By Emily Garcia and Monique Artis
“I was on the verge of giving up” is a common way for students to start sharing their life stories after they’ve been taught self-love through a leadership class offered at Camelback High School.
Manuel Nieto, a senior, is one of those students. Before he transferred to Camelback High School, Nieto said he was in an unhealthy relationship with his former girlfriend. After two years of heading down a dark path, he realized he needed help.
Elevate Phoenix provided him the emotional support he needed and a mentor who put him on the path to college.
Now I am able to share my story because of Elevate,” said Nieto, who has been in Elevate Phoenix since sophomore year.
Elevate Phoenix is a nonprofit program that guides hard to serve urban students in academics and in their personal life by providing a teacher who also acts as a mentor and a life coach. Students rely on their mentor for support and guidance through difficult times. The high school students in Elevate Phoenix’s peer leadership classes, in turn, mentor elementary school kids. As a result, these students end up doing better on reading tests.
The program is now at two Valley high schools, Camelback High School and Cesar Chavez High School, but organizers of Elevate Phoenix hope to expand it to other schools in the Phoenix Union High School District.
It’s top selling point to the district is that among students enrolled in the program’s peer leadership classes, the graduation rate is 97 percent, said Jazmine Hall, development director for Elevate Phoenix. Hall said 52 percent of students that are most likely to drop out are the same students that are graduating after they are placed in Elevate Phoenix’s peer leadership classes.
The graduation rate is remarkable, Hall said because most students enter Elevate Phoenix with a 1.0 GPA.
Nieto said he is still pushing for a 3.0 GPA by graduation, these days earning As and Bs in all his classes.
It’s helping them now and in the future, said Hall. Most teens are also first-generation high school graduates and are most likely to become first-generation college graduates as well.
How Peer Leadership Works
School counselors identify students who could benefit from enrolling in Elevate Phoenix’s peer leadership classes. In those high school classes, students learn life skills, character development and leadership skills.
Peer leadership is an accredited class and serves about 2,300 students per school. The program started at Cesar Chavez High School eight years ago and has been at Camelback High School for five years.
The peer leadership classes have two parts. High school students are taught academics along with the character development, leadership skills and life skills. The class meets everyday during school hours and work on their own growth.
As part of the leadership program, they also visit Larry C. Kennedy Elementary School once a week and teach second graders the same character qualities and life skill they learned, working alongside reading and English teachers.
On a recent program tour, potential donors of the nonprofit program had the opportunity to see first-hand how the high school students, including Nieto, teach the second graders.
One donor mentioned that each second grader was engaged with a high school student, as they taught them character qualities and life skills.
Nieto says the kids he mentors have taught him a thing or two as well.
“The elementary students are extremely blunt and will notice if something goes against what we’ve taught,” Nieto said. “It helps me be accountable not only in the classroom, but also at my school and home.”
Nieto and other high school students in Elevate Phoenix credit their success to one-on-one time their mentors spend with them, both in the classroom and outside.
“Elevate’s teachers, as mentors, can cross boundaries with their students where regular teachers cannot,” Hall said. “Mentors for the teens get involved with their mentee’s home life, education, spiritual side and relationships.”
They become friends with their students on social media, they can go into a student’s house and talk to parents or caregivers.
“We can be in their homes at 9 p.m.; we can hug a student,” said Hall, who also mentors teens.
Before students graduate, Elevate requires its high school students to have a plan of action after graduation. They have four major options: military, workforce, college or a trade school.
Nieto’s mentor helped him figure out his plan to attend community college first for an associate’s degree, then to transfer to Northern Arizona University and major in psychology.
More money needed to expand Elevate Phoenix
“Expanding the program to other high schools is a goal, but it will take more fundraising,” Hall said, explaining that it takes half a million dollars to sustain the program at one school for a year.
Elevate Phoenix relies on grants, private donors, businesses and community leaders to support their organization and keep the program free to the schools and students. According to their most recent IRS 990 Form, the nonprofit received more than $1 million in donations from several sources, including American Airlines, National Bank of Arizona, and professional golfer Tom Lehman.
Hall explained they would not go into a school unless they are financially secure. One of the reasons why Elevate Phoenix does not charge schools is because they don’t want to be at risk of being shut down from a lack of funding.
“If we go into a school we’re there to stay,” Hall said.
Phoenix Union Superintendent Chad Gestson said in a letter to Elevate Phoenix that its work is transforming Phoenix’s education system and that he would like to expand the program to other Phoenix Union schools soon.
Juan Chavez, who worked as a teacher for Elevate Phoenix for seven years at Cesar Chavez High School, would like to see smaller classrooms so teachers could give the students even more one-on-one help. On average, one Elevate Phoenix leadership class has 30 students.
Signs of impact can be seen throughout all areas of the program.
Jacob Mata, Nieto’s mentor who is also Camelback High School’s lead mentor, has worked with Elevate Phoenix for six years and he sees firsthand how the program changes the teens in it.
“Students who never thought they could go to college are now in college, focusing on career paths and improving their lifestyle while breaking the cycle of poverty,” Mata said.
Mata has seen students break the cycle of anger and depression when they realize they can have a better future.
Shawneese Durham has been a mentor at Camelback High School since 2014, and she’s seen students go from failing all of their classes and not being able to interact well in social settings to becoming “some of our most outgoing students, passing their classes, and getting jobs.”
“It has been my greatest reward to watch them grow,” she said.
Both the mentors and the teens are also delighted that their work in the elementary schools are also elevating the younger students.
In 2014, 620 elementary kids’ reading abilities were tested before and after they had been helped by teens in the Elevate Phoenix program. The study lasted from 2012 to 2014 and in that time, the average reading ability rose by 21 percent. Students read 23,587 books. As a whole, students read a total of 23,587 books and had reading times adding up to 6,027 hours.
“We are changing literacy rates … by tremendous leaps and bounds,” Hall said.
Elevate Phoenix alums return to help out
It’s not unusual for Elevate Phoenix students who have graduated from college to return through the group’s alumni program as interns or teachers, giving back to the program that helped them.
Stacie Flannery, a seventh and eighth grade teacher at Larry C. Kennedy Elementary School, is one of the students that came back and is now helping students just a few years younger than herself. She said she has never forgotten how mentors in Elevate Phoenix helped her when she was a junior at Camelback High after coming out of an abusive relationship.
“I had no idea who I truly was as a person, and my outlook on life was very negative,” Flannery said.
Like Nieto, through Elevate Phoenix, Flannery took control of her schoolwork. Her mentors, Hall and Jacob Mata, held her accountable for accomplishing her goals and pursuing higher education, she said.
Hall reassured Flannery that her life had a purpose, that she was not alone, and that she was going to do great things with her life. Flannery graduated from Arizona State University. Another big part of her life is mentoring youth, not just through Elevate Phoenix, but through a Christian ministry, Young Life.
Continuity, having many of the same mentors in the Elevate Phoenix program for years, strengthens it, Hall said. The mentors, the leaders of the program, and the alumni know that high school students going through Elevate Phoenix need stable people in their lives.
“Most important is being there,” Hall said. “You don’t want to impact a kid’s life and move on.”