Peer Power influencing high school students, mentors

January 14th, 2019

By Toni Lepeska | The Daily Memphian

A nonprofit organization credited with helping raise Whitehaven High School’s graduation rate by 14 percent in three years expects to take its innovative approach to more schools soon.

It’s got a perfectly descriptive name – Peer Power.

The organization, in partnership with the University of Memphis and Shelby County Schools, recruits, trains and employs U of M college students to work alongside teachers in classrooms. The “success coaches” include graduates of the high schools to which they return, giving younger students an up-close illustration that they, too, can go on to college and become successful.

While reducing the student-to-adult ratio, the coaches serve as tutors and mentors. They obtain valuable experience, earn income and encourage high schoolers to stretch themselves.

“It’s not just about academics,” said Thomas Nenon, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at U of M. “It’s training students to be successful people. With someone their age in the classroom, they think, ‘That could be me. With a little work, I could be that person, too.’ ”

Peer Power and the university have been in partnership five years. The organization’s administrative staff recently moved into the College of Education building, Ball Hall, on the U of M campus.

Officials plan to ramp up recruitment of success coaches, who work nine to 15 hours a week earning up to $15.50 an hour. Dr. Kandi Hill-Clarke, the education department dean, called the arrangement a “win-win” for the coaches, the younger students and for the community.

Memphis philanthropist Charles McVean sparked the idea. McVean’s mother was an East High School graduate and taught in a one-room school house, according to Peer Power’s community development director, Dennis Ring. McVean put forth initial funding, and philanthropic efforts continue to provide for Peer Power operations alongside funding from U of M and SCS.

The alliance of the three partners is called The Memphis Model. While Peer Power was launched at East High, it was at Whitehaven High that The Memphis Model was fully implemented, Ring said.

Peer Power came to Whitehaven High in 2014, when the graduation rate was 77 percent, according to the U of M. By 2017, Whitehaven’s graduation rate was at 91 percent, the highest rate of any public high school of comparable size in Memphis. The model also has been implemented at East and Kingsbury high schools, where attendance and graduation rates have increased.

“The economic impact of a non-graduate is profound,” said Ring, explaining the transformative power of The Memphis Model in local schools. “We can replicate this and it’s scalable.”

Grant Ransom, 23, a U of M graduate student from Union City, Tennessee, became a success coach at Whitehaven High in August 2017. One of his jobs was assisting high-schoolers – who thought college was “only for AP honor students” – to write and apply to institutions. The students received favorable responses and now “they have a reason to study and try hard,” he said.

Kelse Matthews, a psychology major from Arkansas, began coaching at ACT Prep University three years ago. She helped one student who had been repeatedly disciplined to focus on his studies by tapping into his desire to play drums. He wasn’t allowed to perform unless he behaved well and achieved a passing grade, but troubles at home were pulling him down. He acted out.

“I was able to be a listening ear for him to vent about his home life,” Matthews said. “He would give me his drumsticks to hold during class, so he would not use them as a distraction.”

In nine weeks, he went from a failing grade to a passing grade, and he had fewer behavior issues.

The experience changed Matthews, too. The senior decided to apply to educational psychology graduate programs to continue to research the best ways to motivate children to succeed.

Several college students who weren’t previously education majors have decided to pursue classroom and student work after having served as coaches, officials say.

This year, Peer Power’s goal is to reach more SCS students – about 4,000 of them. To do that it needs more success coaches, thus, recruitment efforts will be bolstered. Officials expect to launch Peer Power at two additional schools in the near future. Ring didn’t yet want to identify the schools.

The Memphis Model, designed for grades nine through 12, also will need continued funding. In a school of 1,000 students, for example, Peer Power would cost $750 per student.

“I can’t think of a better investment, a better value, the gift of education,” Ring said.

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Cortney C. Richardson

I am a Native Memphian, East High Graduate, and University of Memphis Alumnus who takes pride in being able to say that I serve where I was raised. As a Peer Power Program Director, I have the opportunity to impact the lives of students who share similar beginnings as I do. These scholars benefit greatly from my experience as a student leader during college, my years of international travel as a gospel singer, and my lifelong dedication to GOD and my local church. I am a walking billboard of what is possible regardless of where you come from. It is from this philosophy, that I work to create, grow, and sustain programs that help hone youth into the people they were created to be. I started with Peer Power at its inception and I am honored to continue through our glory days.