Every School…Safe, Supportive, Engaging, Inspiring Preparing for a new school year: We are hopeful

By Center for Supportive Schools, National Mentoring Resource Center

“This work of deepening connections, of ensuring safety, and building relationships is more important now than ever before…the state of well-being for our children is at a crisis point. Schools cannot do this work alone. This is the work of CSS. Their staff, their commitment to youth voice and community, and to making connections, gives me hope. And it should give all of us hope.” – Christopher Caruso, Managing Director for School-Age Children at Robin Hood and former Senior Executive Director of the NYC DOE’s Office of Community Schools

While many organizations find time to slow down and exhale over the summer, it’s one of the busiest times of the year for the Center for Supportive Schools (CSS). This summer, we are working with approximately 150 faculty and administrators from 60 schools across the country to help them plan for creating safer and more supportive, engaging, and inspiring school environments.  We often start by asking participants to consider the importance of school connectedness.  We do this by bringing them back to the time when they walked in their students’ shoes and had to navigate the challenges of middle and high school.

Participants take turns sharing responses to the following questions:

  • What is one memory you have about a time in school when you felt strongly connected to other students?
  • What is one memory you have about a time in school when you felt strongly disconnected from other students?
  • Think back to someone – an adult or peer – in your school experience who threw you a lifeline. He/she knew you and cared about you, and this person’s caring made a positive difference in your life.

Participants find and name patterns that emerge in their school memories. Inevitably, they are surprised to see the great commonality in their highs and lows of adolescence, despite their diverse backgrounds.

Given all they have been through over the past few years, we can’t help but ask ourselves what our students would say about their own middle and high school experiences. National screenings show that children and teens have struggled emotionally during the pandemic more than any other age group, and researchers suggest that young people may be more likely to experience high rates of depression and anxiety long-term.[i] In a recent survey[ii] of 362 school counselors nationwide by The New York Times, 94 percent said their students continue to show more signs of anxiety and depression than before the pandemic. Eighty-eight percent said students were having more trouble regulating their emotions and almost three-quarters said they were having more difficulty solving conflicts with friends. As Chris Caruso notes, we are at a crisis point.

Helping students recover means first rebuilding safe spaces for students that will help them navigate the trauma they have experienced and implementing stronger systems to meet the social and emotional needs of all students.[iii] A 2021 report by the Christensen Institute states that “more schools should embrace peer networks as both the foundation for helping students rebound from the pandemic, as well as the fuel behind more student-centered support systems in the long run” (5). The report also names CSS’s peer mentoring model, known as Peer Group Connection, as a promising innovation that could make this possible at scale.

PGC supports incoming middle and high school students (9th graders or 6th graders) by immersing them in safe, supportive groups led by older peer mentors. Carefully selected older students (11th and 12th graders in high schools; 8th graders in middle schools) are trained as part of their regular school schedule in a daily, 45-minute leadership development class to become peer mentors and serve as positive role models and group facilitators for their younger peers. Peer mentors work in pairs to co-lead groups of 10 to 14 younger students in regularly scheduled (three to four times per month) sessions in which the younger students participate in engaging, hands-on activities in supportive environments.

Students tell us that this approach works. PGC Leader Dayvon King, Science Skills Center High School in Brooklyn, NY, shared, “I really enjoy being a PGC leader because it allows me to build connections and relationships with the freshmen to make them feel comfortable and safe. PGC Alumni Kenya Carrington, from the Urban Assembly School of Music and Art, told us, “I learned how to be a better listener. Sometimes I would just talk and not give somebody else a chance to express, but now I feel that I’m a better listener. I don’t just hear what they’re saying, I actually try to process so I can fully respond properly.”

Research also indicates that PGC makes a difference. Results consistently demonstrate that we improve students’ academic, social, and emotional skills, resulting in: significantly lower dropout rates; improved grades; fewer discipline referrals; and avoidance of high-risk behaviors.

As we help prepare faculty to return to their schools this year, we are hopeful. We believe that tapping into students’ potential as leaders and mentors can be an effective strategy for  their social and emotional recovery and for helping schools become places where students want to be.

About Center for Supportive Schools

The Center for Supportive Schools (CSS) helps schools become places students want to be. We advance the efforts of schools across the country to develop all students into leaders who help make their schools safer and more supportive, engaging, and inspiring.  Our impact can be seen in the experiences of 425,000 students across 500 schools. www.supportiveschools.org

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