Seattle high school uses peer mentoring to prevent truancy, dropouts

Seattle’s Cleveland High School is experimenting with new approaches to truancy and dropout prevention, banking on the power of peer influence. Last school year, Cleveland High developed a pilot and peer mentoring project aimed at supporting high school freshmen who appeared to be at risk for dropping out in partnership with Youth Ambassadors (YA). Youth Ambassadors represent a diverse community of committed and inspiring teens ranging from sixth graders to university students. This group of young leaders strives to connect to their communities by influencing issues and others with the power of compassion.

The project at Cleveland High School is unique in that it is embedded in a structured, for-credit class, which meets during the regular school day, with YA providing the class facilitator/instructor.  Mentors are high school juniors and seniors who sign up for a year-long course that blends classroom-based instruction with service-learning. 

Outside of the classroom, students get hands-on experience to put knowledge, skills and values into practice by attending school board meetings, press conferences including an invitation by Wash. State Governor Jay Inslee.

The course is achieving positive youth outcomes for both mentors and mentees. For the older youth, the overarching goal is to develop knowledgeable, compassionate, and skilled mentors who learn to apply problem-solving, advocacy and leadership skills to benefit their younger peers. The course also provides opportunities for exploring careers in education and youth development. 

For freshman mentees, the goal is to offer structured, peer-guided information and support that increases mentees’ sense of connection to school and, ultimately, improves their attendance. According to the National Mentoring Partnership, students who meet regularly with their mentors are 37 percent less likely than their peers to skip a class, and are 52 percent less likely than their peers to skip a day of school.

Mentors spend the first semester learning about student engagement and other education-related topics from YA staff and guest speakers from the community. They also participate in extensive in-class exercises, such as role-playing, to develop the skills they need to be an effective “near-peer” mentor and advocate for their mentee. 

“As a mentor, I have created a relationship with my mentee for me to understand his struggles and it was really important for me to guide and prepare him for the next few years of high school,” said Youth Ambassador Elizabeth Cachuela. “Through the past few months that I have mentored him, I’m really proud of the hard work he put into his education and I feel really flattered that he looks up to me as his older sister.”

Early this year, Youth Ambassadors Hannah Rosen, Olivia Smith and Brittany Villars, were invited to attend the 3rd Annual America’s Promise Alliance Grad Nation Summit in Washington D.C. When they returned the students shared information they gained at the Grad Nation Summit with their fellow mentors at Cleveland High School, infusing the peer-mentoring project with additional energy and ideas.

One of the ideas they brought back from the Summit was to give their mentees a graduation cap for the students to hold onto until they graduate. On the last day of class, ninth grade mentees wrote their goals and dreams inside the cap.

For the 2013-14 school year, mentors will start teaching effective attendance lessons in the 9th and 10th grade advisory classes, presenting lessons once a week, with the intention of replicating the class in subsequent years, and across the state.

“I personally have been a mentee, now that I am on the other side of the fence and became the mentor, it’s one of the most humbling experiences I’ve ever had. I feel like I’ve made a difference,” said Rosalyn Jaramillo, when she was a Cleveland High School senior and Youth Ambassador. “Knowing that I am helping someone learn to work hard in school, step out of her comfort zone and ask for help, utilize her resources, understand how important getting to class on time is and the effects of truancy, helping someone to feel more confident and getting them to believe that there is someone who sees their greatest potential, there couldn’t be anything better!”

Youth Ambassadors was originally envisioned as a series of time-limited youth leadership activities associated with the 2008 Dalai Lama’s visit to Seattle for the Seeds of Compassion conference. The students were so transformed by the experience, they wanted to continue working together. In 2009 Youth Ambassadors received a call for help from the King County Prosecutors’ office to assist with truancy workshops where under Washington law, a truancy petition is filed in juvenile court for any truant student. Youth Ambassadors took on a partnership with Seattle Public Schools to serve as peer counselors for truant students and guide them through a truancy reduction plan.