Peer Leader Initiative

Networks of Support, in partnership with Pine Ridge Schools, Rapid City Central High School, Red Cloud Indian School, Oglala Lakota County Schools, Oglala Sioux Tribe’s Department of Education, Crow Creek Tribal School, McLaughlin High School and TF Riggs High School in Pierre are beginning to confront the enormous educational disparities that exist for our AI/AN students. In analyzing which intervention strategy will have the most impact on promoting academic skills and post-secondary success, we have collectively agreed to implement a promising new program called Networks of SupportNetworks of Support was selected to reinforce the importance of creating a supportive environment in order to build a strong foundation that will be central to student learning and the achievement of academic excellence. Networks of Support is built from the AI/AN interconnected family model or, in Lakota, the tiospaye, meaning “to make relatives or family”. The Networks of Support model will interconnect the students to one another, their teachers, mentors, and their own family. With an emphasis on creating peer mentors, our students will have the skills to build their own “tiospaye”, which will translate to other students seeking help within their tiospaye. Also, the strong cultural components, the building of a tiospaye, will bolster self-confidence, enhance problem-solving skills, and increase self-esteem which in turn will increase attendance, graduation rates, grades, and the students can think beyond high school to pursue post-secondary opportunities.

Based on Scientific Research:

Networks of Support has already shown very positive results on a local level.  Rapid City’s Central High School was needing to address low graduation rates (48%, 2009), low daily attendance rates (only 57%, 2009), and most critical was the issue of the 14 teenage suicides within a 30 month span between 2006 and  2008. 

In 2009, the concept of Networks of Support was introduced at Central High School with the first training of Peer Leaders.  This became the foundation and building blocks for today’s Networks of Support successful approach. Since its 2009 inception, over 1,000 students have been trained as Peer Leaders and as a result,  a dramatic decrease in suicide/deaths by risky behaviors. (1 teenage suicide at Central High School between 2009 and 2016).  In addition, average daily attendance increased by 25%, and graduation rates have increased over 15%.

Dr. Peter Wyman, University of Rochester, conducted a study on the peer program in Rapid City.  His findings showed the students who were mentored had significantly higher connectedness to school, a higher level of engagement at school and a significant increase in the total number of trusted adults named and the number of students saying they had a trusted adult.  The students also reported lower maladaptive coping attitudes, were less likely to endorse use of negative coping strategies and had positive coping norms around rejecting codes of silence.


The foundational purpose of the Networks of Support program is to build positive connections within the school community for students to gain the confidence they need to seek out help for social and educational issues that may keep them from pursuing their education in high school and beyond. An important part of the program is to promote student collaboration through a carefully planned process called Connection Mechanisms. This allows all students to experience the activities and immerse themselves in the process side-by-side with students who are not like themselves. In other words, you build true collaboration by inviting all students to the conversation and valuing their input. The Connection Mechanism is designed to provide a safe environment for students to explore and discuss the values that shape the decisions they make. A key point is to create a supportive environment without judgment. The judgment free environment is very important for AI/AN students to feel they are not being judged for their socio-economic status (home life and social decisions), of which both affect their education.

A major part of this proposal is to then bring small groups of Peer Leaders together from the schools on a quarterly basis. Besides serving as Peers to one another, the opportunity to share what is working (and what is not) at each school will be invaluable. We also want our students to understand they are part of a broader community and we want them to make personal connections that will extend beyond high school; it will be these types of connections and support mechanism that will inspire them to pursue post-secondary opportunities.

Committed partners/stakeholders dedicated to community change:

As indicated throughout the narrative, the full-scale implementation of Networks of Support is being requested by each of our partners. This is not a program “developed on paper” and then brought to the schools for buy in. In fact, this has been just the opposite process with the schools identifying what they want and then looking for funds to get started. Consequently, as noted in support letters from each of the schools (see attachments), each partner is willing to commit the necessary resources to make the program a success. They are willing to provide staff and students with training/meeting time and space, develop courses and service- learning projects to support the Peer Mentors, collaborate with the partner schools, and to provide all internal equipment and technologies. In addition, a key partner to the success of Networks of Support is the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s Education Department. The Director was the individual who first introduced the program to the Pine Ridge Schools. As noted in her support letter (see attachment), her Department is willing to assist Tim McGowan to bring each of the partners together, and to assist in any training and staff needs.

Focus on Sustainability:

In looking at the issues our AI/AN have faced for decades, we did not want to select an intervention program that ends when the funds are no longer available. Indeed, this has been a major issue for decades as programs come and go with the federal funding cycles. Our intent is to build a program that is self-sustaining and we believe Networks of Support can meet this objective. A key part is to provide rigorous training to both staff and students in order to implement the program with fidelity. Once this is in place, the process continues from student to student and from generation to generation. In other words, a major role of a Peer Mentor Leader is to train his/her replacement with the staff serving as more of a facilitator. In addition, as part of establishing a successful program, we will see significant increases in the numbers of AI/AN students staying in school which will generate additional general fund dollars which will assist us in making the program self-supporting.

Project Coordinator/Trainer: Tim McGowan

Tim McGowan has been an educator for 32 years and started his teaching career as a science and math instructor. He attended St. Cloud University for his B.S. in General and Earth Science Education and earned his M.A. in Counseling and Human Development from the University of Iowa. He has also been a director of a residential program for abused and neglected children, a school counselor and internship coordinator. For the past three years, he worked side-by-side with students to help them find relevancy in their education through mentoring, volunteering and community service projects. Tim conducts prevention and peer leadership workshops for students and staff that focus on increasing connectedness and capacity for leadership by increasing the participants’ sense of humanity. Developing real and authentic voices, inclusiveness, student-led programming, understanding our protective factors and the belief youth have the skills and knowledge to lead are the foundational pieces of Tim’s work. Tim is a Nationally Certified Prevention Trainer with Sources of Strength (peer mentoring program). And has spent hundreds of hours leading Experiential Education workshops for students and adults. He is also the founder of Networks of Support.