Not Even a Hurricane Could Stop this PeerForward Team
Rituals define a school. In the mornings at Lake Wales High School, their entire school, grades 9-12, gathers in their gym where they forge their community through presentations and multi-media and in-person performances. It is the major platform for the Lake Wales PeerForward team to stage their college-going campaigns, informing and challenging their classmates to file their FAFSAs, apply to multiple schools, and make a plan for their careers. In addition to celebration and information, the morning meeting installs a sense of the future and a sense of the possible in every student. For this reason, the gym is an almost sacred space for Lake Wales.
Hurricane Irma, last fall, tore through the state of Florida, shutting down school at Lake Wales and flooding their gym. The loss of time and the loss of space did not daunt the PeerForward peer leaders. Instead, they came up with a new strategy with the Guidance Department. Instead of whole school presentations, they divided themselves into cells, each taking responsibility for a set of classmates who had fallen behind, spreading their college knowledge through this simple but impactful community organizing technique. The result: they increased the school’s FAFSA completion rates by 19%, which was the largest increase in the state of Florida for a school of their size and earned them an award from the Florida College Access Network.
The FAFSA completion increase metric is meaningful because it directly results in money, removing one of the major obstacles for students to enter and persist in college. But it is also a proxy for so much more, as this Lake Wales tale so tellingly tells. It represents grit and care and determination and creativity and the effectiveness of student activation in partnership with adults and, most importantly, the power of community to transcend the loss of space and time.