As her classmates applaud, a student selected to participate in the Friends of Rachel club at Tacony Academy Charter High School steps down from the bleachers and walks to the center of the gym. She’s handed a microphone and begins talking about what the club has meant to her.
“All I want to say is I had a great time at this school,” she said.
She’s one of about 100 students, which is about a quarter of the total student body, who volunteered or was selected to be in the Friends of Rachel club. The students are participating in Rachel’s Challenge, a national nonprofit school assembly program meant to inspire students to replace acts of bullying and negativity with respect and kindness.
Rachel Joy Scott was the first victim of the Columbine High School shootings in Columbine, Colorado in 1999. Her legacy of kindness is still celebrated today through Rachel’s Challenge, as students at Tacony Academy and other schools nationwide agree to live their lives with the same kindness and compassion for their fellow students.
After breaking up into workshops, students decided on two initiatives: they will write letters of appreciation to teachers and faculty at the school, and create a wall of hands, with each student adding a paper cutout to the wall and signing that they are taking part in the challenge.
Students also said they want to create fundraisers for Fox Chase Cancer Center and a local animal shelter, similar to when they raised money at a Dance-a-thon earlier this year. On Monday and Tuesday this week, members of the FOR club trained 200 fellow students with what they learned.
This is Tacony Academy’s second year bringing Rachel’s Challenge to its students, thanks to a grant from M&T Bank that allows them to participate. Ashley Redfearn, executive director for American Paradigm schools, which also includes Tacony Academy elementary school, said the schools focus on social-emotional learning.
“The curriculum we use is called caring school community, and it emphasizes any kind of pro-social behaviors, such as having class meetings so students can learn to communicate with each other,” she said. There’s a focus on being non-competitive and having school-wide activities that everyone can participate in.
“All things focus on the idea kids need to be taught social and emotional skills the same way we teach reading and math,” Redfearn said.
One month before Rachel Scott was killed at 17 years old, she wrote an essay called “My Ethics: My Codes of Life,” in which she wrote that if one person goes out of their way to show kindness to another, it will start a chain reaction of the same, which posthumously became the essence of Rachel’s Challenge.
More than 1.5 million people are involved with Rachel’s Challenge each year, with the program’s site saying over 150 suicides are averted each year.
“It’s an emotional kickstart to students wanting to actively take part in individually realized that they can initiate kindness and compassion in changing the culture of the school. They don’t have to wait for adults to come up with a plan for them, there’s day-to-day things they can do to make things happen,” Redfearn said.