Building Resilience and Leadership for Struggling 9th Graders through Peer Mentoring

Academic achievement does not typically characterize the students who are served by the High School Success Class at Chelan High School. That usually changes by the time they finish 9th grade. Freshman Nathan improved his GPA last year from 0.9 to 3.3. “This year I made a big change including changing my habits and studying for tests. My mentor is influential because she helped me with my work and kept me in a good mood so that I could focus better. I will use the experience of having a mentor into becoming one for kids who need it most.”

Josh, who increased his GPA from 2.9 to 3.5, reflected, “Having a mentor made me work even harder by trying my best to make him proud or show him that I really care about my grades and school.”

Angela’s story is much the same: “My relationship with my mentor made a huge impact not only in school but my life as well. She kept me motivated throughout the year even when I wanted to quit. I’m really thankful I got put into that class.”

Chelan’s High School Success pairs the lowest 15 percent of incoming freshmen with upperclass peer mentors in an elective class designed to ensure a successful transition to high school. Freshmen are identified by middle school counselor and administration recommendation along with grade, attendance, and behavior data, The class is staffed by Teacher Sarah Barnes, Gear Up Director Zed Deenik, and Paraprofessional Adam Poush, who utilize a blend of Social Emotional Learning strategies, interdisciplinary collaboration, and the leadership of peer mentors to leverage their influence in a positive way.

Data from the last four years shows how core course failures decreased on average from 22 to 5 and students experienced a 38% average improvement in GPA from 8th grade to 9th grade. Additionally, discipline referrals decreased and attendance improved.

HSS is not a study hall. Lessons range from guest speakers sharing stories of overcoming life’s challenges, games that strengthen mentoring relationships, focused math tutoring, or discussions about concepts like growth mindset. Students attend field trips, parent conferences, and senior presentations together. Lasting and even lifelong bonds are being created.

Resources are required to run a class like this, but schools may be overlooking a tremendous resource by not utilizing upperclass role models as peer mentors. The investment in training and staff could be well worth the money as reductions in discipline problems, credit retrieval, and dropout rates pay for themselves in the long run.

One special strategy utilized by CHS is professional training for mentors in the WhyTry curriculum. WhyTry doesn’t just teach the value of relationships, motivation, and resilience, but provides strategies for building them. HSS rises and falls on the quality of our relationships. Trust, compassion, and respect built between our mentors, freshmen and the staff translates into life changing successes at school. It is inspiring to watch a senior teach a freshman the importance of asking for help, doing their homework, or making good choices on the weekend.

Freshmen are not the only ones who benefit. Mentors, who are required to share and teach, report the growth that results in working as teachers and leaders. The results academically, socially, and on the individual level speak for themselves. Whether it is helping prevent a suicide or simply studying for a test, the effects on school climate go far beyond numbers and statistics.

Written by by Sarah Barnes, School & Community Liaison / Academic Success Coordinator