Relationships Reconstructed: A New Approach to Peer Health Exchange

“We want the students to feel connected to the material, we want the material to have an impact on students…But we want to deepen that impact,” says Bethany Allen, Director of Peer Health Exchange Boston, reflecting on the changes coming to the program starting next fall.

Peer Health Exchange is a national organization that enlists college volunteers to teach health workshops in high schools that lack sufficient funding for comprehensive health education. PHE was founded nationally in 2003, and the Tufts chapter was formed in 2006. Today, over 70 Tufts students volunteer with PHE. The program’s comprehensive health curriculum currently consists of 13 workshops, each taught by two college volunteers, that cover topics such as mental and sexual health and substance use. Each volunteer is only trained to teach two workshop curriculums—for example, one workshop on STI prevention, and one workshop on consent. This means that every PHE classroom around the city receives the workshops in different orders, with different volunteers teaching each one and traveling to different schools each time they teach. The Director of PHE Boston, Bethany Allen, acknowledged the impact of this drawback of the current model, as she said, “Developmentally, we know for young people that consistency is really important to their social emotional learning.”

While there is some space within the current program for individual volunteers to try for more consistency by teaching their two workshops in the same classroom, teaching only two out of a 13-workshop curriculum in the same classroom still isn’t enough. “It’s almost kind of flippant,” Zoe Leaf, Sophomore and Chapter Director of PHE at Tufts says, “to walk into a classroom and be like, ‘I’m educating you,’ and then leave and likely not see those students again.” While PHE has conducted studies that show positive health outcomes for youth within this current program model, people on all sides of the program sense the need for a change. Allen shared that in evaluations of the current program model, many high school students expressed that they weren’t forming as strong connections with the volunteers as they wanted to. Many volunteers at Tufts feel the same. Freshman Aviva Rosenberg wishes “[she] was able to build actual relationships with the kids.” Senior Kristine Moran expresses a similar sentiment as she shares her concern: “The biggest problem I see with the current model is that there are zero relationships formed between educators and students.” She reflects on how this structure is especially problematic for a program that does the kind of work PHE does, adding that volunteers have “extremely little time to develop the trust necessary for most students to ask sensitive and personal health questions.”

The complexities surrounding relationship building for programs like PHE extend beyond its logistics. The fact that PHE functions by sending majority wealthy and White students from elite institutions into some of the surrounding areas’ most underserved communities (77 percent of PHE students in Boston are low-income and qualify for free or reduced lunch) complicates the process of relationship building even more. Leaf reflects on this difficulty with the standard program model: “We do a lot of work to try and avoid seeming like we are these privileged educators imparting our knowledge and wisdom upon other people, but it’s a little bit hard to avoid when we’re only going into a classroom once.” Allen, however, is optimistic that a fundamental shift towards consistency will make bridging the gap a little easier. She says, “When you’re going into the same classroom week after week and starting to see the students and understand the circumstances of these students’ lives, and what type of communities they’re in, and you’re understanding the culture of their school, it really gives you a more well-rounded understanding of the students—the young people—as fully formed people in your mind.” Conveying the importance she sees in establishing more holistic relationships between students and volunteers, she continues, “They’re people you know and care about, and you’re invested in their success. Those lessons of cultural humility and the things we talk about as a program take on a new meaning when you actually have connections with the young people.”

In an effort to mitigate the current model’s drawbacks and make the kinds of relationships all are hoping for possible, PHE will undergo a complete restructuring nationwide starting next fall. The new program, called the Relationship-Centered Model (RCM), will pair two college volunteers with one high school classroom for the whole semester, and those volunteers will be responsible for teaching all 13 workshops. Weekly workshop times will be set at the beginning of the semester and will remain consistent throughout. With the new program, all PHE classrooms will receive the 13-workshop curriculum in the same order. “It’s what PHE has always needed,” says Leaf. “We owe it to students to show them that we want to come back for them, and that we care about them.”

In addition to the change in the way workshops are staffed, RCM also encompasses a new technological component. While the current standard program model does not utilize technology, the new model will incorporate PowerPoint presentations with videos and visual aids. These changes are meant to keep students more engaged throughout the workshops and help the volunteers feel more confident in delivering each week’s material. As they will now be responsible for all 13 workshops rather than just two, some volunteers have raised concerns about a lower familiarity with the content. Leaf, however, notes that as long as volunteers have strong relationship building and teaching skills, ease in working with new content will follow. Echoing Leaf, Allen emphasizes that the role of volunteers through RCM is “not just to teach the content, not just deliver the material, but also to be someone who will actually foster a relationship with the students that they’re teaching.” She adds, “We believe that this will increase the capacity for the volunteers to connect with the students, and that if the students are more connected to the volunteers they’ll have a deeper engagement with the material as well.”

Last semester, the PHE chapter at Boston University began piloting RCM, and the results are already overwhelmingly positive. A study on the new model in pilot schools like BU reported that students in RCM classrooms are outperforming students in the current program on content assessments as well as their ability to use PHE skills. The study also showed that volunteer dropout rates plummeted to a record low with RCM in place. With the current standard program model, “many educators don’t stay in PHE for more than a year,” Moran says, attributing that to the lack of connection volunteers seem to feel with the students and schools in which they teach. However, she is optimistic about this changing with RCM: “I think this model will be more rewarding and beneficial for all involved and will make more people want to stay in the program.” Taneisha Laume, Chapter Coordinator of PHE at BU, already sees these benefits within the new model that Moran was hoping for. “Students are more comfortable with the educators,” she says. “[They] ask educators serious questions relating to their health more often than they did with the standard program. All in all, I think the students have a more positive view of PHE. They look forward to it and know what to expect.”

So far, this new model seems to be working better for students, better for PHE’s partner high schools, and better for volunteers. With confidence from the pilot school outcomes, Allen is ready to roll out RCM next year: “I’m really hopeful about this opportunity, to really intentionally grow our program in a way that is rooted in care, and in equity, and advancing healthier lives for the thousands of students that we teach in Boston.”

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