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Slade Combs, For the Deseret News
A classroom with students and their mentors helping them get the grades necessary for graduation.

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.

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.

Mutual accountability

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.”

See related story: High school graduation rate tops 80 percent nationally

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