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Eddie Chevis tutors Jeremy Jones at East High School.

Peer Power program at East High appeals to entrepreneurial spirit of student tutors

Memphis Business Journal - by Karen Ott Mayer
Friday, January 18, 2008

Peer Power represents the best marriage of business and education.

When local businessman and founder of the Greater East High Foundation, Charles McVean, formed the foundation for the express purpose of funneling private funds into a single public school, he stepped into uncharted territory.

What he believed, however, was that by tying simple business principles to an incentive-based tutoring program, educational performance just might improve.

"We are students of global economics," says McVean, who has personally invested $2 million in foundation programs over the past three years. "Unless we can impact the next generation of kids, America doesn't have a chance to continue being a world leader."

More importantly, Peer Power recognizes an untapped resource within East High School: "The most underutilized resource is the top-end kids in inner city schools," he says.

Peer Power treats top-notch students as employees, effectively making their tutoring role also their first job where they are paid at least $10/hour to tutor.

This past year, the program's third year, 250 students participated. Tutoring happens four days during the week and for at least three hours on Saturday.

Besides collapsing the teacher ratio from 25:1 to 2:1, Peer Power seeks to change culture.

"We recognize that the strongest influence on a 7th grade child is a high school student," McVean says. "They look up to them for good or bad. By making this program the desired, elite activity, we can do things like replace gang activity with a competitive team identity. And as business people, we know people respond to monetary incentives."

And it's working.

In 2006, 97% of those tutored (called scholars) passed the Tennessee standardized Algebra I Gateway exam, compared to only 52% of the untutored. In 2007, that number jumped again, with 100% of scholars passing the exam.

Alyssa Carter, now a sophomore at the University of Memphis, became a Peer Power tutor in 2005, helping tutor football scholars in math.

"I think the most surprising thing I've seen is how motivated kids are," Carter says. "They can relate to someone their own age."

Students like Carter submit to a formal hiring process.

"Tutors participate in 80 to 100 hours of paid training during the summer," says William Sehnert, foundation director. "Before that, we ask for a faculty recommendation and students must display honor conduct and be involved in the school as a whole."

Another important feature of Peer Power is the team approach. Scholars are broken into teams and compete through quizzes, attendance and conduct.

"Every six weeks, teams are eligible for monetary incentives of $75 and $100," Sehnert says.

Perhaps the most exciting part of Peer Power for McVean and his team is that the program can be easily duplicated, and his primary objective is to see it replicated nationwide. In the past year, it has been replicated with success at Whitehaven High School where the program is funded by Jerre Freeman.

"It is management intensive and takes qualified, motivated people to support it, but with the support of the school administrations and strong discipline, anyone can have results comparable to our success," McVean says.

An early challenge McVean encountered at East High was the lack of discipline: "When we went into the school three years ago, it was bad. You couldn't hear over the noise in the halls."

McVean says that the support of East High principal Fred Curry and the administration has been essential.

"Teachers in public schools often get too much blame for education problems," he says. "They signed up to teach, not raise kids. What we've got is a broader societal problem stemming from the failure of the traditional family unit."

In this light, McVean explains that tutors accept an even greater role.

"Tutors are qualified to help in the teaching of intangibles, acting almost like surrogate parents to the younger kids," he says.
Greater East High Foundation

Chairman: Charles D. McVean
Address: 850 Ridge Lake Blvd., Suite 1
Phone: (901) 761-8400
Web site: