Nonprofit transforms SCS teacher experience with peer-to-peer mentors

October 1st, 2018

By Michelle Corbet | Daily Memphian

The curriculum may have been unconventional but the lesson was clear.

In a starched white shirt and blue work pants, William “Bill” Sehnert, executive director of education nonprofit Peer Power, announced to a group of teachers and high school and college students cultivating the Shelby Farms Park Leadership Garden: “Today, we are moving this huge pile of buffalo dung from one side of the field to the other side of the field.”

Sehnert passed out the shovels and the group went to work. After the last of the manure was moved, Sehnert bought $500 worth of food and revealed the real reason behind that day’s task.

“Really, there was no reason for us to moving those piles of dung for the garden,” he said. “Raise your hand if you enjoyed that today.”

Across the group, not a single hand went up.

“I do not want any of you to have to do this for a living,” Sehnert said. “But if you experienced it, you would know Peer Power is here to give you the skills to pick any occupation you want.”

East High School English teacher Meah King was among the group that day and shared the lesson with the 53 college students that completed their training in July to serve as mentors and tutors in Shelby County Schools this year. 

“I will never forget that lesson,” King said. “As an adult it taught me to trust the process.”

King first met Sehnert and Peer Power founder Charlie McVean, who made his fortune as a livestock trader as chairman and CEO of McVean Trading & Investments, in the early days of Peer Power, when it was an after-school program in which high school juniors and seniors tutored their peers.

“To be honest, I was a little reluctant at first: what (does McVean) want to help these children for?” King recalled asking Sehnert.

While McVean's alma mater Vanderbilt University was asking for his money, Sehnert said, McVean would rather give it to the students of East High School.

“I did some soul searching and I began to think about how this program could help my students,” King said.

King thought about not just the economic poverty her students experience, but the poverty of experiences and exposure.

King has since become a champion of Peer Power and the Memphis Model program, launched in 2015, which hires, trains and places University of Memphis tutors, or success coaches, in classrooms across SCS high schools.    

“Here we are 15 1/2 years later, and I can honestly tell you, my students have been successful not just through high school or academic growth, but they became better people,” King said. “They grew civically.”

For the 2018-19 school year, Memphis Model success coaches are assigned to support 62 SCS teachers.

“In Whitehaven, East and Kingsbury high schools, we might have a 30:1 student-to-teacher ratio, but with the help of Peer Power, we’ve taken that ratio down to 15:1,” said Brian Stockton, SCS’ chief of staff.

Maurice Sargent was one of the first teachers at Whitehaven High School to get a success coach.

“They are great in the classroom,” said Sargent, the high school mathematics teacher. “For me, I’m more of the teacher who teaches. I’m not a paper grader. I also take my time with students. With a success coach, I can slow down, take my time and give more one-on-one.”

Since the program began at Whitehaven in 2014, graduation rates rose from about 75 percent to nearly 93 percent, with the class of 2017 earning $130 million in scholarships. Whitehaven is also the highest-rated public high school in Shelby County,  based on Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS) scores. 

With success coaches making about $12 an hour, U of M students are able to earn some extra money, while gaining direct classroom teaching experience.

Any educator who has been teaching for a length of time will tell you, the only way to know if you’ve truly mastered a subject is to try teaching it to someone else, said Thomas Nenon, dean of the U of M College of Arts & Sciences.

“In learning to be a good tutor and practicing – and we don’t use the word tutor because it goes way beyond content – so in learning to be a success coach, our students are honing their own academic skills,” Nenon said. “On top of that, they are learning to communicate.”

With aligned missions, the Peer Power Institute, which trains the college students who work in SCS classrooms, is housed in the College of Education’s Ball Hall on the U of M campus.

“I am honored and thrilled as the new dean and returning Memphian to be part of this initiative and work,” said Kandi Hill-Clarke, who was hired last year as dean of the U of M College of Education.

This academic year’s quote for the College of Education is from Booker T. Washington, “Excellence is to do a common thing in an uncommon way.”

“The Peer Power program is just that – an impactful program being implemented in an uncommon way,” Hill-Clarke said.  

Since the U of M partnered with Peer Power to launch the Memphis Model in 2015, 34 success coaches have become full-time teachers.

“There’s more to Peer Power than just the classroom model – that’s just the foundation. We realize we can’t help students unless they are academically sound, but we also realize it’s important, imperative and necessary to educate the whole child,” King said.

Peer Power has been largely funded by McVean, but needs investment from the private sector to expand to more SCS classrooms.

If Peer Power can raise $750 a student at a school with 1,000 students, it can put two success coaches in every SCS English, math and science class that is tested in grades 9-12, said Peer Power’s development director Dennis Ring.

Part of the fundraising strategy includes the Big River Crossing Half Marathon + 5K. In its second year, the half-marathon takes runners across the Tennessee-Arkansas border via Big River Crossing, a one-mile pedestrian bridge that spans the Mississippi River.

The race will be held Nov. 3 with all proceeds benefiting the Peer Power Foundation.

“Peer Power is on the cusp of being an absolute role model for the U.S.,” Ring said. “There’s not a person in leadership at the U of M, SCS or Peer Power that doesn’t believe within the next 10 years, Memphis and SCS will be the beacon that other places look for.”

Lischa Brooks, principal of the new East High School T-STEM Academy, researched a variety of statistics about the state of Tennessee and found it to be the fifth least innovative state and in the bottom three for STEM growth.

“When we think about the partnership that started at East High School many years ago, not only are we going to be the battle ground, just as David stood on the battle ground with Goliath, our slingshot is Peer Power and our small smooth, polished and prepared stone is our success coaches,” she said. “We’re about to hurl a stone that will reverberate across the country.”

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Malcom V. Rawls

Peer Power is a phenomenal program that is about bettering the lives of hundreds of students, one day at a time.  The name itself exemplifies how powerful this program is.  Through intensive commitment and dedication, complimented with wise leadership, Peer Power is able to effectively transform the lives of students through education and mentorship.  With the help of Peer Power, these students are able to recognize the unlimited possibilities afforded to them within the community and the world.  Peer Power creates a perpetuating cycle of leadership development that molds the young minds of our future, builds their academic and social skills, and converts them into productive global citizens.  The creed of Peer Power says it all: "mastering reading, writing, and speaking skills lays the foundation for making the future of these young people TEN TIMES BETTER."