Challenge Success helps O.C. schools monitor students’ mental wellness

Principal Kathy Scott, middle, danced with Corona del Mar students during a school performance in 2015. CdM has partnered with Challenge Success to find ways outside of the stresses of academics to prepare students for life after high school.
(Photo by Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Second in a series about teens and mental health in Orange County.

For the last several years the Newport-Mesa Unified School District has been steadily working to address the growing incidence of depression, anxiety, suicide and other mental health challenges among its students.

Several districtwide training sessions were mandatory for teachers and staff and optional for parents. The elementary staff completed the avatar-based Kognito program, which teaches motivational interviewing to intervene in social and emotional concerns. Signs featuring suicide hotline numbers were posted in bathrooms.


The need became more apparent in early 2018, after a student in the district’s Corona del Mar High School died by suicide, leaving three notes behind to friends, family and the school. In his words, the pressure got to him.

“It was the most challenging and emotional time in 24 years of teaching,” said Mark Decker, an advanced placement psychology instructor at the school.

“We live in a different time, things are more stressful for us,” said Rachel Adelsberg, a 16-year-old junior at the school casually known as CdM. “I think my dad will say, ‘Well, it was stressful for us too.’ I don’t think they understand what we are learning now, our environment, social media.”

Shortly after the boy’s death, the school and district partnered with the Challenge Success program at Stanford University, which helps high-performing schools implement a research-based plan to reconsider the definition of success.

“We are overloading the students, and they are leaving high school underprepared for life,” said Corona del Mar Principal Kathy Scott. “[Do we want] a high GPA or are we trying to raise kids that are kind and have integrity?”

Newport-Mesa school district takes steps to improve program for preventing youth suicide »

Challenge Success works with six high schools in Orange County: Irvine’s Beckman and Northwood high schools, Laguna Beach, Tustin, Foothill in Tustin and CdM.

With the help of Challenge Success, CdM was able to survey its student population and compare the data to similar schools.

At CdM, 61% of students reported that they are “just doing school.” In other words, not engaged in learning.

By comparison, schools with similar demographics showed 40% not engaged.

The survey also showed students aren’t connected to each other.

Decker sees this first hand: “We joke about students sitting next to each other texting.”

The Challenge Success trainings, survey and support has fostered much-needed change at CdM, according to Decker.

Students are now required to surrender their phones before class. Teachers are employing a variety of in-class techniques to improve communication among students, including a “question of the day,” and replacing some desks with tables.

Instead of using moments before class to prepare, Decker started greeting his 120 students at the door, checking in with them.

‘We’re fighting against a culture of go, go, go’: Newport-Mesa hears possible anti-stress strategies for schools »

Parents are getting an education as well. A recent speaker from Challenge Success drew 150 parents.

A book club keeps parents informed on the issues facing youth today.

With 30-40 parents attending, the book club has read Julie Lythcott-Haims’ “How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success” and “The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage Are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids” by psychologist Madeline Levine (one of the founders of Challenge Success).

One of the biggest deviations in school culture has come from changing how and when grades are posted.

“Our parents didn’t know their grades until the report card came out,” said Adelsberg. “[Whereas] I’m going to walk into the house and get in trouble because [my parents] know what I got before I [do].”

Parents are no longer notified daily of their child’s progress. Grades are only uploaded on Mondays, in an effort to prevent students from worrying about their grades over the weekends and obsessively refreshing their browser looking for a particular grade to be posted.

Another big change was eliminating homework over Thanksgiving break to allow students time to recharge and destress.

As a teacher, Decker said support from the principal and district has been amazing. He believes teachers and students are noticing fewer visible signs of exhaustion and stress-related illnesses.

“Our school isn’t our life,” Adelsberg said. “There’s more to life than high school.”

Catherine Pearlman is a contributor to Times Community News. Read the first in her series about teens and mental health in Orange County: Free Rein uses horses to help at-risk youth overcome mental health struggles