FRIENDS FIRST Leverages the Influence of Teens to Promote Student Success

FRIENDS FIRSTFRIENDS FIRST, Inc. is a non-profit organization that was established in 1993 and began serving youth with education programs based on social/emotional health and the formation of healthy relationships. Today, FRIENDS FIRST continues to educate and mentor teens by empowering them with tools, knowledge and positive role models to make choices leading to healthy relationships and successful futures. FRIENDS FIRST implements STARS Peer Mentoring (Students Teaching About Relationships and Success) programs throughout Colorado and in nine other states, including New Mexico, Arizona, Texas, Alabama, Georgia, Michigan, Missouri, Indiana, and Wisconsin. These programs are funded through an OJJDP multi-state mentoring grant, which FRIENDS FIRST has been awarded since 2010.

A Cross-Age Peer Mentoring Model

STARSFRIENDS FIRST developed the STARS Mentoring Program in 1996 to build on the influence teens have on one another. STARS is a cross-age peer mentoring program that engages high school students as mentors to younger high school or middle school students in school-based, group settings. Each mentor has up to four mentees, with whom they meet once a week for the duration of a school year (approximately 26 weeks). Currently, STARS programs serve roughly 1,525 students across 41 schools.

Three core elements guide FRIENDS FIRST’s STARS Mentoring Programming:

  1. Self-awareness: Mentors and mentees increase their awareness of their strengths, influences, and challenges.
  2. Future focus: Mentors and mentees increase their understanding of the ways in which the choices they make today impact their futures tomorrow, both positively and negatively.
  3. MentorLife®: Students learn the importance of mentoring and experience how they can achieve success when they have someone investing in them, and when they, in turn, invest in others.

Assessment and Outcomes

FRIENDS FIRSTThe biggest accomplishment of the STARS Mentoring Program is seeing the value of MentorLife® in action. For example:

  • In STARS programs that have existed longer than 3 years, more than 45% of mentors are former STARS mentees.
  • More than 90% of eligible STARS mentors return the following year.

These indicators demonstrate how invested STARS students are in the success of their peers. Additionally, 2016 program data shows that positive outcomes for STARS mentors include improved view of future self and increased college readiness. Positive outcomes for mentees include increased peer support, character and perseverance.

Intentional Investment in Mentors

STARS Mentors are typically high school age, and (on average) invest between 80-120 volunteer hours per school year in training, leadership development, and devoted time with their mentees. They must commit to not only remaining in the program for the duration of the school year, but to being a positive role model as well. Specifically, while they are mentoring, they must maintain at least a 2.5 GPA, and avoid high-risk behaviors (i.e. drug use, alcohol consumption, sexual activity, violence, and tobacco).

STARS Coordinators are unique in the sense that they serve as “mentors to the mentors,” rather than as a traditional program coordinator. FRIENDS FIRST has found that mentors will be a better role model to their mentees if they have someone investing in them as well. STARS Coordinators are trained and certified not only to manage programs, but to model what it means to invest in the life of a mentee. They have found that continually training and coaching their peer mentors makes these young leaders more effective with their mentees, more engaged in their schools and communities, and more excited about their futures.

Connections to Evidence-Based Practice

STARS has seen program success because it applies many of the research-based best practices outlined in the Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring TM and adapts them to a peer-to-peer mentoring context. FRIENDS FIRST was very intentional about creating a peer-to-peer mentoring model that not only reflected the strategies they found to be successful in everyday practice, but one that is informed by research about effective youth mentoring as well as continually assessed and refined. In 2017, FRIENDS FIRST committed to an ongoing quality improvement process for mentoring programs called the National Quality Mentoring System (NQMS), which is offered by MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership and its network of state and local affiliates. The NQMS provides a structured, systematic process for assessing the quality of a mentoring program’s practices in alignment with the Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring TM, Fourth Edition, (EEPM). FRIENDS FIRST underwent an extensive self-assessment survey about their program management, operations and evaluation practices, an assessment review by MENTOR Colorado, the development of a custom work plan for quality improvement, and collaborative technical assistance work with a TA Provider. Commitment to ongoing quality assessment and enhancement – as demonstrated by its intentional efforts to more fully align with evidence-based practices for mentoring – is a core value for FRIENDS FIRST and the STARS program as it seeks to continually strengthen its youth mentoring efforts.

Growth Opportunity through Technical Assistance

FRIENDS FIRSTFRIENDS FIRST has received technical assistance (TA) from the OJJDP National Mentoring Resource Center (NMRC), which assisted them in conducting a thorough review of the STARS curriculum. STARS staff met with NMRC TA Providers to discuss questions, observations, and insights about the STARS curriculum and set priorities for enhancing it based on these conversations. Through this process, the STARS team decided to focus their efforts on improving the consistency of mentor meetings and build in more intentional opportunities for relationship-building between program coordinators and mentors. Additionally, they set out to strengthen the closure process for their mentoring relationships, particularly those between program coordinators and mentees. By partnering with their TA Provider at MENTOR Colorado, FRIENDS FIRST was able to address and strengthen these practices, which are critical to the success of the young people served by STARS.

Assessment and technical assistance has also helped FRIENDS FIRST identify key strengths in the STARS model. Through the National Quality Mentoring System process, STARS staff identified mentor matching and training as an area of strength and innovation. Because of this process, FRIENDS FIRST is now recognized on a national level as an organization committed to quality mentoring.

Next Steps 

FRIENDS FIRST continues to build a culture of learning and reflection through the use of high quality data. Over the next several months, the organization’s Learning & Evaluation team will work closely with program staff to refine theories of change and logic models to better align their intended goals and outcomes with program activities.

Additionally, FRIENDS FIRST recently purchased a new software platform that will help streamline their data collection and analysis processes and allow them to report on data in real time. The first part of 2018 will be spent learning this new system and preparing to implement it for the 2018-2019 school year.

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