“Students are not able to focus in the classroom if they don’t feel emotionally secure,” says Doris Lee, Principal at Village Academy Middle School in Queens, New York City. “What [peer mentoring] has helped me do with my school community is create kind of a positive peer pressure where the leaders are working with younger students and using their relationships to help them do the right thing. It has also helped decrease bullying. So if you engage students and you give them a clear role in the school about leadership and how they can support their peers, it really has an overall positive impact on the school and the school community.”
Village Academy is one of approximately 250 schools across the country that implements Peer Group Connection (PGC), an evidence-based, school-based peer mentoring program that supports and eases students’ successful transitions into middle and high school by tapping into the power of older students as mentors and role models to create a nurturing environment for incoming students. Introduced by CSS in 1979, PGC trains carefully selected older students (11th and 12th graders in high schools; 8th graders in middle schools) as part of their regular school schedule in a daily, 45-minute leadership development class to become peer mentors and serve as positive role models and discussion leaders for younger students (9th graders or 6th graders, respectively). Peer mentors work in pairs to co-lead groups of 10 to 14 younger students in weekly sessions in which the younger students participate in engaging, hands-on activities in supportive environments.
At CSS, we believe that students have the potential, with the help of caring adults and in the context of supportive school communities, to drastically improve the school experience for themselves and their peers. Peer mentoring places students at the center of efforts to improve schools by harnessing the power of positive peer relationships and social and emotional learning to engage and re-engage students. As a result, students — both peer mentors and the younger students they support — care about each other, build social and emotional learning skills, and ultimately become engaged citizens of their school communities.
The structure of PGC is what allows it to reach so many peer mentors and mentees. As depicted in the diagram below, for every two trained school-based adult faculty members, approximately 120 students each year can receive weekly mentoring support from trained peer mentors over the course of an entire school year during the most vulnerable transition periods of their K-12 experience:
It is worth noting that this model is intended to serve all members of the incoming class, not only students who have been identified as needing additional support. In this way, higher-risk students benefit from exposure to more motivated and academically successful students in a supportive, structured setting. Lower-risk but still vulnerable students receive mentoring to overcome obstacles that could eventually lead to more serious problems. As a result, PGC is a program all students feel proud to be part of rather than one that could be stigmatized as a program for struggling students.
A peer mentoring approach can have a profound impact on participating students. Students who participate in PGC learn to build caring, empathic, and supportive relationships in which they communicate more effectively and work together more productively. Results of rigorous evaluation studies also demonstrate that PGC leads to significantly lower dropout rates, improved grades, fewer discipline referrals, and avoidance of high-risk behaviors. The potential of this approach has been recognized by multiple federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention; the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Adolescent Health; and the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Innovation and Improvement; all of which made investments in 2015 to implement and study PGC in high-need communities.
Peer mentoring can be a straightforward, cost-effective, and evidence-based solution for creating and sustaining student engagement that requires a modest upfront investment and a recurring cost of only a few dollars per student per year. It also requires relatively minor changes to the way schools do business yet has been shown to lead to massive changes in students’ experiences and results. Given the low cost of implementation, the national infrastructure and critical resources already in place (younger students, older students, and faculty), we suggest this approach as the low-hanging fruit in the nationwide effort to improve all schools and help close the mentoring gap.