Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness

Student Peer Leadership Can Help Boost School Climate

By Sarah D. Sparks — January 04, 2013 8 min read
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Elvira Quintero and Brander S. Suero come across as effortlessly top-clique at Central Park East High School here. Composed and direct with adults, flocked to by other students in the halls, maxing out on their allowed Advanced Placement courses, and with applications in hand for college after graduation, they seem natural school leaders.

Yet like the achievements of Central Park East itself—recently honored by New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s Expanded Success Initiative for its “college-going culture"—the students’ success belies unpromising beginnings and years of struggle. Both seniors are part of the school’s College Summit peer-leaders program, which Principal Bennett Lieberman credits with helping administrators and teachers think differently about their students’ potential: not test scores, but resilience and connection to other students as the earmarks of future achievement.

“It was a huge culture change,” Lieberman says referring to the school’s decision to develop a college-going climate. “We’ve taken a lot of risks. I consider it the best decision I’ve made.”

That sort of transformation is no surprise to College Summit’s founder, J.B. Schramm. In the 1990s, while working in an after-school program for teenagers in a housing project in Washington, where the group is based, Schramm “saw firsthand how an influential student could influence other kids a hundred times more than I could,” he recalls.

“If you’re going to change the school’s culture, you need to find the influencers,” he says. “Most of the time, [top academic students] aren’t the most influential; often, other students look at the academic superstars and think they are from another planet.”

Research shows that building a safe and supportive school climate is often a critical, but overlooked, component of improving academic achievement and behavior. Likewise, the students themselves are often the missing factor for schools developing a plan to improve school climate.

Reducing Apathy

Central Park East High School’s evolution from an apathetic, low-achieving school to one with a college-going culture highlights how educators can put students at the center of a reform strategy.

The school sits at 106th and Madison Avenue, squarely in Spanish Harlem and blocks that could be light years away from the luxury tourist and advertising magnets farther down the avenue. In 2004, the school had a lot less energy, recalls Lieberman, who took over as principal in 2005. It had 270 students—little more than a third of the class of 2004 graduated—and only 200 rising 8th graders had asked to enroll there as part of the city’s school-matching program. Attrition was high among both students and teachers.

And the school had lost millions of dollars in federal education funding under the Title I program for disadvantaged students—"not because the students had gotten less poor, but because school officials hadn’t bothered to send in the paperwork,” Lieberman says. “The school was in severe disarray.”

After re-establishing Title I funding, he decided to forgo a disciplinary dean in favor of hiring three guidance counselors and a social worker to start pitching students on going to college. At first, the staff members had trouble getting traction, says Joanna T. Nowlan, the first guidance counselor-cum-college-adviser to come on board.

“It was a challenge to be brought on to promote the college-going culture, because there wasn’t any,” she says. “It was me basically chasing the students around, interest was so low. The majority had credits to graduate, but they were 65s [their grade averages], and I couldn’t get one kid to take a class they didn’t need for graduation.

“They’d laugh when I brought them in and tried to make them do things” to prepare for college, Nowlan says, such as choosing schools or applying for financial aid.

Selection Process

A fellow principal suggested that Lieberman partner with College Summit, which identifies and trains student “peer leaders” to prepare for their own higher education and help their classmates do the same. Rather than focus on top academic performers and those who participated best in class, the program looked for the students whom other students most often turned to for help or advice—even when administrators were dubious.

A panel that includes Nowlan, another guidance counselor, and two teachers selects 11th graders to become peer leaders in their senior year; more than a third of the junior class last year applied. Prospective peer leaders each write an essay on why they want the position and go through two rounds of interviews.

Brander S. Suero, at back, is a peer leader in his AP English class at Central Park East High School. Earlier in high school, he struggled with his grades and behavior, but was tapped to take part in the College Summit peer-leadership program. Now he and other students who once seemed longshots for graduation work to help fellow students boost their performance.

In 10th grade, both Quintero and Suero looked as if they could as easily be on track to drop out as go to college.

