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Centennial High School upperclassmen build back school community after the pandemic

Former advisor Darius Jackson, 19, with former advisee Isa Rahman, 17.

CHAMPAIGN — Ninth graders started this fall at Centennial High School with trauma.

There were midday gunshots near the Champaign high school in September. Other incidents included a social media threat and a student who brought a gun to school.

The rattled freshmen turned to their peer advisor, Centennial senior Hussein Al-Juboory.

“They were asking, ‘Is this always happening?’ and [about] how serious it’s been. And it hasn’t always been [this way]. This is probably the worst it’s been from when I was a freshman,” Al-Juboory says.

This kind of trusting relationship is exactly what Centennial officials were seeking from the mentorship program. The goal is a closer-knit, more positive school community, which itself helps prevent violence.

Building a Centennial community

Juniors Gaby Nnoung (left) and Aylah Altahhan have invited freshmen to their extracurricular groups, like the Centennial Student Council. Emily Hays/Illinois Public Media

Upperclassmen have formally mentored freshmen at Centennial for about seven years. During that time, teachers say they’ve seen hallways and extracurricular events become friendlier places.

“By our second year, we saw this huge growth of interactions, even in the hallways, between our upperclassmen and our underclassmen. We were seeing the seeds of this whole community building,” says program founder Jorie Grande.

Grande was an English teacher at Centennial when she helped found the mentorship program. At the end of last year, she took a new job in Romeoville, in the Chicago suburbs.

Seven years ago, Grande was part of a team looking for a way to improve school climate and emotional wellness for the entire school body.

“We realized that the messaging that we needed them to get was going to be best delivered by their peers. And so, who better than the upperclassmen? They’ve been here. They know what’s going on,” Grande says.

She recruited upperclassmen to go into ninth grade homerooms. There, they answered questions on everything from what to know about high school to how to navigate conflicts with school adults.

Why ninth grade

The COVID-19 pandemic re-emphasized what those in the mentorship program already know – ninth grade can be a tough year for students.

It’s also an important year, when failing grades often predict whether a student will drop out.

The Illinois State Board of Education released data on Friday that showed only 61 percent of Champaign ninth graders stayed on track to graduate last year, compared to 77 percent in 2019.

“It’s a social time. We’re done with middle school. Now I get to reinvent myself as a freshman in high school. Having nothing – just seeing people over Zoom and that’s it? It’s discouraging,” says recent Centennial graduate Darius Jackson.

Jackson spent two years as a mentor. He is now a physics student at Parkland College.

This year may be another tough transition for ninth graders, some of whom have not studied in-person for almost two years.

Luckily for them, some of Jackson’s mentees are now mentors. Senior advisor Isa Rahman still remembers how Jackson approached being a mentor.

“He didn’t treat me like he was above me or better than me. He talked to me like one of his friends. At the same time, he gave me really good advice,” Rahman says.

Jackson’s most memorable advice? Rahman says it was to remember that teachers are humans too. If you are experiencing something difficult outside of school, talk to them. You might even get an extension.

Emily Hays is a reporter for Illinois Public Media. Follow her on Twitter @amihatt.

Picture of Emily Hays

Emily Hays

Emily Hays started at WILL in October 2021 after three-plus years in local newsrooms in Virginia and Connecticut. She has won state awards for her housing coverage at Charlottesville Tomorrow and her education reporting at the New Haven Independent. Emily graduated from Yale University where she majored in History and South Asian Studies.

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