Schools Challenge Students with Love; OPENING UP Teachers and Students Are Encouraged to Share Troubling Experiences, with the Overall Goal of Improving Academics. EXPANSION the Program Started at Sandalwood, Fletcher. Now It Is Spreading to All Duval High Schools

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Byline: MARY KELLI PALKA

It's an emotionally draining, eye-opening, three-day event that many believe changes the culture of a high school.

Challenge Day started at Fletcher and Sandalwood high schools last year and is spreading to all of Duval County's high schools this year.

The event first appeared in California as a workshop to help teens and adults break down barriers and promote understanding, acceptance and love in schools and communities. The topics are deep and often heartbreaking as participants talk about everything from substance or physical abuse to financial hardships and depression.

It's too early to know the long-term impact, if any, Challenge Day can have on a school. But for those who have witnessed students and school staff "cross the line" as they reveal personal hardships, they know it has changed lives.

Wolfson High School held Challenge Day over three days last week. On the first day, a few of the 100 students scheduled didn't show. But word quickly spread about the success of the program, and on the second and third days, there were so many people trying to get in that some had to be turned away.

Now students have stopped calling people names in the halls, and they're less judgmental in general, said Ru Miles, a 15-year-old freshman at Wolfson.

"Everyone needs to experience something like that because it really touches your soul in a way that I don't think anything else can," Ru said.

Students in many cases also saw that teachers had dealt with their own difficulties. Ru said that helped some students feel more comfortable about opening up.

"It shows you these problems aren't just something that teens deal with; everyone deals with them," Ru said.

Challenge Day was eye-opening for teachers, too.

"I think it's just amazing for the teachers to be able to see the kids in that vulnerable situation where they open up to you to let you know what's going on and what's standing in the way from them being able to pay attention in class," said Jacquie Tinsley, Wolfson's student activities director and instructional coach.

Tinsley believes the event can help students behaviorally and academically.

"They're struggling because they have so much on their mind," she said. …