In the peer groups, the mentors teach skills ranging from decision making to how to handle peer pressure, from negotiation and compromise to how to say no. They do not go into personal problems, instead relying on role-playing with simulated challenges that are closely matched to real life.
While the program is targeted at pulling 9th graders along, much of its impact is actually felt within the group of mentors themselves.
The program, Eisen-Markowitz said, is built around a weekly cycle. The peer mentors, all juniors or seniors, meet every day with two faculty members.
On Mondays, they learn team-building skills, such as facilitating dialog, drawing out shy students, or defusing conflict. The next two days are spent learning material they will present to assigned groups of freshmen on Thursday.
The upperclassmen mentors then spend Thursday’s hour teaching their 9th graders the material they learned over the last two days. Two mentors work with each group of roughly 15 freshmen. On Friday, the mentors regroup with the faculty advisers to debrief.
“This is really a leadership and facilitation course,” Eisen-Markowitz said. “It offers human relations skills that will serve you well anywhere you go, including in your own home.”
While administrators were initially worried about students getting too personal in their group sessions, Eisen-Markowitz said that has proven not to be a problem. The curriculum is structured toward role modeling the concepts, though it can lend itself to slipping into group therapy, which is not the purpose of the peer groups.
Peer mentors do not handle truly challenging problems such as sexual assault or suicide threats, Garret agreed. They are taught that if they come across something that is dangerous or makes them uncomfortable they should report it to the teacher.
One of the best validations for the project, Eisen-Markowitz said, is that this year 30 students applied to be peer mentors with only 16 slots available. In their small school, that is roughly 25 percent of those eligible to apply.
“Two years ago, if you had asked juniors and seniors if they would like to be chosen as role models for 9th graders,” Eisen-Markowitz said, “it would not even have been on their radar.”
And while the peer groups do not delve into personal issues, the students do support each other and hold each other accountable in a general sense. Half of the story is teaching skills, Eisen-Markowitz said. The other half is forming bonds.
Eisen-Markowitz recently overheard a 9th grader challenging her own peer group mentor, who she saw out in the hallways during class time.
“You are supposed to be my role model,” the student exclaimed, “Why are you out here during class?”
“Even if the exchange was tongue in cheek,” Eisen-Markowitz says, “that exchange shows that mutual accountability has become part of the language. That wasn’t the case before. It’s a powerful thing when accountability doesn’t just come from adults.”
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