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April 1, 2011
Vol. 68
No. 7

The Middle/High Years / Rallying Behind At-Risk Freshmen

Peer mentors help ease struggling 9th graders' transition into high school.

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When I started as an instructional coach at Spring Grove Area High School, I realized that too many of the school's freshmen were getting lost in transition; they never made it to their sophomore year. Together, a group of committed teachers and counselors and I found a way to help these at-risk freshmen transition more successfully to high school. But it took some trial and error—and learning to trust the power of relationships among students.
The problem of freshmen falling through the cracks at this midsized (1,200 students) suburban high school in central Pennsylvania stood out for me because I'd taught at one of the feeder middle schools right before coming to Spring Grove. It immediately became clear to me that certain freshmen whom I'd taught the previous year were struggling mightily. These youth, who had been supported by extended time in core subjects, teacher and student teams, and limited transitions, now found themselves attending eight separate classes a day—sometimes scattered throughout the large building. There were no supports or safety nets.
As I spoke with Spring Grove teachers who worked with 9th graders, I discovered they were all concerned about losing students during freshman year. A group of us began to gather data and conducted teacher and student surveys to discover the greatest areas of freshmen need. We discovered that freshmen needed support with both behavior and academics. During the 2006–07 school year, 9th graders received 43 percent of the discipline referrals at the school, and they served 40 percent of lunchtime detentions. Academically, freshmen accounted for 63 percent of the total classes failed during the first semester. We were concerned about how failure among freshmen affected Spring Grove's graduation rate, which hovered at or below the state average of 89 percent.
In May 2007, 11 teachers and counselors from Spring Grove and its feeder middle schools formed a freshmen advocacy group. We brainstormed solutions to the phenomenon of 9th graders' overrepresentation among course failures and discipline flare-ups. The solution we chose to try was a peer mentoring club centered on individual meetings between at-risk freshmen and senior mentors. It took a few years for our efforts to make a dent in freshmen failure, but in 2009–10 we saw significant success. As our outreach grew, the club encompassed more activities, and our school community rallied behind its most needy students.

A Few False Starts…

We discovered that a majority of the course failures and disciplinary referrals came from a small percentage of Spring Grove High's freshman class. With this discovery in mind, middle school counselors identified a group of 28 at-risk 8th graders who would need additional support as they started high school. The counselors defined "at risk" on the basis of failing grades, disciplinary referrals, attendance problems, and referrals to the district's Student Assistance Program (which addresses mental health or substance abuse concerns).
The six high school teachers at our group's first meeting each agreed to "adopt" a freshman for whom they would provide individual guidance and attention during the upcoming school year. We started 2007–08 full of good intentions. However, teachers and students held only a handful of meetings, and only 10 of these 28 students earned the necessary five credits to reach sophomore status. We learned that teachers in a traditionally scheduled high school don't have enough time during the day to mentor individual students effectively.
So in 2008–09, we turned to vulnerable students' peers. We paired each of the 13 students identified as at risk by middle school counselors with an older student mentor who shared a study hall time with them. The Future Educators' Club advisor helped us recruit mentors. The plan was for the freshmen to meet regularly with their mentors in the school library. But despite high hopes, only 100 mentoring meetings—between a handful of the pairs—actually occurred.

… Then Success!

We learned a lot from these false starts. Even before the 2008–09 school year closed, we implemented improvements that made this intervention more successful in the next school year. Our first change was to develop a core team, made up of the Future Educators' Club advisor, the school psychologist, and myself, who were committed to providing the leadership the program needed. During the previous two years, we had relied a great deal on Spring Grove's school counselors. Counselors must be involved in an initiative like this, of course, but we found that it was also important to recruit others in the school. For example, it was imperative to have the school librarian on board, as he would supervise the mentor meetings in the library.
The middle school counselors identified 26 at-risk students for the 2009–10 school year. Getting an early start, we invited these students to a summer orientation the week before school started. We used this well-attended orientation to pair freshmen with their mentors, elect officers for the newly formed Peer Mentoring Club, and train mentors to run effective mentoring sessions. An amazing student leader, who is now studying education at a local university, was elected president and became the backbone of the program for that year.
At this gathering, we also chose a fund-raising activity that tapped into students' creativity. The mentors and freshmen collaborated to design a rally towel that they would sell at school football games. Selling these towels united the club and connected the community to our mission.

