Mentor program guides Shelby County Schools students to graduation through tutoring and relationship building

July 18th, 2019

Dima Amro | The Commercial Appeal

A partnership between the University of Memphis, Shelby County Schools and Peer Power enters its fifth year with greater student involvement and improved graduation rates for participating schools. 

Peer Power Foundation, a nonprofit organization for student-to-student tutoring, employs excelling college students to mentor and instruct SCS children.

U of M partnered with the foundation during the 2014-2015 school year to create the “Memphis Model,” a cooperative program between the three groups.

"I had a lot of support at home, but I didn't have someone to necessarily look up to when it came to academics," said Danielle Nelson, an assistant program director at Peer Power. "They were depending on me to graduate, they wanted me to go to college. If the students feel like they need some help and maybe some direction, I want to be able to be there beside the teacher to give them direction."

Nelson, 26, said she wished she had a mentor in high school and joined U of M’s first success coach (mentor) group in 2015.

The Memphis-based foundation provides success coaches for math, science and English in five Shelby County Schools to reduce the adult to student ratio for optimal learning.

Success coaches offer weekly tutor sessions in math, science and English to students in Whitehaven, Kingsbury, East, Douglas and Ridgeway high schools.

Christopher Xa, director of research at the Peer Power Institute, said this year more than 10,000 college and high school students are partaking in the foundation. 

Malcom Rawls, Peer Power's program director at Ridgeway High, tutored his classmates for Peer Power as a high school senior, and then went to U of M to become a success coach.

Rawls said Peer Power gives Memphis kids an opportunity to develop into "productive citizens."

"To new success coaches, really focus in on the relationships," Rawls said. "Working with these kids in the classroom, and at the end of the year I get an invitation to their graduation. Having those same type of kids graduate, go through our program for four years, then come apply as a success coach. Those are the most rewarding things for me." 

The numbers show the program is having a positive impact at the schools.

Graduation rates for SCS schools with Peer Power are almost 10% percent higher than those without the program.

Whitehaven High's graduation rates climbed from 74.8% to nearly 90% since participating in the program.

“We take the idea of coaching seriously, which isn’t just tutoring, it isn’t just mentoring,” said Marygrace Hemme, Peer Power Institute's director of academic initiatives and training.

“What we would like for Shelby County students is, whatever they’re interests are and whatever their backgrounds are, for us to be able to get to know them well enough that we can personalize learning to optimize it for them," she said. 

About 150 students who were tutored by success coaches in high school became mentors in the foundation. 

The upcoming school year has 28 success coaches who were tutored by Peer Power in high school.

Currently, the 2019-2020 school year has 75 success coaches, 26 from U of M.

"We really believe that we serve students," Hemme said. "That doesn't just mean we serve high school students. It means we serve the students here at the University of Memphis. We really want for them to have personal and professional development."

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I must always work harder than others.

Kylea Spradley

I am currently a sophomore studying Biomedical Engineering at the University of Memphis. I also work as a success coach for Peer Power at East High School and I absolutely adore my job. The satisfaction from helping and encouraging young scholars is an overwhelmingly positive feeling that fills me with determination to constantly do better not only in my educational life, but in my personal life too. I take great pride walking into East High School knowing that I am not only a resource for the students, but also a mentor. I am that friend to talk to when something is going on, or even the outside opinion on a situation that shines the light onto a new viewpoint.

Peer Power to me is helping motivate students to graduate on time, and with dignity. Peer Power to me means inspiring that scholar to take the ACT again and raise their score, even if it is just by one more point. That one point can be the difference of a 2,000-dollar scholarship for college. Peer Power to me is getting the students excited for the endless possibilities past graduation, whether it be college or joining the work force. Peer Power to me is igniting the fire of determination and motivation under every student, and to welcome them into our world, post high school, with arms wide open, as that shoulder to lean on, as that support system when they need it.

Another reason why I love Peer Power so very much, is that it helps me to revisit old topics that I may have forgotten about when I was in high school. In turn, it benefits me in my college classes. As a biomedical engineering student, I take a ton of math classes. As a math success coach at East High, I get a refresh on topics that I haven’t seen in a long while, And if I am able to explain a topic, such as proofs in Geometry or absolute value functions in Algebra 2, to a student who may or may not have seen said topic before and for the students to understand it even just a little better, then I know that I fully understand the topic myself.

The relationships I have built during my time as a success coach at East High School are ones I will remember forever. Whether it be with my team leads, my teacher, students, and even other success coaches, the entirety of it all feels like a second family. I know that I have a support system at Peer Power, one that will always be there to pick me up when I am down, to congratulate me when I succeed, and one I can reply on in the future of my academic career.