Student Mentorship Program Seeking Volunteers for Upcoming School Year

Academy 4, the Fort Worth nonprofit that mentors fourth graders, figured out a way to touch base with its students this summer amid COVID-19. Now it’s moving ahead with a plan to continue mentoring in the new school year via Zoom, and is recruiting volunteers.

“When our schools are ready, we’ll be ready,” John Shearer, the organization’s executive director, said in an interview.

Earlier this summer, Academy 4 organized volunteers to send digital messages to students in the schools it works in. With uncertainty hanging over the new school year, and whether volunteers will even be allowed to enter schools, Academy 4 has been experimenting with a digital approach to its mentoring.

“The way things are going, we may end up all year online,” Shearer said.

Academy 4 sent mentors into 13 schools last year. For the new school year, “it looks like we’re going to end up at 16 or 17,” including eight or nine in the Fort Worth public schools, others in Austin, Hurst-Euless-Bedford, and Birdville, a private school in West Fort Worth’s Como neighborhood, and a charter school in Arlington, Shearer said.

The organization expects to be assigned 1,400 students and is recruiting 1,400 volunteers for a one-to-one experience. Volunteers can sign up through the Academy 4 website.

Academy 4 will maintain once-a-month frequency with its schools, in which volunteers enter their assigned schools. Programming starts with a group assembly and leadership topic, and moves onto puppet shows and breakout sessions.

Under a Zoom format, mentors and students log into a secure Zoom room — “We’ve been able to lock it down so it’s safe,” Shearer said — for an assembly and leadership topic introduced by an emcee. A puppet show will follow, and then breakout sessions where students and mentors meet one-on-one. Each breakout room will include two students and two mentors, for internet safety, Shearer said. Everybody re-assembles in the big Zoom lobby for closing. The sessions will be recorded for playback later to students and in classrooms at schools.

For students who don’t have devices they can use to enter the sessions, “we’re going to do our best to fill those (gaps) in,” Shearer said. “If we do see some gaps, we think we have the funding to help fill those gaps and make sure they’re able to connect.”

Academy 4 is piloting its program this summer with volunteer fourth graders, “just to make sure we’re not going to outrun their attention span,” Shearer said. It’s been talking to its schools and to church partners, a major source of volunteers.

Academy 4 is eager to help students “find the safe place again,” Shearer said. “They get away from problems at home, at school. It becomes this respite, this safe place. Our students just need somebody to listen to them.”

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