On February 1st and 2nd, over eighty freshmen and twenty seniors gathered at a campsite in São Lourenço da Serra, 55 kilometers south of São Paulo, to engage in a series of activities meant to strengthen freshman students’ senses of belonging within the Graded high school community.
The annual retreat is the landmark of the Peer Group Connection (PGC) program, by now a long running institution at Graded. Twenty years ago, the school acquired the program from Princeton University in order to implement a structured, research-based support system to help students transition from middle school to high school. It has since become a stand-alone offering of the Center for Supportive Schools. Led by carefully-selected and trained PGC leaders, the retreat is an opportunity for students to form bonds and all-important connections between the senior and freshman classes, as well as within their own class. While several Graded teachers and faculty advisors accompany the students on the overnight trip, they stay on the sidelines, as the event is mostly run by the PGC leaders. Each leader underwent a competitive, two-phase selection process during the second semester of their junior year, and now mentor between 12 and 15 freshmen.
These smaller cohorts also meet twice a week during the school year to discuss a variety of issues and concerns freshmen may be experiencing during their first year of high school. The PGC program, thus, promotes a culture of cooperation, empathy, and kindness in our school community. The annual retreat further cements those values through entertaining and engaging activities designed by the senior class program leaders. PGC Advisor Ms. Maggie Moraes, who, together with Ms. Carolina Serra, oversees the program, explains that an important aspect of the event is that it gives seniors the autonomy to choose the activities the groups will participate in, keeping it fresh year after year. One such innovation this year was the introduction of the Cannibal game, whereby each group leader had a different colored marker that they used to paint a stripe on freshmen who found them. The freshmen’s job was to get all the colors, while avoiding a group of “cannibals” intent on erasing their color marks.
The PGC retreat has gone through few but significant changes in recent years, as Ms. Moraes points out. “This year, we got 85% of the freshman class to go on the retreat,” she says proudly, further explaining that, when the retreat took place during the first semester of the year, many freshmen didn’t feel comfortable going away with people they hadn’t known for more than a month of high school. Additionally, the students who entered Graded in the second semester of 9th grade missed out on the opportunity to get to know their peers and the senior support group outside of school.
Ms. Moraes likes to encourage all rising seniors to apply to be PGC leaders, given that the mere experience of going through the selection process can be a valuable hands-on lesson. By having to submit a video essay, juniors practice the art of putting their best foot forward, which helps them prepare for the college application process. “If you get in, you learn; if you don’t get in, you also learn,” she declares.