Peer Health Exchange pilots consistency program aimed to foster student-educator relationships

Adrian Wan, Reporter

Northwestern’s Peer Health Exchange is piloting a new consistency model for its national organization in the hopes of building closer bonds between health educators and their students.

PHE is a nonprofit that trains college students to teach health curricula at under-resourced high schools, covering topics include substance abuse, sexual health and mental health.

Previously, each health educator at PHE would specialize in a particular workshop and rotate through different schools. While this meant educators were more familiar with course content, educators struggled to establish close relationships with the students, and students did not retain as much knowledge, said Hannah Givertz, co-coordinator of NU’s PHE.

“(The educators) knew their workshop material really well, but they didn’t know the students really well,” Givertz said. “Whereas if you go into one classroom every week and build those relationships, it will actually help transfer the knowledge.”

The Weinberg senior said in order to address the shortcomings of this rotation-based approach, NU’s PHE suggested switching to a consistency model in which health educators remain at the same high school over 13 weeks of workshops. PHE’s Bay Area campus is also testing out a consistency model, Givertz said.

There are 65 NU students currently enrolled as health educators to teach topics including substance abuse and sexual health, Givertz said. These students work at six different high schools across Chicago’s Northside, including Chicago Math and Science Academy and Rickover Naval Academy, she said.

Though many came in without prior knowledge about health education, the students underwent a series of trainings that covered health content and classroom management techniques, she added.

Elizabeth Odunsi — a director of social justice, inclusion, diversity and equity for NU’s PHE — said the “relationship-centered” model not only improves students’ understanding of health issues, but also creates an environment for educators to act as “peers” and feel more comfortable sharing personal experiences relevant to the course content.

“Obviously we are not training teachers,” the Weinberg senior said. “But many host teachers do tell us that (being) closer in age to a lot of students that we are teaching than a usual health educator … brings a lot to the classroom in terms of the discussion that we have.”

The consistency model has been carried out in all NU’s PHE programs for two years, and the national organization has announced its plan to scale up the model to all of the schools in partnership within the next few years, said Weinberg junior Talia Waxman, a member of the PHE Leadership Council.

Waxman said PHE provides a platform for high school students to discuss “sensitive” topics in their lives with peers who are only a few years older, hence facilitating a more “candid” conversation.

“It’s a more engaging format of health education that really emphasized the students’ agency to make their own health decisions, rather than telling them what to do and what not to do,” Waxman said.

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