Nowlan says Quintero was different before being named a peer leader: shy and quiet, stressed by her father’s long illness, and struggling with the increase in workload from middle to high school. “Elvira, when I thought of peer leader, I wouldn’t have thought of her off the bat,” Nowlan says.

But selecting peer leaders has forced Nowlan and her colleagues to “take the time to see the whole student and not just the grades,” she says.

Similarly, says Lieberman: “I’m glad I wasn’t the one making the decisions. ... Brander had a horrible year last year, and I probably would have been like, ‘I don’t know.’ ”

Suero and his younger brothers live with his grandmother, the family’s sole breadwinner though she has less than a middle school education. He says his father floats in and out of the picture, and his mother is still in his native Dominican Republic.

“I knew I wanted to go to college, because I knew it was the only way to help my family and get out of this present environment,” he says. But he says he started to feel overwhelmed in 10th grade; his grades tumbled, and he started to get into fights.

Since becoming a peer leader, Suero says, “sometimes, I’ll want to argue with someone, but I think to myself: I’m a peer leader, I have to be a role model.”

Good Bets

Throughout the school, bets on peer leaders have paid off in spades; there are 13 peer leaders this year, based on the school’s funding from the national College Summit, and the school has created 20 of its own “peer group connection” leaders in the 11th grade.

During the summer, the College Summit peer leaders had help from university professors on college-application essays, and they have developed lesson plans and projects throughout the year with Wendy Lehman, an English teacher and the leader of the college-preparation class. During one class in October, Quintero and other peer leaders talked their classmates through revising their personal statements in preparation for sending out college applications.

They also keep an eye out for their peers who seem to be falling behind. Suero recalls early in the semester pulling aside a fellow 12th grader who had not started applying to college.

“She said, she didn’t know, because nobody in her family went to college, but I said, ‘You are different, because you have all these friends who believe in you.’ ” He helped her finish writing a personal essay for the City University of New York.

All the peer leaders have brought their own grades above 80 percent, too. “We are role models for the rest of the class, so if you are just messing around and you don’t get good grades, you’re not going to be a peer leader,” Suero says.

Peer leadership has even helped the top academic students in some unexpected ways, Nowlan says: “We had a student who is very, very bright and had never been rejected for anything before, but we couldn’t take her. She’s not a team player, not looking out for the guy next to her—just not nurturing.

“I’ve really seen a big change in her this year,” Nowlan says. “She’s more connected to other people. She was always involved in really petty drama, and I don’t see that anymore.”

Demand for Seats

Central Park East now has nearly 1,000 students applying for 120 slots in its next freshman class. The school screens applicants based on their 7th grade GPAs and attendance, but unlike every other screened program in the city, it does not select students based on standardized-test scores. As the school has increased graduation rates and added advanced classes, “we’ve made ourselves an attractive, high-interest program, and we get a lot more applicants and students who want to be here,” Lieberman says.

See Also

Read a related Quality Counts story: Social-Emotional Needs Entwined with Students’ Learning, Security

The school was one of 40 New York City schools recognized in 2012 for increasing graduation rates for black and Hispanic boys; the graduation rate for the class of 2011 was 85.4 percent, up 48.9 percentage points since 2004 and nearly 5 percent from 2010 to 2011. Likewise, when the school first began tracking its college enrollment, only 21 percent of students did so; last year, based on data from the National Student Clearinghouse, College Summit reported that 62 percent of the school’s 2011-12 graduating class enrolled in college.

The racial and ethnic profile of the school’s 465 students is about 60 percent Hispanic, 35 percent black, and 5 percent other groups, mainly Asian. More than eight out of 10 students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

The peer-leader program has now been in place five years, and the school has built on College Summit’s framework by adding junior-year peer leaders and student mentors for every incoming freshman.

“Having peer leaders to represent the school and the college culture—having them come in motivated and serious about their futures—helped to stabilize things,” Lieberman says. “It’s becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy: On academics, every year we add new layers of difficulty to the kids’ programs, and our experience is they are rising to meet us.”

Coverage of school climate and student behavior and engagement is supported in part by grants from the Atlantic Philanthropies, the NoVo Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, and the California Endowment.

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