Peer support, a recipe for success

By 
  • June 5, 2009
{mosimage}TORONTO - At Neil McNeil High School the popular phrase of “youth empowering youth” is taken seriously.

Not only are senior students at the all-boys school motivated to lead by example as big brothers helping the junior students socially and emotionally, but they have also helped their peers shine academically through their peer support program which recently won their school’s leadership team a Premiers’ Award for Teaching Excellence.

The program was developed several years ago after the school partnered with the Search Institute, a non-profit action research organization in the United States. Search provides leadership, knowledge, resources and a framework of developmental assets as a way to assess the health and well-being of young people.

In the past few years, interest in the Grade 11 leadership course has skyrocketed. This year, 100 students enrolled.

“The leadership program is something everyone wants to be a part of,” said 17-year-old Kenneth Allcilja. “And it led me to want to pursue something more so I ran for student council last year.”

Allcilja is the student council’s vice president.

After training with teachers, the senior leaders who took the Grade 11 leadership course are paired with Grade 9 students as tutors or social mentors. The Grade 9’s get to build a brotherly relationship with their student leader during a three-day orientation camp experience during the first week of school.

“There are many students who need help but are too afraid or embarrassed to ask,” said Daniel McLachlan, 16, who saw the leadership course as an opportunity to further develop the leadership skills he gained in elementary school. But as a bonus, he discovered that the peer program introduced him to students he normally wouldn’t have associated with or had just never met.

“I got to know how alike we really all are — that we’re not so different as it might seem.”

Michael Fellin, the school’s vice principal, said the program has completely changed the culture of the school. The studies done in partnership with the Search Institute helped key in on important issues.

“We became more intentional in understanding the lives of our kids,” said Fellin. “We found the kids’ lives today are increasingly more complex from what we were as kids.”

Based on their surveying, the school has been able to offer programs, activities and themes throughout the year that help the students flourish as leaders. This past year, for example, the school looked at assets and positive values that relate to genuine masculinity, Fellin said, and examples in the media where masculinity is distorted. But with the seniors relating the topics, the resulting attitudes are stronger and more positive.

“It is much more effective to have a senior saying that a man needs to treat a woman with respect,” he said.

Fellin said that five years ago, only 54 per cent of their Grade 9 students got by without failing a single subject. Now, that percentage is at an all-time high of 96 per cent.

“We find a far more effective way to drive academic success is to promote relationships,” Fellin said. “It’s way more effective than a unit taught with passion, although that is important.”

Dan-Lee Athill, a Grade 12 student who took the leadership course last year, would never have seen himself where he is today. Having transferred to Neil McNeil in Grade 10, he began as one of the tutored. He soon found himself flourishing academically. His average in math, he said, shot upwards from a 36 to a 96. 

“It wasn’t all about being tutored but about always having someone there to help me out,” Athill said. “It’s not the teachers giving you everything here — it’s the youth trying to empower you to be better.” 

Athill has spoken about the program in front of thousands at the board’s annual student leaders conference for teachers and youth and was selected as a counsellor at the orientation camp.

“It does change the way I view things,” he said. “Now I look at myself as an older brother and you know if you’re doing something positive or negative it will have an effect, so you keep yourself at a higher point than normal. As a leader you have higher expectations for yourself because the younger students look up to you.”

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