Developing a positive school environment in the middle grades is definitely challenging. At Landisville Middle School (LMS) in Landisville, PA, we are committed to providing a positive school culture through student-led initiatives. We have developed a comprehensive program that is integrated around our four core values: being safe, responsible, respectful, and engaged. These values are intertwined with our SEL program, Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS), and they are steeped in our friendly hallway team competitions with events such as food and clothing drives. In addition, we have incorporated the nationally recognized program Rachel’s Challenge (

Created by Darrell Scott, the father of a student killed during the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, Rachel’s Challenge seeks to make a positive impact on students’ lives in honor of Rachel, Columbine’s first victim. The program provides schools a centralized resource to develop a caring, positive environment. There are digital resources, videos, speaker presentations, literature, and lesson plans for various topics, such as informed decision-making and understanding empathy. The program promotes kindness, empathy, and—integrated with our SEL lessons and PBIS program—provides a clear and consistent message reiterating our four core values.

Building Positivity

Like other schools, we have our daily challenges: student conflicts, bullying, and students not meeting our expectations. However, through Rachel’s Challenge, we empower students to be involved in the process of developing a positive environment. While there are many great national programs that promote kindness, anti-bullying, compassion, and empathy, we chose Rachel’s Challenge because we felt it brought a powerful message with substantial resources to help us deliver programming to the students. We continue to use it because the program relates directly to the outcomes that we are working toward, such as developing acts of kindness, self-awareness, and promoting an inclusive environment. It is not perfect. It is not a panacea for all school climate issues, but it does provide us with a centralized message that we have integrated into our other initiatives. It empowers students to take ownership of their school experience.

We believe that Rachel’s Challenge enables our students to grow and develop within the framework of our core values, thus emboldening students to take action throughout the school year through our Friends of Rachel Club (FOR Club). After our annual Rachel’s Challenge assembly at the beginning of the school year, students jump at the opportunity to join this club. The assembly includes an emotional and heartfelt presentation that delivers an impactful message of kindness and compassion. As a result, each year, we have an average of around 50 FOR Club members with representation from each homeroom in our school, which enrolls a total of 520 students. Club members share the vision of promoting kindness and compassion surrounding the four core values.

From the beginning of the school year, FOR Club members are trained in various leadership skills by staff using resources from the organization and others that we have developed on our own. Once per six-day cycle, they meet during our end-of-day Flex period. The leadership skills they learn include executive function skills such as planning and organization, peer-mediation resources based on effective communication techniques and general habits of successful leaders. Using these skills, FOR Club members work on student-​initiated projects that promote their common vision.

Again, there are other organizations and programs that serve as a platform to effectively promote a common message. You could even create your own platform around your school’s specific values and desired message. However, we’ve found success combining our school’s four core values (being safe, responsible, respectful, and engaged) with the five tenets of Rachel’s Challenge:

  1. Speak with kindness.
  2. Look for the best in others.
  3. Seek positive influences.
  4. Dream big.
  5. Start a chain reaction of compassion and goodwill.

How It Works

Led by a staff member, students organize into various committees, which come up with the ideas and projects as well as implement each of the following groups here at LMS:

  • Morning Message: This group creates a weekly slide that appears on TVs throughout our hallways. The slide typically contains a picture and inspirational quote or message that corresponds with a short video from “Pass It On” from the Foundation for a Better Life. These can be found online and were a part of the original resources from Rachel’s Challenge. The video plays just prior to our morning televised announcements and serves as a cue that the announcements are about to start.
    The committee also posts weekly general topics of discussion for teachers to use for building rapport with students. Themes, such as favorite sports teams or times when the students were most scared, allow everyone in the homeroom to relate on a more personal level. FOR Club members in each homeroom have been trained during the early leadership phase to help teachers lead these discussions. This provides student leadership and engagement while also building relationships between staff and students.
  • Positive Messages: This committee creates posters or one-line words of encouragement that are posted on students’ lockers and in the hallways and restrooms. They also make cards or small crafts that are given to various members of the school community, including bus drivers, front office staff, counselors, teachers, cafeteria staff, and custodians to recognize their efforts. This committee’s main goal is to promote a positive culture demonstrating gratitude and kindness toward everyone.
  • Student Lounge: The students created this group on their own to make a social space for all students in our cafeteria lobby. They measured the space, researched information on engaging lounges, and presented their plan. They received approval from the administration and have applied for a grant through our local education foundation. More importantly, as middle school students, they have learned the process of researching, planning, and communicating to reach their goal. These are leadership lessons that will serve them well moving forward.
  • Social Media: These students work behind the scenes to recognize all students with a positive message on our FOR Club Instagram account. They promote the posts during morning announcements and with a slide on our hallway TVs. Members of FOR Club know who these students are, but for the most part, the rest of the student population does not until the recognition is posted. The other students see only a positive message about a student from the FOR Club account. A diverse array of students is honored across all friend groups and grades, and individual students are thrilled when they are mentioned. To minimize repeats, the committee is provided a list of student names so they can chart everyone they have mentioned on social media. Again, this serves as another method of promoting a positive culture for students.
  • Rachel’s Closet: We have devoted some space for a makeshift clothing exchange. The clothes and accessories are all donated by community members and free to students who want them. Over the years, we have acquired clothing racks, hangers, mannequins, and shelving units to display the items from various local department stores. Every day students can come to Rachel’s Closet during their Flex period and browse for clothes. Students on this committee organize, sort, market, and oversee the closet. They also take charge of marketing and promoting its purpose.
  • Student FORum: These students promote the actions of all the committees and the overall message of Rachel’s Challenge, including our school’s four core values, through a one-hour, schoolwide assembly. They write out a script for the presenters, interview students and teachers, create short videos to explain Rachel’s Challenge, and include other videos that promote the program’s message. The group integrates technology, engages students, and feels empowered to deliver their compelling ideas and positivity. These students are also learning valuable lessons in leadership development. I view this committee as one of the strongest in helping students assume ownership of their school. It has been rewarding to see the students take pride in their work in presenting to the entire school and reinforcing our school’s positive and hopeful message.

Landisville Middle School has taken a comprehensive approach to creating a positive school environment that incorporates many facets, including PBIS, SEL lessons, and Rachel’s Challenge. Integrating them with our school’s four core values (being safe, responsible, respectful, and engaged) has resulted in a positive culture for all.

Patrick Conrad is the dean of students and Attie Frey is the Friends of Rachel Club mentor at Landisville Middle School in Landisville, PA.