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Mobilizing the power of peers

Two years ago at Greene Central High School, we were seeking intentional strategies to ensure our ninth graders started high school on the right foot. Ninth grade is a vulnerable transition for all of our students, not just those identified at risk. Overall, our ninth graders were finding it challenging to navigate the changes in high school academic expectations, responsibility and social groups which led to them feeling confused, frustrated and disconnected.

Sadly, ninth grade can be the “make it or break it” year for many of our students. We knew we needed to put forth a proactive plan to ensure our students had the personalized support needed to be successful. In addition to building their academic achievements, we wanted to develop their advocacy, communication and leadership skills. The strategy we put in place leveraged an untapped resource already in our school: our older students.

In collaboration with Center for Supportive Schools (CSS), Greene Central became one of over twenty schools in North Carolina that integrated into our school day a peer to peer mentoring model called Peer Group Connection (PGC). The program taps into the power of high school juniors and seniors, who serve as peer leaders to create a nurturing environment for incoming freshmen. Twice a week, pairs of peer leaders meet with groups of freshmen in outreach sessions designed to strengthen relationships among students. During the school day, peer leaders participate in a daily, for-credit, year-long leadership course taught by school faculty.

Our ninth graders have grown tremendously and have gained meaningful relationships with upperclassmen who have paved the way for them as future leaders. There are countless stories where students praised their peer leaders for providing a listening ear, staying after school for academic assistance, being a positive example for change and more importantly, being a lifeline for students in moments of crisis. Our students are likely to share concerns or problems with peers than their parents or other adults at school. These students are involved in crucial relationships that would not have been available without PGC and our ninth graders’ benefit from the wisdom of their older peers as they navigate academic or social situations. 

Peer leaders also benefit from this leadership experience by learning facilitation strategies essential for effective communication outside of high school. PGC Family Night brings together peer leaders, ninth graders and their families for activities and discussions where no topic is off limits. This event highlights the exceptional partnership of peer leaders and ninth graders by serving as a community forum for all participants.  

The outstanding work of our peer leaders and faculty advisors earned Greene Central the prestigious honor of being recognized as a PGC Certified School for 2017-2018. More importantly, the hard data support this. Last year, our discipline data showed a dramatic decrease in discipline-related offenses for ninth graders in comparison to the previous years without PGC implementation at Greene Central.

Over and over again, students reiterate the impact their peer leaders have in their lives. Recently, interviews were completed for the PGC peer leader selection process for the 2018-2019 school year. To our amazement, many of the selected peer leaders are former ninth grade participants who now have the opportunity to share their leadership journey experiences with others. They exemplify that success as a high school student at Greene Central is attainable.

The peer to peer mentoring associated with PGC at Greene Central is thriving and continuously creating a positive school culture where students are connecting and supporting each other while increasing their academic achievement.

Uvonda Willis

Uvonda Willis is an assistant principal at Greene Central High School and a former English teacher and community college adjunct professor. As an undergraduate student, she attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and received graduate degrees from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and Liberty University. She is also a published author and enjoys empowering young women to create legacies for others to follow.