When Dane Johnson was a high school senior, he had no idea what he wanted to study in college or what career he might want to pursue.
But he was a good student, and he didn’t need to know what came next to be a part of his school’s mentorship program, which tasks seniors with helping to guide incoming freshman through what can be a difficult transition.
That was a life-changing decision for Johnson, who said his experience mentoring younger students seven years ago is what inspired him to pursue a degree and career in child psychology.
“I genuinely don’t think I’d be where I am now, pursuing this career path, if I didn’t choose to do mentoring when I was in high school,” said Johnson, who is now in his final year of a graduate program at Rowan University in New Jersey. “It taught me so much about helping younger students with their day-to-day issues, and being empathetic.”
Johnson was among the first groups of seniors to to serve as mentors in a peer mentorship program Cumberland Regional High School in Bridgeton, N.J., that started about a decade ago.
Since then, hundreds of seniors and freshmen have been paired up for the program, in which the younger students are matched with high-performing seniors who mentor them through their transition to high school.
The program is unique in that it is a class for which both groups of students—freshmen and seniors—receive class credit. For freshmen, it’s a general course. For the seniors, it is an honors-level elective.
The idea for the program was born 11 years ago, when the superintendent at the time was reviewing research about how critical the first year of high school is for students’ long-term success.
Research shows freshman year is often the most challenging socially and academically. The highest course failure rates generally occur in 9th grade. And students who fail freshman year are, at best, about half as likely to graduate as their peers who post better grade point averages.
That summer, the superintendent asked Principal Terence Johnson, Dane’s father, to start a mentoring program at the start of the next school year. There were no parameters or guidelines.
“I thought it was a real daunting task,” Terence Johnson said.
But soon after, he saw a presentation about a program he thought his school could replicate. He and other administrators visited the school once a month over the following year, sitting in on classes and interviewing participants.
He launched Cumberland Regional’s mentorship course the following fall, a bit behind schedule but with a more fully formed program.
How participating students are graded
The patience has paid off.
Initially, the course had three sections of about 60 freshmen total, but has since grown to four sections with a total of 80 to 100 freshmen. In each section, several seniors are assigned a group of freshmen to serve as their mentors. The students who are selected spend an 84-minute block together every day for the first semester.
“By being with them for 84 minutes every single day, you have a hand in really shaping the beginning of their high school career,” said Johnson, the principal.
The overall goal is for the seniors to provide guidance to their younger peers about day-to-day stressors and challenges, but also teach the incoming students important academic skills, including study habits and techniques, organization, time management, goal setting, conflict resolution, interview preparation, and notetaking.
The curriculum is based on the book “Role Models: Examples of Character and Leadership” by Joseph M. Hoedel, which links a famous person to a quality of character and leadership, and has a series of assignments about that characteristic. For example, Martin Luther King Jr. may be the example for “composure,” or Amelia Earhart may be the example for “bravery,” Johnson said.
The freshmen also complete projects throughout the semester. They use a college- and career-readiness program called Naviance, which analyzes students’ skills and interests to identify possible future careers. Students then do a research project about those potential careers and present their findings to the class.
Perhaps the most popular project is what Johnson calls the “role model project,” in which the freshmen write a letter to somebody in their life who has been a positive influence. Then, the students invite their chosen role models to an assembly recognizing them for the impact they’ve had on students’ lives.
“That one’s a real tear jerker,” Johnson said. “The concept is, you need to stop in life and appreciate the people who have helped you.”
Seniors are graded based on weekly “written reflections,” in which they reflect on their week and progress with their freshmen. They also receive grades from 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.
A rigorous process for choosing good mentors—and mentees
Not every student is a good fit for a mentorship position, so recruiting and choosing the right mentors is the most important part of the program.
So, Johnson and his team have created a multi-part vetting process that starts when students are juniors.
Juniors who take a a “peer leadership” course may 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.
Staff members recommend rising seniors who don’t take the peer leadership class as either a “one” designation, meaning they’re a “definite” candidate, or a “two,” meaning they are a possible choice.
In total, usually about 50 students make it on to a preliminary list of candidates, Johnson said.
Through a series of meetings and interviews with Johnson, then with a panel that includes Johnson, the school’s wellness coordinator, teachers, and current senior mentors, the list shrinks to about 25 senior mentors.
The final list of 25 rising seniors chosen as mentors participate in three days of mandatory training in the summer. After receiving a grant, the school recently purchased a ropes course for its campus that the seniors use in their training and later with freshmen for team building and bonding exercises.
“One of the things that we tell our senior mentors is that the class is not academically rigorous, but it is emotionally rigorous because now you’re not just responsible for yourself,” Johnson said. “You’re responsible for two or three other freshmen and now … their success means something to you, and them not doing well means something to you.”
The process to select the freshmen who participate is just as rigorous, with students needing to meet multiple criteria to be considered eligible for the program.
Those criteria include receiving a recommendation for the program from a staff member such as a guidance counselor, being considered academically “at risk” based on standardized test scores in math and English, and receiving a lower score from their 8th grade teachers on assessments of their subjective skills—such as ability to stay on task, ask good questions, and effectively manage how they use their classroom time.
One of the things that we tell our senior mentors is that the class is not academically rigorous, but it is emotionally rigorous because now you're not just responsible for yourself.
‘The focus is on trying to help these kids’
Principal Johnson said he has toyed with the idea of expanding the course to span the entire academic year or to include more sections so every incoming freshman can participate. It’s a good idea in theory, he said, but not so much in practice.
“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.”
Regardless of the program’s size, it’s a success if it helps even just a portion of students feel more comfortable in high school or develop new or better academic and social skills, he said. 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.
Dane Johnson said he believes more schools should set up freshman mentorship programs like his former high school’s because they benefit both the freshmen and seniors involved.
And he said schools with fewer resources shouldn’t be discouraged from giving it a try.
“When I was in it, it really didn’t have all that much—the bigger budget and all that has come more recently, which is great, but I think it’s been so successful because, overall ... the focus is on trying to help these kids, and that’s where the success comes from. That can be done anywhere.”