Helping Middle School Girls Find Their Way

January 26, 2009 — After 10 years of fine-tuning and refinement, the Young Women's Leadership Program has emerged as a national model for helping young girls develop the skills they need to navigate their middle school years successfully.

The program, developed by Edith "Winx" Lawrence, a professor of clinical and school psychology at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education, and former U.Va. Women's Center faculty member Kimberley Roberts, recently received a $500,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education to help it expand.

One impetus for the program was Lawrence's own experience as a mother.

"Despite my background in psychology, I was shocked at the loss of confidence my daughters experienced when they entered middle school," Lawrence said. "I saw an opportunity to complement school efforts at this critical developmental crossroads by developing a program that supports girls who have yet to reach their potential academically, socially, or emotionally."

In collaboration with Sharon Davie, director of the Women's Center, YWLP was born.

Lawrence had the insight to understand that the way to attract participants was to focus the program on leadership development. Middle school girls are nominated for YWLP by their schools as "emerging leaders," while college women mentors must take the initiative to apply and be interviewed for admission. The Women's Center administers the program and provides a portion of its funding. The research and teaching components of the program are conducted by the Curry School.

The success of YWLP lies in its combination of simplicity and rigor. It is built around the mentoring relationships that develop between individual middle school girls and U.Va. undergraduate "big sisters." Each week, the pairs spend at least an hour together, doing everything from attending concerts at U.Va. to studying together.  They also attend two-hour group meetings regularly.

These group meetings distinguish YWLP from most mentoring programs and give structure and support to the pairs' relationships. The group meetings follow a research-based curriculum that focuses on problem-solving, decision-making and leadership skills. Integrated experiential activities help prepare the girls to become leaders and face such issues as bullying, substance abuse and sexual decision-making.

Groups also take on a service project like a voter registration drive or a fundraiser for the YWLP sister site in Mozambique.

"These projects showcase the leadership skills the girls have acquired and the broader perspective they have gained through contact with girls in other areas of the world, who are confronting such issues as malaria or HIV/AIDS," Lawrence said.

Because effective leadership development is such an essential aspect of the program, college "big sisters" participate in a yearlong academic service-learning course. The first semester covers theory, research, and training relevant to mentoring adolescent girls. Topics include peer relationships, risky adolescent choices, and race and class issues.

The second-semester class puts the "big sister" in the spotlight, treating mentoring as a vehicle for college women to develop their own leadership styles.

Deciding to become a "big sister" is a serious commitment. In addition to time spent with "little sisters," the college women are required to write weekly reflection journals about course readings and their mentoring experiences, and complete a cumulative leadership project.

By the 2007-08 school year, YWLP had served 969 undergraduate women and 944 middle school girls. It has also provided fertile ground for research.

"Mentoring is often a component of Women's Centers like ours," Davie said, "but research shows that it is not always successful — and we need to know why."

U.Va. graduate students have examined the program's effects on outcomes such as relational skills and self-esteem and are currently investigating such subjects as the characteristics of successful mentor/mentee pairings.

This year, Nancy Deutsch, an assistant professor in the Curry School's Department of Leadership, Foundations, and Policy, and Lawrence received a $500,000 award from the William T. Grant Foundation to add a qualitative component to the randomized studies that were established using a previous award from the Department of Education. The research is designed to evaluate the benefits of combining weekly group meetings with one-on-one mentoring.

"One of the challenges for young faculty is developing a platform for research," Deutsch observes. "The fact that YWLP is such a stable and well-established program gave me a head start. And it is exciting that my findings can immediately shape its application."

— By Charlie Feigenoff

This story originally appeared in Explorations online.