Imagine it: Memphis students helping their fellow students make better grades and, in the process, substantially boosting standardized test scores and overall academic performance – a feat school officials have been trying to accomplish for years.
Thanks to a fresh student-to-student tutoring approach spearheaded by the Memphis-based Peer Power Foundation, that’s exactly what’s happening at eight schools throughout the Mid-South and Mississippi. And if the foundation’s leadership team has its way, that level of success will one day shape more schools across the state and eventually even the nation.
Senior Zach Matthews tutors fellow students Raarious Anderson and LaDia Key as part of the tutoring program for Memphis-based Peer Power Foundation.
(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)
“The Peer Power program employs our high-achieving high school students as mentors and tutors to our struggling students,” said Meah King, English teacher and Peer Power facilitator at East High School. “We target social as well as academic issues so we can help the whole child.”
The privately funded Peer Power Foundation hires and trains high-performing students to tutor groups of two or three lower-performing students, called scholars, who eventually grow to become tutors themselves, perpetuating a cycle of leadership in each school.
“It’s been the most amazing experience I’ve ever had,” said Andrew Morrow, 15, a Peer Power scholar at East High. “I feel so safe around Peer Power tutors. They know where I’m coming from. They sit down and take the time with you to let you figure out what you need to until you get it right.”
Competition and incentives help fuel the progress. The tutors and their students join teams, each of which includes a team captain, four other tutors and 10 to 12 scholars. Through quizzes, grades, ACT scores, projects, attendance and good conduct, teams compete for prizes such as financial rewards, movie tickets, field trips and more. In addition, the tutors are paid up to $10.50 an hour.
Each Peer Power chapter is independently managed by the school’s principal and facilitated by Faculty Champions, teachers who are financially compensated to oversee all Peer Power activities.
Peer Power is the brainchild of Memphis entrepreneur and philanthropist Charlie McVean, chairman and CEO of McVean Trading & Investments LLC, who founded the after-school program in 2005. Troubled by a visit to his alma mater, East High School – which he described as “on the brink of chaos” at the time – McVean resolved to do something about the city’s declining school conditions. Inspiration struck over a cup of coffee at Perkins restaurant.
“A nice young lady was waiting on me,” McVean said. “I asked her if she was a student, and she told me she was going to be a senior and she planned to go to the University of California and go to medical school. I thought, ‘If there are a few of these students out there, what if I gathered them up and paid them $10 an hour to tutor other kids?’”
The idea continued to evolve as McVean reflected on the life of his mother, who taught in a one-room schoolhouse in Missouri.
“It was a wonderful process for the older kids teaching the younger kids,” he said.
While school systems have changed significantly since then, the essence of school culture has not. A student’s peers still play a strong role in shaping his values and expectations. When a program such as Peer Power replaces negative peer influences with positive ones, such as recognition, esteem and support, most teenagers will thrive.
“You have young people who have been through the same life cycle as the kids they’re helping,” said Bill Sehnert, executive director of the Peer Power Foundation. “And there’s a huge difference between older people preaching at them and other younger people helping them.”
The pay doesn’t hurt either. With its performance-based monetary compensation, Peer Power puts tutors on the road to successful careers by instilling values of professionalism, teamwork and a solid work ethic.
McVean said when he first approached EHS with the idea, school officials balked. He attributes the eventual acceptance and evolution of Peer Power to the help of Margaret Taylor, former East High teacher and Grahamwood Elementary School principal, who was “tough as a junkyard dog” in her advocacy of the program.
Seven years, more than 10,000 scholars and more than 1,000 tutors later, McVean and the Peer Power Foundation now have the numbers to back up the success of the student-to-student tutoring concept. According to Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System data from 2012-2013, students involved in the Peer Power program are academically surpassing other students by astounding leaps and bounds.
The Tennessee Department of Education uses the assessment system’s academic performance predictions, which are based on five years of Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program – or TCAP – and end-of-course test scores, to measure academic progress.
Per the 2012-2013 data, East High students fell short of state assessment system’s English I predictions by three percentage points, while Peer Power students exceeded them by nine. In English II, East High students met the assessment system’s expectations, while Peer Power participants exceeded predictions by 18 percentage points.
In Algebra I, East High students performed within two percentage points of the assessment system’s predictions. Peer Power participants exceeded them by 22 points.
And East High students met expectations in biology, while the school’s Peer Power scholars exceeded them by 31 percentage points.
The progress isn’t confined to East High. At Shelby Middle School in Shelby, Miss., standardized test passing rates skyrocketed from 37 percent to 91 percent for students in the program in 2010.
Armed with statistical proof that the model works, McVean – who initially invested more than $8 million of his own money into the program – now seeks partners to help bring the program to more Mid-South schools. The average annual cost of running Peer Power in a single school is approximately $50,000. While McVean believes the program has national potential, at the moment, the foundation is strongly focused on Memphis, striving to raise money to add five more local high schools to the program.
“This is an existential challenge for the city of Memphis,” McVean said. “We’re either going to fix these schools or we’re going to lose this community.”