“I remember we had a freshman once,” said Union City High School history teacher George Morales, recalling a particularly difficult former student. “Everything was ‘F this, I’m gonna punch you in the face.’ And then her junior year she applied to be in PGC. I saw her name and I go, no, not in a million years would this girl be in this program. I walked into a class and I observed her working with another student and I had never seen her so calm. I only remembered the girl who always yelled and wanted to fight everyone. She became one of our best peer leaders. She said listen, I’ve been through the crap, I’ve been there, I knew it had to change sometime, so I changed. She became one of the best kids we’ve ever had.”
PGC is Peer Group Connection, a program designed to ease the transition from middle to high school and help incoming students feel connected to the school. The program pairs a senior who serves as a mentor with an incoming sophomore. (Union City High School includes grades 10 through 12, so students enter the campus as sophomores, not freshmen.)
Lytisha “Tee” Williams is director of development at the Center for Supportive Schools (CSC), the company that developed the Peer Group program and facilitates it at schools throughout New Jersey.
“When students feel like they’re in a school where people care about their learning and about them as individuals, they’re likely to stay engaged,” she said. “That impacts dropout rates. That impacts greater achievement. Bullying rates go down. Even high-risk behaviors are affected because the students have someone they can talk with who can say you may want to make a different choice. And coming from another student that sounds very different than coming from an adult.”
“Our role as facilitators, as teachers, is to take a class and convert them into leaders.” –Beverly Grady.
How it works
Beverly Grady is one of the faculty advisors to the program at the high school. “My role as a facilitator is to take a class of seniors and train them to guide the sophomores through a transition period from the freshman academy into the larger school so they won’t get lost,” she said. “We take a class of seniors and train them to become like a big brother/big sister mentor to guide the sophomores through this process without it being so painful.”
Students need to apply and be accepted in order to participate. Juniors and seniors take year-long, credit-bearing leadership courses taught by school faculty.
Activities are highly structured, with a detailed program guide provided by CSC. “I teach a class of about twentysomething peer leaders,” said Morales. “We teach every day, a regular period: 42, 43 minutes. We do time management, decision-making. We help them practice for when they outreach to the sophomores.”
“Our role as facilitators, as teachers, is to take a class and convert them into leaders,” said Grady.
The peer leaders work in teams of two, meeting once per week with a group of 10 to 12 sophomores in outreach sessions designed to enhance academic, social, and emotional skills such as critical thinking, goal setting, and teamwork. The students also participate in a community service project.
Spreading the word
Founded in 1979, the Center for Supportive Schools was originally known as the Princeton Center for Leadership Training. PGC one of several programs they administer for a fee at participating schools.
Among the offerings they provide elsewhere is the Teen Prevention Education Program (Teen PEP), a program designed to increase responsible decision-making among students around issues of sexual health.
On Jan. 29 CSC held an informational session at Union City High School to talk about the peer group program. Attending were representatives from schools across New Jersey, all of whom were interested in adopting the program locally.
The Peer Group Connection begins with 11 days of intensive train-the-trainer sessions for teachers and school facilitators spread over the course of a year or more. The program costs approximately $60,000 in start-up fees, often paid for in whole or part by grants.
CSC shared statistics indicating that program participants show higher graduation rates than the general population. According to CSC representatives, program participants also exhibit higher grades, better attendance, and fewer discipline referrals.
Morales is a strong advocate for the program not only because he teaches it, but because he’s an alumnus. Originally from Passaic, he participated as a student freshman before becoming a peer leader as a senior.
“It kind of kept me on the straight and narrow,” he said. “You didn’t just know your group of friends that you grew up with. You started seeing other kids that were actually involved in school. One of the guys who taught us was on the football team so I joined the football team my sophomore year, got that group of friends. And then my senior year I got more involved in school and tried to get the freshman more involved in things that I was doing. It taught me time management, because I was horrible at it. It made me second-guess a lot of my decisions too. It gave me a lot of tools that helped me out when I got out and went into college. A lot of our kids when they go to college they become RAs [resident assistants], because they’re already trained in conflict resolution.”
Upon graduation Morales took a job teaching at Emerson School in Union City and convinced the principal to bring PGC to Union City. That was 2005, and it grew from there.
The current program participants echoed Morales’ sentiments. Attending the information session were two groups of students: seniors serving as peer leaders and sophomores being mentored.
“PGC has helped me,” said sophomore Delia Vital, “because I was never really social, but then I started to get to know people and right away I started to come out of my shell.”
Mariluz Capellan, another sophomore, agreed. “I’m a bilingual student. PGC has been a great experience because as a bilingual student you feel scared because you don’t know the language too well, but every time I look at them they’re smiling at me and they give me self-confidence. I actually didn’t think that I would be here talking today because I was scared, but they told me that I can do it and I’m here.”
Kenia Ozoria, a senior mentor, offered her perspective on the issue. “We have bilingual [sophomores] and I speak Spanish but my Spanish isn’t that great. But these kids, they still manage to communicate with us and they really look up to us when they see us. They kind of treat us like teachers. We give them a chance to connect with all the English-speaking students, because in this school, if you’re bilingual, you usually have class with only bilingual students. So they get a chance to bond with us.”
“The thing about PGC is that you think that you’re just affecting the sophomores but in reality it benefits also the seniors,” said Mariel Fernandez, another senior mentor. “I know for me personally as a senior now going to college I had to develop a lot of communication skills, and opening up to my sophomores and speaking to a group of 15 sophomores that I never met before, it really has opened up my communication skills. Also trying to teach them different ways of learning because there’s different types of learners and different ways that students learn. Some people are visual learners, some people learn other ways. So my sophomores have taught me to explain myself in different ways so that everyone can understand and get the bigger picture.”
“It has given me a chance to get out of my comfort zone,” said senior Jadelkis Grullon. “Patience is key in PGC. Now that we’re actually in a teacher’s position in a sense, we see the struggle that they go through.”
Art Schwartz may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.