Student to teacher ratio improves 75 percent with addition of in-class mentors at Whitehaven schools

The idea was simple, decrease the student to teacher ratio, increase success. In ten years, Peer Power has made a lasting impact in Whitehaven High School both inside and outside of the classroom. 

Founded in 2005 by Charlie McVean, Peer Power is a nonprofit with the mission to inspire and empower youth to take control of their academic success. The program kicked off at East High School where high school students worked with each other as peer mentors. 

In 2015, Peer Power announced a partnership with Shelby County Schools that expanded the program to local colleges and recruited more than 100 students from the University of Memphis as success coaches that assist teachers in English I, Algebra I, Biology and other test subjects.

Success coaches are assigned tutors and teaching assistants placed in classrooms to increase the amount of attention students receive in subjects. The coaches are in Whitehaven classrooms Monday through Thursday for the entirety of the school day. 

Cortney Richardson is a Peer Power program director, a founding Peer Power tutor and University of Memphis graduate.

“The model is that we take high performing college students and put them in the classroom with teachers during the day to collapse the student to teacher ratio and help with differentiated instruction,” he said.

Peer Power has been in Whitehaven High School since 2006 and currently has success coaches in 26 of its classrooms, reducing the student-to-teacher ratio from 28:1 to 7:1.

Katriea Joriner, 17, asks Patty Stokes a question. Stokes has been a success coach at Whitehaven High School for three years. (Brandon Dahlberg)

When 17-year-old Tayia Hill and 16-year-old Dwayne Maxwell talk about their plans and goals for the future, it’s with a smile and a spirit of determination fueled by the support they receive from Peer Power mentors. 

The 11th grade Whitehaven High School students have participated in Peer Power since they were freshmen and credit the program with helping them with academic success, adjusted attitudes toward education, and the way they perceive and pursue their own dreams.

Maxwell said he’s seen improved grades because of his participation. Though he was an A student in elementary and middle school, he said in high school, “you have to fight for your grades.” Now he makes As and Bs.

He said he’s also grateful that his teachers have help.

“One teacher cannot help 35 students at once,” he said. “It’s very helpful for teachers and everyone in the classroom to receive more individual attention.”

Patty Stokes, Peer Power success coach for three years, said she wakes up every day excited to go to work.

“I don’t want to miss a day because students have become such a big part of my life and I’m looking at their lives and I’m thinking, what can I do to help impact them in a positive way?” she said. “How can I reach out to them and touch them so they have this foundation of growth and move forward?”

Some success coaches use the experience as classroom training on their way to becoming teachers. Others, like Stokes, have built on their skills gained as mentors to further improve their community. 

Dewayne Maxwell, 16, and Taiya Hill, 17, at a math class at Whitehaven High School.

Stokes plans to take her experience from the program and apply it to start a non-profit called Hey Ma. Hey Ma will help young mothers who have dropped out of high school and had children with attaining their GEDs and provide assistance with some medical issues.

“Being part of Whitehaven and working with the teachers and staff is like being part of a family,” she said. “When I leave here I definitely want to take with me the togetherness that is here, the single purpose of wanting to see our young adults and children succeed.”

Of the nearly 2,000 students at Whitehaven High School in 2017, 90 percent graduated. More than 80 percent of graduates were accepted to college or some form of post-secondary training with the graduating class amassing $130 million in scholarships.

Vincent Hunter, Whitehaven High School principal, said in a school where nearly 80 percent of students are on free or reduced lunch, academic excellence is of the utmost importance.

“Many of our children live in poverty and of course when you live in poverty, your challenges are different than those who do not live in poverty,” he said. “Our mantra is to give our children a private school experience in a public school setting. We’re defying the odds.”

Since Peer Power came to Whitehaven High School, the graduation rate has increased from 75 percent to 91 percent.

“We have adopted that competition mode from Peer Power. We’ve adopted that as a community. Mediocrity is our enemy. You can’t be average and be children of color and be children of poverty. You have to exceed that expectation,” he said.

Hunter is a 1982 Whitehaven High School graduate and said there are 30 other former graduates that work at Whitehaven as well, creating a family atmosphere in the school.

Patty Stokes, a classroom mentor with Peer Poer, and Sondra Bush, a Whitehaven High School teacher, circulate around their classroom. (Brandon Dahlberg)

“In 120 years, Whitehaven has only had seven principals. By having stability in our administrative staff it means the school is stable,” he said. “Whenever you want to see a decline in community, look and see what’s happening to the schools in that community.”

To have a competitive neighborhood, he said it is essential to have competitive schools and Peer Power is helping with that goal.

“Peer Power to me could be the best teacher prep program that we can offer as a district. I just think it’s the best because these success coaches are totally engulfed in the work,” he said.

By helping people figure out early if they want to stay in education, it helps generations of students.

“They either decide they want to be a teacher or they don’t, and that’s great because what you don’t want is teachers in a building that don’t want to be there. The result will be academically crippled students for generations,” he said.

Peer Power coaches, teachers and Hunter all agreed that the investment their making in students has rippling effects and that they are proud to be positive influences.

Dennis Ring, Peer Power’s development director, said there are many layers to the program that help the success coaches, teachers and students.

He said the University of Memphis students attend a four-week training program in the summer where they learn how to teach material the same way that the teachers do. The college students get paid and learn to work together as a team. Throughout the school year, there are 40 additional hours that the trainees are required to do in classrooms.

Since the in-classroom support mechanism was introduced, 21 Success Coaches have transitioned from Peer Power into full-time teaching positions.

Peer Power improves classroom experience and creates jobs as the nonprofit invested $2 million across 150 employee salaries during 2017 and 2018.

Peer Power's influence is concentrated in Whitehaven with programs currently has programs at Havenview Middle School, which has 680 students, and Whitehaven High School, which has 1900 students. Ring said expansion into A. Maceo Walker Middle School, which has 600 students, is pending additional funding.

For students like Hill, the extra attention translates to self-confidence and improved performance. 

"I’m very thankful for the program. Had it not been for the program, my mind would have been somewhere else and I would not be as focused on my grades as I am now. I’m grateful for the people that have been assigned to our lives to help us grow,” she said.

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Born and raised in Memphis, Erica Horton is a freelance journalist that loves to learn and write about almost anything. Email her story ideas here