February 5, 2010
CHS peer educators help younger students
Sophomores talk to junior high classes about the risks of alcohol, drugs and reckless behavior
Joe McIntyre/staff photographer
Cortland High School 10th-graders Casey Rulison, left, and Liz Torti, right, are peer educators talking to eighth-graders Thursday about healthy habits and life choices.
Jenna Gregory was in seventh grade at Cortland Junior-Senior High School when someone talked to her health class about avoiding drugs and alcohol.
She listened because that person was a 10th-grader, an older girl who remembered what it was like to be in junior high. Gregory was impressed that someone besides an adult would talk to her class about these things.
Now Gregory is a sophomore at the school and she is the one talking to younger students about making smart decisions, as a peer educator.
“I liked the idea that we could impact lives,” Gregory said Wednesday, sitting in teacher Amy Johnson’s first-period health class, which is titled “Sex, Drugs and Rock ’n’ Roll.”
The 12 students in the class, all selected through an application process, are all sophomores, and this year they are all girls. They learn how to speak to fellow students about risk: drugs, sex, alcohol, and behaving responsibly on communication technologies such as their cell phones and Facebook.
They talk to junior high health classes, but they also offer opinions informally when students approach them in the hallways or when they see friends and neighbors doing something foolish.
They try to counter the students’ images of what everyone else is doing.
“Students hear on Monday about something over the weekend,” Johnson said, “and they believe that’s what everybody is doing. But our data says the majority of kids don’t do those things.”
“I’ve been put in tough situations where I’ve had to make decisions,” said Leslie Patriarco. “I’ve been pressured to do drugs. I’ve had situations in random, everyday life at our high school.”
Other students nodded around the room.
“The kids in the classes tell us they learned from us and will use it in their lives,” said Kayla Welshman. “It just confirms what you’re doing is a good thing.
“After our last presentation, in December, classes wrote us letters and repeated what we’d said,” Patriarco said. “Even if it impacts one person, it’s worth it.”
Hannah Franceschelli said she wants to be a teacher, so this was a chance to try teaching. Like Gregory, she appreciated being taught by someone just a few years older than her.
The course is for one credit and is graded pass or fail. Johnson said the peer educator program started in the late 1980s but assumed its current format only a few years ago.
The girls said they have helped younger siblings and neighborhood children who have asked for their opinions. Patriarco said a cousin in seventh grade asked her advice.
“My little sister is more willing to talk to me than to our mother sometimes,” said Alex Pallassino.
Not that younger students always listen.
“We see junior high kids putting pictures on Facebook of themselves pretending to drink beer, and we try to explain that that’s not cool, but they don’t care,” Gregory said.
“We try to teach them to not live in the moment, to think about the impact on their future,” said Franceschelli.
The girls said they also try to stop friends in senior high from making mistakes that could hurt their lives, calling upon courage grown in Johnson’s class.
“We have venting sessions and tell stories about what kids are doing,” Patriarco said. “We’ve become friends.”
“We’re not only helping other kids but helping ourselves,” said Mariah Storey. “I didn’t know most of these girls before but now I’m friends with them.”
But Johnson said the peer educators have to live their lives as well.
“They are still teenagers, not miniature adults, and they are navigating this world too,” she said. “Because of them, I’m able to stay on top of what is happening with our students.”
Welshman said the girls’ support for each other, and their studying what happens to young people, lends them strength.
“We believe in this, we’re not just saying it because a teacher wants us to,” she said.
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