i3 Spotlight: Center for Supportive Schools

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What is/was your i3 project trying to achieve, and what were/are the major pieces of the project?

The Center for Supportive Schools (CSS) is partnering with high schools in rural communities throughout North Carolina to investigate the efficacy of a school-based, high school transition and cross-age peer mentoring program for 9th grade students. Known as Peer Group Connection (PGC), the intervention is designed to improve non-cognitive abilities and enhance student engagement to support academic and other school-related outcomes.

The transition from middle school to high school is challenging for students. It is often marked by declines in academic achievement and school attachment.[i] Students are most vulnerable for dropping out of school during and immediately following their first year of high school.[ii] More students fail 9th grade than any other grade[iii] and promotion rates between 9th and 10th grade are much lower than rates between other grades.[iv]

PGC seeks to simultaneously strengthen relationships, improve student engagement, and develop non-cognitive skills among 9th grade students to set them on a trajectory for staying in school, on-time promotion to the next grade, and on-time high school graduation. PGC immerses freshmen in safe, supportive groups led by older peer leaders. Carefully selected older students (11th and 12th graders) are trained as part of their regular school schedule in a daily, leadership development class to become peer leaders and serve as positive role models and group facilitators for 9th grade students. Peer leaders work in pairs to co-lead small groups of 9th grade students in weekly sessions in which the 9th graders participate in engaging, hands-on activities in supportive environments.

PGC also prepares students to execute a service project. The current 9th graders develop powerful, authentic messages for the next incoming class of 9th graders, and share those messages as a welcome into high school.

CSS is partnering with The Policy and Research Group (PRG) to conduct a randomized control trial to measure program impacts on non-cognitive abilities and student engagement, and examine the extent to which these impacts translate into increased on-time promotion to the next grade, increased attendance, and decreased student dropout.


What results are you seeing?

We have completed the first year of a five-year project and so our project is still in the early stage. Our first cohort of partner schools, which includes Greene Central High School (Snow Hill, NC) and McDowell High School (Marion, NC), began implementing PGC in September 2016. CSS is hearing from district and school administrators, staff, and students at both of our partner sites that PGC has quickly become a valued resource.

Administrators are reporting fewer discipline issues among the 9th grade PGC participants. Patrick Greene, Principal at Greene Central High School, says, “PGC has been the answer that we have been looking for in regards to helping our freshmen transition to high school and life as a young adult. Since its implementation we have seen a noticeable decrease in suspensions among our 9th grade students. This program is helping students become more responsible for themselves and helpful toward one another.”

Peer leaders are sought out by teachers and other staff to be a resource when a 9th grade student is facing a school or personal challenge. The 9th graders themselves are seeking out their peer leaders for support beyond the weekly PGC outreach sessions. When asked about how the program is going, a peer leader at McDowell High School shared, "This is life-changing. You don't know how much this program means to us.”


What has gone well with implementation and what has been challenging so far?

Our school partners are enthusiastic about the project and have obtained school-wide buy-in from faculty and staff. PGC is being implemented with all core components in place at both schools. Peer leaders are meeting weekly with their 9th grade peer groups (and even more if a session is missed because of a holiday or other event). As a strategy for introducing PGC to faculty and staff, peer leaders conducted one of their activities with the school faculty so that faculty could experience firsthand the power of PGC.

In addition, our train-the-trainer professional development model has effectively built the capacity of existing school staff to implement PGC. In the past year, faculty and staff from our partner schools came together for a total of 10 days of professional development to learn how to implement the model with fidelity, share successes and challenges, and action plan for next steps. Representatives from other schools that have previously implemented PGC have participated in these trainings to provide peer coaching and support to our new school partners. School staff look forward to these experiences and consistently give them high ratings for preparing them for their role in implementing PGC and providing support.

Working with schools to implement a multi-layered program for the first time and also participate in a rigorous evaluation has presented challenges. Regular check-in conversations, both in-person and by phone, with a CSS program consultant, school administrator, and the evaluator (PRG) have helped ensure that key information is communicated in a timely way while not overwhelming the school with many details at once. These regular check-ins enable CSS to provide technical assistance and coaching when there are implementation challenges and have contributed to a strong working relationship among project partners. Additionally, CSS and PRG have assumed as many responsibilities related to the evaluation as is possible to avoid burdening already very busy school staff. The focus of our work with our school partners has been on capacity-building related to PGC implementation and sustainability.


What steps have you taken toward sustainability of the grant?

PGC is specifically designed to leverage existing school resources such as staff, students, and time in the school day to increase the likelihood that it becomes institutionalized and sustained over time. PGC: trains existing school faculty members rather than requiring non-school or additional school staff; taps into older students, an underutilized resource, as peer leaders who support younger students; ensures peer leaders receive rigorous training through a credit-bearing daily leadership course; and is scheduled during regular school hours.

In addition, we have worked with each of our partner schools to convene a team of stakeholders who are invested in the program’s success and long-term sustainability. Members of the stakeholder team include the principal, assistant principal, school counselor, faculty across various disciplines, district-level administrator, and community members.

Stakeholder teams participated in an initial one-day training to learn about the project and understand their role in supporting implementation, ensuring the program is aligned with the overall goals and priorities for the school, ensuring coordination of student support across services within the school, and determining how to best integrate PGC into the infrastructure of the school to position it for long-term sustainability. The teams meet monthly to assess progress on the project, troubleshoot implementation challenges, and plan ahead for upcoming program activities.


What have you learned from the grant/project that can help new grantees?

Over the five-year project period, CSS anticipates partnering with 10-12 high schools. However, we began project implementation with a small cohort of two high schools which has enabled us to build a solid foundation of best practices that we can apply to future cohorts. Starting on a smaller scale or executing a pilot can be valuable for working out smooth processes for communication, program implementation, and the evaluation before expanding on a larger scale.



[i] Isakson K., & Jarvis, P. (1999). The adjustment of adolescents during the transition into high school: A short term longitudinal study. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 28, 1-26.

[ii] Cohen, J. & Smerdon, B. (2009). Tightening the dropout tourniquet: Easing the transition from middle to high school. Preventing School Failure, 53, 177-183.


[iii] Kennelly, L. and Monrad, M. (2007). Easing the transition to high school: Research and best practices designed to support high school learning. Washington DC: American Institutes for Research. Retrieved from http://www.betterhighschools.org/docs/NHSC_TransitionsReport.pdf


[iv] Wheelock, A. & Miao, J. (2005). The ninth-grade bottleneck: An enrollment bulge

in a transition year that demands careful attention and action. The School Administrator, 62(3),