheetahs group that gets students engaged in promoting good mental health practices. Students take part in everything from mindfulness and meditation to yoga and community discussion circles tackling the big questions of life. Students also participate in campus-wide mental health rallies aimed at building positive coping skills and strengthening Challenger’s supportive community.

“Challenger is my neighborhood school. My kids attend and I know first-hand how demanding society’s expectations can be on a middle school student,” said Challenger psychologist Dr. Orletta Nguyen. “We have revamped our approach to campus life by integrating stress reduction and mindfulness techniques that teach students healthy coping skills and increase their optimism, compassion and empathy.”

Eight-grade student Reese Cormier agrees, saying: “What stands out to me about Challenger is the feeling that my teachers care about me in the same way that my friends do.”

Challenger Middle is among just 162 California schools - and one of only three in San Diego – to achieve this prestigious recognition in 2019.

“I would like to commend these schools for fighting for a better future for our students, closing achievement gaps, and improving academic performance,” State Superintendent Thurmond said in his announcement. “Thanks to teachers, administrators, classified employees, and parents working together, these schools meet the needs of all of their students, provide high-quality educational experiences, and put kids on a pathway to great careers.”

The 2019 designation is the third time that Challenger Middle School has been recognized. The school previously won distinguished status in 2001 and again in 2011.

“Challenger Middle School is providing a fantastic example of how innovative and inspiring our schools can be while meeting high academic standards,” said San Diego Unified Superintendent Cindy Marten. “Students at Challenger, and throughout our district, are building the life skills, motivation, intellectual curiosity and resilience to succeed in college and in their careers. I am proud of these future leaders of our society.”

The California Distinguished School designation is reserved for campuses that demonstrate excellence in teaching, learning, collaboration and overall school climate, including conflict resolution. Schools that applied were eligible based on their performance and progress on the California School Dashboard. These performance metrics include test scores, suspension rates and graduation rates.

In addition to academic rigor, Challenger builds student confidence through extracurricular activities including Jazz Band, the Ukulele Island Strummers and the Rubik’s Cube Club.

Students can also join Challenger’s Eco Squad, which leads the care and maintenance of the school’s garden, biodome and recycling efforts. It is sponsored by teachers Daniel Cook, Pattie Evans, Jeff Talsky and Jodi Takei. Students learn about the natural environment, conservation and recycling in a unique hands-on setting. The garden uses hydroponic and aquaponic techniques to grow lettuce, tomatoes and other produce that are tended to and harvested by as many as 100 participating students.

Working outdoors, gardening and healthy eating have become an integral part of the culture at Challenger. Because of the Eco Squad, Challenger’s cafeteria manager can rely on student-grown produce to serve lunch two days each week.

“I am proud of the hard work we did for this special recognition. I have been at Challenger for nearly two decades and I have watched our school reinvent its approach to education by focusing on developing students who are successful in their classes but also happy and enjoying life,” said counseling clerk Tamra Winchell.


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