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Peer mentors push friends to graduate

Published: Wednesday, June 18 2014 12:45 p.m. MDT

A classroom with students and their mentors helping them get the grades necessary for graduation.

Slade Combs, For the Deseret News

An exclusive Q&A with Daniel Oscar, president and CEO of the Center for Supportive Schools, relating to the subject of peer mentoring can be found here.

Six high school freshmen sit in a circle of chairs in a brightly lit New York City school classroom along with two older students wearing blue t-shirts and holding a stack of pink cards.

The students toss a fuzzy ball around the group, each responding in turn to a prompt from one of the cards after catching the ball.

“How has your ethnicity impacted you?” asks one of the older students, reading from a card.

“I’m Dominican,” answers a girl. “We eat at 12 pm on the dot for lunch. It’s our tradition: we make sure family is first. Is that Dominican or just my family? I don’t know.”

This is no mere get-to-know-you-game. It’s Peer Group Connection, a trust- and skill-building program that, one year after implementation at the Bronx Academy of Letters, has transformed this public high school's culture from the typical free for all into place where kids have each other's backs.

“The peer program creates an atmosphere where 9th graders expect older students to care,” Elana Eisen-Markowitz, a social studies teacher and one of two faculty advisers for the program. “And they do.”

Administrators are hoping this culture shift will in turn pay off in a graduation rate boost for the school. Citywide, four-year graduation rates for black and Latino males hover at around 37 percent, according to the Schott foundation. A 2009 controlled study by Rutgers University found that a similar PGC program in one large, urban New Jersey school hiked the graduation rate for male students by nearly half, from 63 to 82 percent, putting it on par with the national graduation rate of 80 percent. The study’s authors called the result “unprecedented."

“The interaction between upperclassman and freshman is big,” says one student mentor. “Freshmen don’t know school. So they don’t always see us as students, but more as role models. We see a change in them and their maturity.”

The challenge

In the heart of the Bronx, the Bronx Academy of Letters sits a few blocks from the 138 St. Grand Concourse subway station, next to a Western Beef distributor and across the street from public housing towers.

Bronx County high school graduation rates stand at just 60 percent, well below the national average of 80 percent. Students at Bronx Academy of Letters come from all over the Bronx to attend this public school. Most are ethnic or racial minorities, typically tracing heritage to Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic. Many come from impoverished neighborhoods and poor families.

Police officers stationed at the entrance are a reminder that the neighborhood can be rough. The entrance to the school is marred with recent graffiti, but inside cheerful bright green and yellow walls echo with the noise of kids running between classes.

An atmosphere of camraderie is evident in the echoing hallway. A young man in black-framed glasses and a white t-shirt leans over a railing in the stairwell when he catches sight of the school’s charismatic but formidable school principal, muscular and well over six feet tall.

“Hello Mr. Garrett!” the student calls out, before rushing off to class.

Under the new PGC program, all ninth graders at the school join small peer groups facilitated by trained olders students, meeting every week throughout the year to build life skills and forge positive social networks.

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