Daniel Oscar, president and CEO of the Center for Supportive Schools, recently talked in a question-and-answer session about how a new program has slashed dropout rates for male students. The Center for Supportive Schools is a nonprofit group that for over 30 years has been guiding schools on establishing the Peer Group Connection curriculum. The program is now functioning in around 120 U.S. high schools, and in 2009 a study at Rutgers University showed very strong results in improving graduation rates.
Q: How does Peer Group Connection work on the ground?
A: The older students are in a leadership class that meets daily, where they develop their own leadership skills. Then a pair of older students meets with the same group of roughly 15 ninth-graders once a week throughout the entire school year, helping ensure those students are succeeding.
The older students are developing in the younger students communication skills, decision-making skills, relationship skills, goal setting, conflict resolution, and time management — all sorts of things that are critical for success in high school.
Perhaps more important than the specific skills, that group becomes a real team. They support each other — not just during those 45 minutes, but also in the hallways and outside of school. It becomes a strong support network.
Q: How many of the freshmen are you able to reach each year?
A: We try to reach 100 percent. But if the school is nervous about diving into the program, we encourage them to use a random assortment. What we do not do is try to target those who are at greater risk, or those who are most likely to succeed. We want very mixed groupings. But typically it's all the freshmen.
Q: How do you go about selecting the groups of 15?
A: We try to ensure diversity within the group. So for example at a high school you may have five middle schools that serve as feeder schools, and those five middle schools are each in different neighborhoods. So you may have neighborhood cliques in high school. So what we would not want to have 15 freshmen all from the same neighborhood. One of the hallmarks of the program is to get students to talk to each other and support each other who may not normally mix were it not for the program.
Q: By the time a kid is 14, if he is going to be involved in gang activity, he already is. How do these dynamics work when kids are already coming in with some baggage?
A: Kids often join gangs because they want to be part of a supportive group and they aren’t getting that in other areas of their lives. We do find that this is transformative, that is evidenced by some of the research about kids staying in school. We don't have specific research where kids say, “I was in a gang, but I dropped out of the game because of Peer Group Connection." But it is our strong hypothesis that by offering the support structures within a school we are in a positive way doing some of what kings do in a negative way.
Q: Tell me about the Rutgers study that brought dramatic results in helping kids finish high school.
A: The federal government funded Rutgers University to conduct a study of the implementation of this program at an urban school, where approximately one third of the freshmen participated in PGC. They watched what happened to the kids five years later and found a 10-percentage point difference in graduation. But among males, the dropout rate was cut by half, with a dropout rate of 37 percent declining to 19 percent, almost a 50 percent decline.
Q: That is a startling result.
A: It is. We've been applying for funding to replicate this study in 10 additional schools, because you have to take any one study with a grain of salt. But those results are quite remarkable. And while we know our program is very effective, we were frankly surprised that the outcome was so strong.
Q: Tell me how you go about building the program in a new school.
A: We begin by working with a leadership team at the school, the principal, guidance counselors and other key people. With this group, we try to figure out how we are going to carve out time in the schedule. That's harder to do than it may sound. We also help the leadership team sell the community on this program, and we want the leadership team to take ownership of it so they can continue running it in perpetuity.
We help them select the faculty who will teach the leadership course for the older students. Then we get these teachers the equivalent of 11 days of training over an 18-month period, both at the school and at conferences. Then we are onsite at the school about once a month.
Q: Is there a program to audit and troubleshoot participating schools on an ongoing basis?
A: We have done a little of that, and we are planning on doing much more of that, including the audit, certifying schools as Peer Group Connection schools. But we are only just getting started with that. For the most part, we had let schools run it as they see fit after the first two years.