Students take the Hardyston Challenge

HARDYSTON. Middle school grades compete during 12 weeks to improve the school culture and spirit.

| 24 Apr 2024 | 09:34

Since January, students at Hardyston Middle School have been engaged in a grade versus grade competition that aims to improve school culture and spirit and tackle the issue of chronic absenteeism that has plagued the state since the coronavirus pandemic.

“The 12-week competition was designed to engage and incentivize our population of students while targeting specific district goals,” said Principal Meg O’Mara.

“Improving relationships among staff and students, increasing community connections, and contributing to a positive climate are critical components of success within educational settings. Students in grades 5 through 8 are competing against one another to earn points based on their grade levels’ contributions related to the identified areas of community, student achievement and attendance. These three areas improve student achievement and minimize trends in chronic absenteeism following the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The competition, which began Jan. 29 and ends April 26, kicked off with a pep rally, coordinated by a student committee, to introduce the goals of the competition and actively involve students and staff members.

It is the brainchild of O’Mara and consists of a litany of challenges, such as:

• Attendance: Updated weekly, the grade level with highest attendance percentage receives a point.

• Academic achievement: Math minutes, vocabulary and trivia quizzes. The grade level with the highest percentage gets a point.

• Community involvement: This includes spirit days, a hygiene fundraiser for the Weekend Bag program, penny races for the Hardyston Police Department (Police Unity Tour and Torch Run), student participation in the Torch Run, staff versus students basketball game, and Hardyston police versus students volleyball game.

• Behavior: Grade levels lose points based on poor behavior, while a student “caught being good” by one of the retired police security officers is given a token to be redeemed for a free snack from the cafeteria. Staff members also give tokens to students “caught being good” for extra points. A big surprise is promised for the grade level with the highest score after 12 weeks.

“This is my first year as the Hardyston Middle School principal and the first year of the challenge,” said O’Mara. “A student committee was established to plan and implement activities, and three representatives from each grade level were selected to serve as team captains.

“Additionally, I met with representatives throughout the community to coordinate fundraisers and special events. Ongoing opportunities to participate in school spirit days, community-sponsored fundraisers and grade-level penny races will allow students to contribute to a greater good while working toward a common goal as a group.

“Based upon student and staff reactions, the high rate of continued participation from all stakeholders involved, the feedback we have received and the data to support its positive impacts, we absolutely plan to provide this as an ongoing opportunity!”

Fighting absenteeism

Superintendent Mike Ryder said the competition may be extended throughout the district.

“If all goes well, maybe we can extend the competition districtwide or embed the principles of the competition into the bedrock of our culture and climate for every single day.”

He said the district saw the need to reduce chronic absenteeism after pandemic. In the most recent pre-pandemic statistics, Hardyston’s chronic absenteeism rate was 6.8 percent, while the state average was 9 percent.

In the year after the pandemic, Hardyston’s rate rose to 17.3 percent, while the statewide average climbed to 18 percent. Last year, the numbers started to dip, with Hardyston’s average decreasing to 16 percent and the statewide average decreasing to 17.4 percent.

“Hardyston has done two things to increase our attendance rates,” Ryder said. “First, we have increased our extracurricular offerings and worked extra hard to make school interesting and fun again - which was not the case during the pandemic obviously.

“The second thing we have done is increased accountability regarding information sent home regarding attendance. Great things happen when students are in school, and that’s been our message every day.”