The Magic of the Meetings

Of the 26 students identified as needing help in 2009–10, 17 (65 percent) earned the five credits needed to reach sophomore status. Of the nine students who did not make it, one earned 4.9 credits and another earned 4.5, so the relative success rate was even higher.
Without a doubt, the reason we had more success with these at-risk students was the increased frequency of meetings between mentors and freshmen. More than 1,000 meetings occurred throughout the year. It was amazing to watch bonds form between low-achieving freshmen and high-achieving seniors.
Mentoring meetings last about 43 minutes (the length of a class period). About one-half of the pairs meet every day; the rest meet once or twice a week. Most mentors do things like help their freshman learn organizational and study skills, go over upcoming assignments so the student understands them, keep track of how assignments are progressing, review already-graded tests or assignments, and review the freshman's grades with him or her online to decide where to concentrate effort.
Mentors help their freshmen learn how to ask for help and advocate for themselves; often a mentor goes with the mentee to talk to a teacher about a problem. For instance, one mentor found her freshman had done his part on a group biology project but was going to accept a zero because the other group members hadn't done theirs. The freshman didn't realize he had any other choice.
In most cases, when mentor and mentee meet for the first session, there's apprehension on both sides. We advise mentors to just converse with the student during the first few meetings and then get down to business as the schoolwork increases—and keep the focus on academics thereafter. We train mentors several times throughout the year, especially to help them learn how to push to uncover a struggling student's needs. When the mentor asks what he or she can do to help, most mentees initially say, "nothing; everything's fine." The mentor has to say, "OK. Let's look at your grades online" or "Let's look through your agenda."
More than anything, peer mentoring is about forming relationships. The freshmen realize that their mentors care about them and have high expectations; they see that even in a competitive, sometimes cruel environment like a traditional high school, someone will devote countless hours to make a difference in their lives.
Recruiting and training mentors was essential to our success. When recruiting mentors, we didn't promise an easy task but focused on the benefits of doing such altruistic work, including garnering something to put on a college application and gaining experience relevant to future educators, who make up a majority of our mentors. We trained mentors in confidentiality, including asking permission before accessing a mentee's online grades or talking to that student's teachers.

Beyond Mentoring Meetings

The money the mentoring club raised selling rally towels enabled us to reward successful freshmen and their mentors with a trip to Hershey Park in May. Our mentoring program appeals to students' intrinsic motivation, but I am sure that the extrinsic motivator of a trip to an amusement park during a school day also spurred some students to achieve their goal. The trip to Hershey Park exemplified the success of the program, as once-failing freshmen spent the day with some of the most talented seniors in the building. The pairs were free to separate for the day, but they chose to stay together.
As the program evolved, we realized that some of our at-risk freshmen needed more concrete help. Although 65 percent of our strugglers reached sophomore status in 2009–10, 35 percent did not. While reviewing information about the 25 students we'd identified as at risk for the 2010–11 school year, I realized that 80 percent of these students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch (compared with only 28 percent of the overall student body at Spring Grove). In the summer of 2010, we implemented a "We've Got Your Back" fund-raiser to provide backpacks for each of these 25 students. The club officers and mentors held a car wash and solicited donations from community members; they raised enough to purchase for each student a backpack and an agenda book for keeping track of assignments.
In addition to fostering academic success, peer mentoring has had a positive effect on our school community, as mentors modeled how one person can affect the life of another. The club eventually went beyond the school to make a difference in the community by organizing a "Hoops for Homes" student-versus-faculty basketball game to raise money for Habitat for Humanity. They also raised money for a local community organization that provides room, board, and support to low-income and homeless women.

Multiplying Benefits

This school year we have 40 mentors, which far exceeds the 25 freshmen we have identified as being at risk, so mentors are reaching beyond this group. We maintain—and send to all Spring Grove staff—a list that identifies peer mentors who are available during each class period, so any teacher can pair students as needed. We have already added eight students to the initial 25, including freshmen who began to fall behind after school started and students who need physics or Spanish tutoring.
It's still too early to evaluate all the benefits of this endeavor, but without a doubt, it has empowered many at-risk students to achieve academic success in the linchpin freshman year. Having followed up with last year's mentors, I know the experience made a difference in their lives as well. Mentors learned patience, empathy, and the ability to listen to students whose life stories are very different from their own.
What we are doing at Spring Grove is highly replicable. Essentially, once teachers or counselors identify at-risk students and make mentor-mentee pairings, the program is fairly self-sufficient. Occasionally, I've had to step in to change mentors or resolve conflicts. But for the most part, the relationships that students form with one another ensure the program's success.
The key is to empower students to truly make a difference in the lives of others.

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