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Leadership development is a student experience that runs quietly alongside the academic track at John Jay High School. Through a rich variety of initiatives, students learn the life skills of developing relationships and guiding, inspiring, and organizing others.
One particular program—Peer Groups—stands out because of its 15-year tenure, focus on relationships, and mandatory freshmen participation.
The mood in room A206, second period, is easy, comfortable, and casual. Ten or so juniors and seniors are sitting in a circle with Joe Guadio, a science teacher at John Jay High School. The teens are peer group leaders, Guadio is their advisor, and they’ve been meeting every other day since September. They know each other well and that’s the point.
“Peer Group Leadership is built on relationships,” said Ray DiStephan, a social worker at John Jay Middle School and head of the district’s Peer Group Leadership program. “Supportive relationships enable students to become more engaged learners and better navigate adolescent life.”
All freshmen are automatically signed up for Peer Group. Once every six days throughout the school year, pairs of peer group leaders meet with their assigned group of ten to fourteen freshmen, typically during lunch or study hall. They lead activities and conversations that they’ve practiced with their advisor. Topics include self-discovery, stress, and peer-pressure.
Ninth graders consistently report that the biggest benefit of Peer Group is the connections they make to juniors and seniors. Peer group leaders relay a wider range of benefits. They also receive one credit per year.
“I’m the oldest sibling,” said Alexander Ozols, a senior peer group leader. “When I was a freshman I did not have a guiding light to help me navigate high school. My peer group leaders became that for me.”
“Being a peer group leader has made me more confident,” continued Ozols. “It gave me confidence to go into literally any situation. I thought, if I’m a peer group leader, maybe I could also run for student government. And I did.”
“One of my favorite peer group activities is Turning Points,” said Katherine Ricca, another senior peer group leader. “We ask everyone to share something about themselves that is significant; something that molded them into who they are. Being a peer group leader has helped me learn how to make people feel comfortable and be able to open up.”
“Being a peer group leader is about EQ,” said Willa Goodman, referring to emotional quotient—a person's self-awareness and empathy. “Being a peer group leader gave me a place where I belong.”
Guadio concurs. “When we interview potential peer group leaders, we’re looking for students who are positive role models in the school community. High academic performance is not necessary, we want a wide range of students. Peer group leaders are willing to get involved and to help younger students adjust.”
Becoming a peer group leader is a competitive process. This year, one hundred and thirty sophomores applied for thirty spots.
Students complete a written application, obtain references, and are interviewed by peer group advisors Lauren Carrigan, Geoff Curtis, Christine DiCosola, Joe Guadio, Matt Knittel, Thomas Rizzotti, and Amanda Urban.
Leadership opportunities are folded into each class and club at John Jay and specifically cultivated through Campus Congress, the student government of the school, and, new this year, Captains Council, a mentoring program for captains of the school’s sports teams.
The DASA (Dignity for All Students) club provides training for team captains, club presidents, and Campus Congress representatives focused on creating supportive and inclusive group dynamics.
John Jay’s Peer Group Leadership program is celebrating its fifteenth year. Christine DiCosola, a social studies teacher at John Jay, also a peer group advisor for fifteen years, names the Peer Group Leadership program as one of the most valuable thing she’s done in her time here at John Jay.
“Think of how many lives this program has touched,” said DiCosola. “Fifteen years times thirty peer group leaders each year—plus fifteen years of reaching out and impacting three hundred freshmen a year!”