Sharon Rose Powell’s peer-mentoring program, which she designed as a doctoral student at Rutgers, helps high school students navigate peer pressure and become effective leaders.
Ninth grade is a perilous year, a transitional time when the intimidating impersonality of big high schools can leave once-engaged students struggling and alienated.
“We seem to lose them,” says Sharon Rose Powell. “They don’t have a sense of belonging; they’re lost. And that’s when they’re most vulnerable to older kids and the influence of some pretty negative peer pressure.”
As a middle school teacher in Princeton, New Jersey, in the early 1970s, Powell GSE’83 saw the phenomenon firsthand, when her former students returned to visit and described their disaffection with high school. While studying for a doctorate at Rutgers’ Graduate School of Education, Powell came up with an antidote to that disaffection: positive peer pressure
Her program, Peer Group Connection, matched groups of ninth-graders with high school seniors trained in leadership for a yearlong series of weekly mentoring sessions. Since its launch at Princeton High School in 1979, the program has been implemented in more than 175 schools—urban and suburban, public and private.
A four-year Rutgers study published in 2013 found Peer Group Connection significantly reduced dropout rates at a poor urban high school. But even affluent schools suffer from the ills that the program targets, like bullying, substance abuse, and absenteeism, Powell says.
“Kids that live in urban communities who are living in poverty are significantly at risk, but so are white suburban kids,” she says. “They’re different kinds of risk, but they’re all at risk.”
Now retired from the Center for Supportive Schools, the nonprofit she founded to promote her program, Powell works as a clinical psychologist in Princeton, counseling adolescents and families.
Graduates of Peer Group Connection tell her that their training in teamwork, communication, and collaboration has enriched their adult lives, providing insights that apply to everything from running businesses to building strong family relationships. That social competence comes in handy in any field, Powell says.
“Some of our leaders in government today—it’s too bad they weren’t peer leaders,” Powell says. “Everyone in Congress could benefit from peer-leadership training.”