It was the late 1970s, and Sharon Rose Powell was working as a counselor at Princeton High school. She was struck by the fact that many of the students she saw were starting to struggle with issues they never had up until that point, including substance abuse. Ninth grade seemed to be the point when many of them fell through the cracks.
As a counselor, there were limits to Powell’s ability to help. But she soon realized that there was an entire group of people at the high school who were perfectly suited to help young teenagers deal with their problems, if only she could mobilize them.
That was the genesis of a program called Peer Group Connection. Powell, who holds a doctorate in counseling psychology from Rutgers, trained juniors and seniors at the high school to talk to the younger students and organized them into groups where a pair of older students could act as mentors for 13 to 15 younger ones. Forty years later, the program is still going strong and forms the core of the programs offered by a Princeton-based nonprofit group called the Center for Supportive Schools, which now operates in 242 schools.
Margo Ross, managing director of communications and development for the CSS, says the peer group connection functions as a “safety net” for students who participate in it. The peer group is now offered in 186 schools, including Princeton High School, where it first started.
One of the first people to see the value of the peer group connection was Joyce Jones, a teacher at Princeton High School. Jones vividly remembers the staff meeting where Powell introduced the program by having some of the participating students stand up and talk about how the peer mentorship had helped them. “It was so moving to me,” Jones says. “I was touched and inspired by what the students had to say about the peer group experience.”
Jones has run Princeton’s PCG program ever since, growing it from a single class with 16 freshmen to a program that covers the entire incoming class of ninth-graders every year. Part of her role is to teach a class that trains participating juniors and seniors in how to conduct the peer group sessions. As the year goes on, her students use the class to discuss how to deal with issues that arise in their peer groups.
“There’s a level of sharing that takes place in the class that you don’t get with every class,” Jones says. This resulted in her becoming particularly close to some students over the years. One of them was Ben Gillis, who graduated in the mid-1980s. He remembered the class so well that years after graduating from college, he returned to say hi to Jones and invite her to come see him in Kenya if she ever got the chance — he had gotten a job as a pilot there.
Jones never got the chance. Shortly after talking to Jones, Gillis returned to his job. One day, a flock of birds hit his plane, and it went down, killing Gillis along with his passengers.
For years afterwards, Princeton High School awarded a scholarship for graduating seniors in Gillis’ name.
Jones says Gillis was heavily involved in the peer program and that the younger students looked up to him. She says the program can be a lifeline for students who are dealing with problems. Jones’ students, seniors who are currently acting as peer mentors, agreed.
“Freshmen look up to you as a role model,” says Princeton High School senior Deven Roychowdhury. “You can offer support to them if they come to you with a problem.”
The mentors said freshmen often came to them for help dealing with conflicts they had with teachers. For example a student might feel like a teacher is giving them too much homework, or mark them absent even if they were there. “They’re looking for our advice through our experiences,” Roychowdhury said.
Senior Ayah Mahana said she found the mentors helpful when she went through the program as a freshman. “They were my older pals at the school,” she says. “They shaped the way I wanted to be a peer group leader for freshman.”
The success of the program at Princeton led Powell to look for ways to expand it to other schools, first in the local area, then around the Eastern Seaboard. In 1988 she created an organization called the Princeton Center for Leadership Training. The group has had steady success evangelizing its approach.
“The beauty of the program is that we really believe every student from every school can benefit from it,” Ross says. “The way we work is to build the capacity of the school to run the program in perpetuity.”
The peer support program has been implemented in schools that run the gamut from rich to poor and from rural to urban. The only real criteria necessary is buy-in from administrators and faculty. Ross says that once introduced, about 70 percent of schools stick with it forever.
This retention rate is a testament to the impact the program can have. According to a report by Westat, a research consultancy, a two-year study of PCG in 32 high schools found that ninth-graders in the peer support groups attended school more often and were more frequently on track to graduate than counterparts who were not. A study by Rutgers and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found it increased graduation rates by 9 percentage points and cut male dropout rates in half.
The program has been revised many times over the years to make it more relevant in changing times and to be more appropriate to students of different cultures.
CSS is funded by a donor base of individuals and institutions. Last year this included a grant from the U.S. Department of Education and some from the Department of Justice. The federal funding has allowed the group to launch programs in new schools, and CSS now has 85 employees and programs in 11 states as well as Asia and South America.
Powell, the program’s creator, retired in 2009, and Daniel F. Oscar became CEO. Oscar, a 1988 alumnus of Princeton University, was an early employee of Teach For America and has done consulting work for a range of educational organizations. In November the group held a benefit dinner honoring Powell and the 40th anniversary of PCG’s inception.
Ross believes the Peer Support Group program has been successful partly because the idea of older students helping younger ones just makes intuitive sense. “It’s not a new concept, but it makes so much sense to people when you talk to them about it,” she says.
“The older students in the school have all the skills and knowledge to be leaders in their school communities, and if you can find a way to tap into that and equipment with leadership skills, mentoring skills, and facilitation skills, that’s very appealing to schools. They really like to see older students elevated in that way. They’re in the best position to create a welcoming and nurturing environment for the younger students.”
Center for Supportive Schools (CSS), 911 Commons Way, Princeton 08540; 609-252-9300. Daniel F. Oscar, president and CEO. www.supportiveschools.org.