The first year of high school is often the most challenging, as freshmen navigate new schools, more difficult classwork, and social developments. Research shows it’s also a critical year for setting students on a path of on-time graduation and long-term success.
In an effort to set freshmen up for success, some schools have created peer mentorship programs, in which older students share advice and help counsel their younger peers as they adjust to new routines.
Often, those programs are powered by seniors who volunteer their time outside of class.
But Cumberland Regional High School’s peer mentorship program in Bridgeton, N.J., is set up as a class for selected freshmen and seniors. Both groups receive course credit for participating.
The setup offers both an incentive for all students to participate and the structure needed to ensure freshmen are getting the most out of their time with the seniors, said Principal Terence Johnson.
The goal is that the mentors act as a “first line of defense” for freshmen when they inevitably encounter new challenges at a new school, according to the school’s principal.
Freshmen have a dedicated peer to turn to if they need help, and they also proactively learn skills that can help them in the classroom and socially.
Johnson shared some insight and tips for starting a for-credit peer mentorship program.
1. Be intentional about the curriculum and grading
Schools looking to establish a for-credit mentorship program will need to pick a curriculum to provide some structure, Johnson said.
At Cumberland Regional, the course is largely focused on character development, and the curriculum is structured around the textbook Role Models: Examples of Character and Leadership by Joseph Hoedel.
The lessons support the program’s overarching goal of providing guidance to freshmen about how to manage day-to-day challenges while also building a strong foundation of academic skills that will help them be successful throughout high school.
The freshmen are also graded on the completion of a handful of projects and presentations about their classwork.
Seniors are graded based on weekly written reflections about working with their freshmen mentees. They’re also graded by their teacher who oversees the class based on the projects they help the freshmen complete, their one-on-one counseling skills during weekly meetings with the freshmen, and a final exam.
It’s difficult to assess the program’s success overall, Johnson said, but Cumberland Regional High monitors how many freshmen who participated have failed classes, been suspended, or been chronically absent from school.
“If these numbers are low across the board, we view their freshman year transition as a successful year,” Johnson said.
Johnson said schools shouldn’t rush the development of a new program.
It could be helpful to find a program already in place at another school to replicate, and ask administrators at that school for guidance, Johnson said.
2. Make sure you recruit the right mentors
While having the right curriculum and grading policies in place can help create structure and give students guidelines for their work together, Johnson said the most important piece of the program is getting the right seniors into the mentorship positions.
It’s a big commitment for seniors, who are preparing for their own life and academic transitions after high school. The incoming freshmen need consistency and intentionality from their mentors, Johnson said, so having a thorough vetting process and clearly communicating the required level of commitment is important.
Cumberland Regional has developed a multi-step process for identifying and selecting its senior mentors. Students who take a peer leadership course as juniors can be recommended by teachers. Others who don’t take the peer leadership class but have maintained at least a “B” average throughout their high school career and have avoided disciplinary problems can be considered.
From the roughly 50 students who make the initial cut, the list is trimmed to about 25 through a series of informational meetings—students can opt out if they aren’t interested or feel it’s too much of a commitment—and interviews.
The interviews are conducted by a panel that includes the principal, the school’s wellness coordinator, teachers, and current senior mentors. The interviewers are looking for candidates who are enthusiastic about the opportunity, empathetic, and successful both academically and socially.
The team has been intentional about making sure the students chosen as senior mentors are diverse and representative of the student body as a whole, Johnson said. That can help the seniors and freshmen connect, and put the mentors in a position where they can understand and support different cultures and backgrounds.
“If you look at who our senior mentors were over the past 10 years, that’s what I’m most proud of—the representation we’ve found and maintained,” Johnson said.
3. Balance quality with the number of students served
Not every freshman who attends Cumberland Regional is able to participate in the mentorship program. Johnson said he has considered expanding the course to the second semester so more students can enroll, but he fears increasing the quantity of classes would decrease the quality.
That’s because by the time the second semester rolls around, seniors are focused on their own transitions to college or a career, and have less time and attention to focus on the freshmen.
Oftentimes, though, the seniors who serve as mentors informally keep in touch with their freshmen throughout the school year, sometimes even after they graduate. The seniors often are the first to volunteer advice or help to freshmen outside of the program, too, Johnson said.
“I think it would actually be more difficult to get high-caliber seniors because by the second semester they really are focusing on that next phase of their own lives,” Johnson said. “So to have the option to still be involved on whatever level they choose after the first semester is helpful.”
As for the freshmen participants, Cumberland Regional currently seeks those who are considered academically “at risk” based on standardized test scores in math and English and assessments from their 8th grade teachers on subjective skills such as students’ ability to stay on task, ask good questions, and effectively manage how they use their classroom time.
4. Empathy is the most important piece
Over the years, Cumberland Regional’s program has grown. The school has received grants that funded training trips for the senior mentors and the installation of a ropes course on campus for bonding exercises. But all of that is just “extra,” said Dane Johnson, a former mentor who was part of the first group of seniors to serve in that role.
Seniors’ and administrators’ empathy for the freshmen has been unwavering over the years, he said. Without that empathy and willingness to try to see situations, challenges, and successes from the perspective of first-year students, the program would struggle, Johnson said.
“The focus is on trying to help these kids, and that’s where the success comes from,” he said. “That can be done anywhere.”