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Student Leaders Offer Simple Solutions to School Challenges

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The Atlantic recently published an article entitled Ninth Grade: The Most Important Year of High School.The article's focus on ninth grade as a "make or break year" is based on research reported in the journal, Education, identifying ninth graders as having the lowest grade point averages, the most missed classes, the majority of failing grades, and more misbehavior referrals than any other high-school grade level. The article suggests that the confluence of new students, new environments, adolescent angst and teenage decision-making skills are elements that make this population of high school students particularly vulnerable.

This article struck me because I had recently attended a panel discussion at Central Park East High School made up of ninth, eleventh and twelfth graders involved in the Center for Supportive Schools' Peer Group Connection (PGC) program. PGC is designed to support and ease the transition from middle to high school by tapping into the power of older students to create a nurturing environment for incoming high school students.

Central Park East, like most New York City public high schools, draws students with diverse backgrounds from every corner of the city. Many of the students on the panel were children of new immigrants and every one of them explained that they entered their new high school with two or fewer people they knew (their prior acquaintances were not even necessarily friends or neighbors).

During the discussion, the students all confirmed that entering high school felt daunting under these challenging circumstances. However, they also consistently noted how transformative it was to have older peer group leaders help them navigate the first year of high school. They observed that having an avenue to discuss their challenges and make connections made them feel like they were a part of a larger community and reassured them that there were people who cared about them and knew them in a way that mattered.

Assistant Principal Mayra Messi explained that they had chosen to bring PGC to Central Park East because they were looking for the "heart piece" at their school. She has since been impressed by the program's ability to create a safe and supportive "foundation for learning."

Although this elegant, evidence-based idea of leveraging teen peers (an abundant, cost-efficient and powerful resource) to create safe and supportive school environments is not new, it is not as common as one might think. The Center for Supportive Schools (CSS, formerly The Princeton Center for Leadership Training) peer group model has been in place for over twenty-five years, mostly in New Jersey. Only recently has this replicable and sustainable solution been adopted by growing numbers of schools in several additional states.

How does it work?
Peer Group Connection training offers a select group of diverse eleventh and twelfth graders extensive leadership training provided by two internal faculty or staff who are previously trained to be program facilitators. Beginning with a three-day retreat at the beginning of the year and continuing through a daily leadership course throughout the school year, the older students learn skills like group facilitation, team building, decision-making, time management, and communication to prepare them to lead freshmen in weekly small peer group discussions related to the challenges of first-year high school students.

Freshman served by PGC explained that their peer groups offer them a place to talk about their problems and figure out solutions. They also noted the connection they feel with their upperclassmen peer leaders, inside and outside of the weekly meetings, and how these connections help them handle their otherwise overwhelming new environment.

Principal Bennett Lieberman pragmatically added, "(PGC)...leverages student-on-student interactions through weekly outreach sessions and special events with one purpose in mind -- to make kids feel better about school and be more productive in school." And to his point, PGC has been proven, through federally-funded randomized control trials, to significantly improve high school graduation rates, attendance, and other behaviors that lead to graduating greater numbers of students prepared for the rigors of college.

At the heart of Peer Group Connection is a simple and compelling premise: caring school cultures can be created by students connecting to students in healthy and supportive ways. Most striking is how the students adopt the charge of creating supportive schools instead of leaving it to the already stretched adults at the school. The visible pride that they take in this accomplishment is also worth noting.

The Atlantic article concludes by proposing that interested parties need to explore one key question: "What does each of these potential dropouts in the ninth grade need as they make this big transition?" I would suggest that the adults quit guessing and simply ask the students themselves. In this case, the most effective solution may not require any dramatic expensive school reforms. In fact, it may merely involve effectively training a powerful resource that is in abundant supply at every school.

Kyle Redford serves on the board at the Center for Supportive Schools