Seattle, Wash.

It’s no secret that the adults in young people’s lives are hugely important in shaping their behavior, their attitude, and their beliefs about their futures. But often overlooked is the capacity of youth themselves to impact their school community and to positively influence their peers and serve as role models to other students, especially when given the right support and resources.

It is this capacity that forms the foundation of the Youth Ambassadors program in Seattle, Washington. Led by Lori Markowitz, the founder and now Executive Director for Youth Ambassadors, the program began in October 2007 as part of the Seeds of Compassion multi-day event honoring the Dalai Lama’s visit to Seattle. Forty local youth, representing diverse backgrounds from around the city, were chosen as Youth Ambassadors for the event and were so inspired by their time together and the values the event espoused that with Lori’s help, they formed an organization dedicated to serving the community.

Although initially the charge of the youth-led group was fairly open-ended, their focus became more sharply defined in 2009, when they received a call from the King County Prosecutor’s Office. Recognizing that the Youth Ambassadors were an asset that could make a significant impact in their effort to address truancy, the Prosecutor’s Office asked for the students’ help assisting in their truancy workshops. After learning more about the issues of truancy and attendance, the Youth Ambassadors decided to take it on as a cause and in 2010, formed a formal partnership with Seattle Public Schools, offering to serve as peer counselors to truant students and mentoring them in the development and implementation of truancy reduction plans.

Since the formal partnership began in 2010, the Youth Ambassadors’ work improving school attendance in Seattle has continued to evolve. Initially their efforts centered on facilitating workshops for truant students and acting as one-on-one peer counselors and mentors. Eventually, with the approval of the Washington State Department of Education, the ambassadors established Peer Truancy Review Boards in four Seattle high schools.

In 2012, the program went one step further in terms of changing the culture around attendance in schools for the better. At Cleveland High, Youth Ambassadors has created a yearlong, for-credit class that meets during the school day and teaches upperclassmen to develop the skills to become mentors to freshmen who are struggling with attendance and risk falling off track and dropping out. The participants in the class have a unique capacity to positively impact their mentees not simply because they are also students at Cleveland but because, as Markowitz points out, the mentors “have recently been through a lot of these issues themselves.”

The curriculum for the course at Cleveland High is made up of three components, the first of which is civics. “In order to change the system, you first have to understand how it works,” explains Markowitz. Students receive training from leaders in the systems that touch them, such as the Chief Justice for Juvenile Justice, and learn to be able to answer questions like:  What is the school board? Who are principals accountable to? And, how are district policies set? The second component of the curriculum is around mentoring. The third is around compassion and social/emotional learning. “We’re building a positive climate in the school, which… we’ve realized is an unintentional positive outcome of doing this work,” says Markowitz. Ultimately, the juniors and seniors are prepared to provide structured information and support to their freshmen mentees that increases their sense of connection to the school and in the end, improves their attendance.

And there is evidence that this is exactly what is happening. Graduate students from the University of Washington identified a 60% reduction in truancy amongst Youth Ambassadors Mentees when comparing attendance rates before and after mentor matching. And while not all of its success can be attributed directly to Youth Ambassadors, Cleveland High School has seen remarkable progress since the mentoring elective was first created there. Four years ago, Cleveland’s graduation rate was a mere 60%. By 2013, the graduation rate rose to 69%. Last year, for the first time ever, Cleveland had to turn parents away who wanted to enroll their children there. This year, Cleveland was recognized as a school of distinction.

Now, Youth Ambassadors is expanding and introducing its mentoring program at two elementary schools and a middle school. For these new sites, it is targeting its focus on American Indian and Alaskan Native students, who face disproportionately high rates of absenteeism. While the curriculum will be adapted to be appropriate to younger students—in elementary school, the fifth graders will be responsible for providing mentorship and support to younger students—the mentoring program and coursework will still be grounded in compassion. As Markowitz points out, it is compassion that is a key element for getting to the root cause of what is bringing students to miss school.

The goal of the Youth Ambassadors project may be to reduce the number of truants and chronic absentees in Seattle public schools, but its benefits are more far reaching. The project is empowering youth mentors to play an active role in shaping the culture of their school communities and to positively impact the futures of their peers. It is helping them build their leadership skills and confidence in their own capabilities. “When someone younger than you sees you as a leader, it makes you a leader.”