Lasting lessons: Topper Summit mentoring program paying dividends

Science Hill senior Emily Horvath mentors a student at Fairmont Elementary, where she once attended school as a young girl. Photo by Collin Brooks

By Dave Ongie, News Editor

With their high school careers winding down, Science Hill students Kade Hensley and Emily Horvath were among the seniors who spent some time taking a walk down memory lane this spring.

Hensley and Horvath were both enrolled in the Topper Summit class taught by Debra Mottern, which allowed them to serve in a mentoring program for younger students in Johnson City Schools. They would routinely visit elementary and middle school students in the city, answering questions, forming friendships and helping the kids strengthen their academic skills.

Dr. Aaron Wood, assistant principal at Fairmont, said the mentoring program has been a huge benefit for students at his school.

“That kind of mentoring relationship they build has really turned around some of our students and made them really, really excited about reading and the other skills they’re working on,” Wood said. “I told them, as many seniors as you can get me, we’ll find them a place for them to come.”

Horvath enjoyed the experience of returning to Fairmont – where she got her elementary education – to mentor young students, but it wasn’t something she planned to do at the outset of her senior year. She needed to fill a class period, and opted for Topper Summit at the last minute.

“I didn’t really know what I was getting into, and then I got into something so awesome and fun and constructive,” Horvath said.

Horvath did her best to give the students the advice, instruction and understanding she would have wanted from a senior mentor if the program had existed when she went to Fairmont. In the process, she made some rewarding connections with students that will stick with her long after graduation.

Kade Hensley, in the back row with his trusty coonskin cap, participates in pioneer day activities with students in Kellie Bowman’s fourth-grade class at Towne Acres. Hensley, a senior at Science Hill, has been mentoring younger students as a part of the Topper Summit class. Photo by Dave Ongie

One of those connections was with a Fairmont student who is learning English as a second language. Her parents don’t speak English at home, so Horvath patiently helped her learn to read and complete her work. By the end of the year, Horvath was amazed by the girl’s progress.

“It’s been great to get to know her and understand her background and how different you learn when you come from a bilingual background,” Horvath said. “I get so excited when I see her do a worksheet by herself or read a book by herself, because it’s such a big step for her.”

While Horvath got into the Topper Summit program on a whim, Hensley was encouraged to take the class from the time he was a sophomore. Not only did his high school counselor recommend it, Science Hill assistant football coach Benny Tolley also lobbied for him to take advantage of the class when his senior year rolled around.

Last Friday morning, Hensley was right at home in a bustling fourth-grade classroom at Towne Acres Elementary. The students were dressed up in pioneer apparel working on special activities, and Hensley was more than happy to throw in a coonskin hat and join in the fun.

“I’m trying to keep up with them,” Hensley said with a laugh. “I wish I still had that energy.”

As a kicker who has signed to play with Coastal Carolina’s football team this fall, Hensley said he enjoyed working with a couple of athletes at Liberty Bell, who peppered him with questions about what it takes to succeed in high school. But Hensley also enjoyed working with a first-grader at Lake Ridge who was working to learn English.

“He’s a great kid,” Hensley said. “He doesn’t come from an English background, so he doesn’t speak English at home. That was kind of hard trying to break the language barrier there, but he’s a really sweet kid.”

At first, Hensley slowly guided him through the alphabet, but now the progress the young boy has made is apparent. Like Horvath, Hensley beams with pride when he talks about how far his young friend has come.

“He’s getting it,” Hensley said with a smile. “He’s come a long way.”


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