WEST SPRINGFIELD — Middle schoolers are rounding out the fourth year of an innovative pilot program designed to teach students about professional skills for success.

During the Amazing Shake, the brainchild of educator, author, and motivational speaker Ron Clark, students learn and develop professional qualities — from the mechanics of a proper handshake to how to “work the room” — so they are able to present themselves well for opportunities today and in the future.

“We are the only middle school in Massachusetts that participates in this program,” Principal Peter Gillen said. “We have sent students to Atlanta for the last three years for the national competition.”

Founded by its namesake in 2017, the Georgia-based Ron Clark Academy has received national and international recognition for its success in educating students with academic rigor, passion and creativity. It is a demonstration school where visiting educators engage in a professional development experience by observing best practices in action and participating in hands-on workshops. Gillen visited the academy back in 2019.

“The Amazing Shake is an essential piece of their curriculum. Its explicit focus on teaching students professional discourse through a variety of mediums and taking on big challenges addresses a major need that many of us are seeing for modern students,” he said. “I knew we couldn’t do it exactly how they do it, but I knew we had to at least adapt some of the programming to work for our school.”

The WSMS version focuses on teaching students how to write a professional email, as well as video production and public speaking, through challenges that connect to modern skills like financial literacy, civics and leadership.

“Teachers give feedback to students on these skills as they happen organically in the classroom,” Gillen said.

Each month from October to January, students are emailed an optional challenge to complete. The challenges range from writing a proper email or making a professional video that highlights something in their community of which they are proud, to meeting with family members to discuss household budgets and financial management.

“It provides opportunities for students to overcome challenges and develop skills in a fun way,” Gillen said. “We’ve seen some kids connect with the program that are disengaged with the more traditional schooling methods. We’ve also seen some of our high-flyers who are craving a challenge respond and be recognized.”

The monthly submissions are judged by volunteers from outside of the school — the judge for the October challenge was a marketing representative from NBC Universal in New York City — including college admissions staff, and local business and community leaders. The judges select a winner for each of the teams in the building as well as one overall winner from each grade. Students win a prize pack that includes sweatshirts, T-shirts and gift cards.

“Tandem Bagel sponsors all of the prizes. They’ve been an amazing partner,” Gillen said.

The October challenge, which saw the highest participation rate to date, was to create a video or give an in-person presentation that advertises a product. Students were judged on effective energy, projection, eye contact, posture, preparedness and creativity. Seventh-grader Mackenzie Atkins created a video hawking her favorite gummy candy.

“It gives you the chance to be creative and it gives you presentation skills,” said Atkins, who has three team wins and one grade-level win under her belt. “It’s kind of like presenting a [class] project.”

A student-athlete, eighth grader Jomar Sagardia, said he was initially reluctant to participate in an academic competition, but agreed upon the recommendation of Vice Principal Ian Brown. Working with a partner, Sagardia took concepts discussed in science class and created an award-winning video parodying Oreo cookies.

“I’m happy that I did it,” he said. “[It shows that] I can achieve goals.”

Students who have won at least one challenge are eligible to compete in an in-person finale — a live presentation, delivered with no notes, to a panel of judges who select a school-wide champion for the year.

“The benefits are enormous,” Gillen said. “The ability to complete difficult tasks, craft a proper video, understand family finance, and speak publicly aren’t pieces that will ever show up on a standardized test. However, they’re vital skills for being successful in our world. It’s important for students to get a chance to practice and develop these skills before the stakes raise in high school and beyond.”

For sixth-grader Emily DeLong, competing in the Amazing Shake reinforced her desire to pursue advertising as a potential career path.

“I’m really good at this,” said DeLong, referring to her award-winning video production skills. “I may want to have this as a job.”

The academy hosts the Amazing Shake national competition annually in March. School-wide winners represented WSMS at nationals in 2022 and 2023; six students participated virtually in 2021 during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Our students have done well competing with some incredibly impressive students from across the country,” Gillen said.

He said the West Springfield district is continuing to develop partnerships with community leaders and businesses that support the Amazing Shake mission. Ideally, he’d like to find an annual sponsor to cover the cost of sending the school-wide winner and a parent or guardian to Atlanta for the national competition.

“I’m optimistic that folks will see the benefit for the community,” Gillen said.