Peer Power Sends 70 New Success Coaches into Shelby County Schools

July 23rd, 2019


Darnesha Cummings is heading into her freshman year at the University of Memphis. But her heart might just end up being at Ridgeway High, where two mornings a week, she’ll arrive with the buses to help students with math.

Monday, Cummings, 18, and 69 of her new best friends got the VIP treatment – a catered dinner at the University of Memphis, praise from dignitaries and a whole lot of applause from the Peer Power team for completing training for a part-time job that puts them on the point of the spear when it comes to changing Memphis.

In the midst of it all was Charlie McVean, the retired commodities trader who dreamed up Peer Power back in the early 2000s and for years was its principal – if not only – investor.

“I’m a significant investor, but no longer the majority. Thank God,” he said with a wry smile. “There is no limit to how big this thing can get.”

McVean also was the driving force for building Big River Crossing, the longest pedestrian bridge over the Mississippi River.

Cummings and dozens of returning Success Coaches, as they are called, will be working on McVean’s dream in five Shelby County Schools.

Ridgeway is new this year. So is Douglass High. The others are East, Whitehaven and Kingsbury high schools.

Their job is to be the second and third set of hands in a classroom, reducing the adult-to-student ratio from 1:30 to 1:10, and pushing up ACT scores and graduation rates in the process.

Together, the roughly 160 coaches will provide 2,200 hours of coaching a week in SCS.

“I have a little brother who failed a class,” Cummings said. “I helped him at home, and the next year he passed. I realized I could help others.”

Cummings is also a graduate of Whitehaven High, where Peer Power is an integral part of the culture. She benefited from the tutoring and was one of its $1 million scholars, which means the total of the money she was offered to go to college topped $1 million.

“I wouldn’t be here without Peer Power,” she said. “I’ve had the Peer Power experience.”

She is assigned to Ridgeway, where she will help with math two mornings a week. Peer Power will pay her $11.50 an hour. As she progresses, she will be able to move up to $15.50, the top of the scale.

“It will make a difference in my finances,” she said.

Beyond the money, the coaches benefit too, said Dennis Ring, Peer Power’s community development director.

“About 83% of our Success Coaches are graduating in five years or less compared to the national average of about 50% in six years,” Ring said.

Peer Power has an administrator in school to manage the flow of personnel coming in and out each day.

“The Success Coaches will be in the same class with the same teacher at the same time each week," Ring said. "They will work anywhere from 9-18 hours a week. If you are a grad student, you may have an opportunity to work more. If you are a freshman, you may not.”

McVean launched Peer Power in 2004 at East and Whitehaven as an after-school, peer-tutoring program. It moved the needle on test scores, but it was hard to determine how much because the participants were generally motivated to achieve.

“After-school made it seem optional,” Ring said. “We weren’t getting every student. But what we saw was the students getting help were graduating and going to college.”

Peer Power is based in Ball Hall at the University of Memphis. This year, for the first time, the university is offering federal work study to Peer Power coaches, opening up off-campus jobs that tend to get noticed on resumes and have led more than one Peer Power coach to change their major to education.

“For many in our community, the University of Memphis is the opportunity to earn a college degree or a graduate degree and make their lives better,” Tom Nenon, executive vice president for academic affairs, told a lunch crowd Monday.

“As you change the lives of those families, you are changing our communities.”

In 2014, with the U of M and SCS on board, Peer Power dissolved the after-school model, gave interested college students a background in education philosophy and how to recognize the effects of low self-esteem on the learning process and dispatched them to schools.

Three years later, with data it could analyze, SCS put money in the pot. This year, its second year on Peer Power’s budget sheet, SCS is investing $1.3 million in what is now a $3.8 million annual budget.

“We used the data to be more strategic,” said Angela Whitelaw, SCS deputy superintendent. “Now, we’ve got the coaches in ACT preparation and in classes with an end-of-year exam.”

In high school, those are classes like English I, II, Algebra I, II, geometry, biology and U.S. history. Without passing scores, students can’t graduate. If they stay, they become part of Memphis’s under-educated workforce and generally a poverty statistic.

Sylvia Barnes is working on Ph.D. in African-American literature at the U of M. She’s a returning Success Coach frankly because she loves being a change agent.

“You see it when certain students actually stop and listen. Or they say they are going to come to ACT Prep class after school and they actually show up,” Barnes said, a smile lighting up her face.

“Then you know.”

It was always McVean’s strategy to pay the tutors. The idea grew after a casual conversation with a waitress at Perkins restaurant who impressed the daylights out of him with her wit and ambition.

He gave her a $10 tip and drove home thinking how much more could be done if she were making $10 an hour helping another student.

Monday, he was praised as one of the city’s unsung heroes, a quiet champion, Whitelaw said, not unlike Mahalia Jackson, whose unseen prompting in the back of Mason Temple the night before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated is the reason many believe he spoke of having a dream.

“Without her, there wouldn’t have been a dream speech,” Whitelaw said.

And without McVean, she said, “there would be no Peer Power. If we do this work right; if we get the right people, we can all uplift someone in our city.”

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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.