Mentoring became a part of Litzy Caro Martinez’s life eight years ago at De Zavala Elementary School.
She was in fourth grade, worried about her living situation and where her family would find their next meal. She was often home alone because her parents were working multiple jobs to make ends meet.
That’s when she found out about a local mentoring program, Academy 4. She was paired with a mentor and it gave her someone to talk to – and something to look forward to – at school.
“I always liked school academically, but Academy 4 made me enjoy school at another level,” Caro Martinez, now 18, said. “I looked forward to Fridays when I would learn new things like karate and how to cook.”
Caro Martinez has now grown from a mentee to a mentor at Bruce Shulkey Elementary.
She, along with others from Southwest High School, mentors fourth graders. She is now the reason why another student looks forward to coming to school.
June Ellington Holtman, 10, is a mentee in the program. She enjoys the activities that teach her how to be respectful.
Want to become a mentor?
-Complete the online Mentor Registration form
-Complete background checks as required by the school and Academy 4
-Complete Academy 4 Child Safety Training and School Orientation
“Honestly, it made me feel connected with somebody that I can trust and I can tell how I feel to her and work with her to learn new stuff and to have fun and the activities are just really nice,” June said.
Academy 4 was started in 2012 by a group of members at St. Paul Lutheran Church in Fort Worth who wanted to encourage and have an impact on students in public schools. They first focused on Daggett Elementary, which was located near their church.
Since then, their program has grown to include 15 different school districts, including 12 different Fort Worth ISD elementary schools.
The idea is for mentors to spend 90 minutes once a month at the schools with fourth graders, teaching them soft skills.
“This is the day that you get to talk to your mentor about feelings and they actually listen to you and they have time for you,” Holtman said. “It feels really nice.”
Research shows pre-adolescence is a unique and crucial time in a child’s healthy development.
After being established by the church members, they along with Daggett Elementary’s fourth-grade teachers, counselors and vice-principal, worked to create an effective program – Academy 4 – that reached every fourth grader in the school.
“The reason we target fourth grade is because it’s the first time in their brain development that their thinking starts moving from concrete to abstract so they can understand something like leadership, they are becoming more individualistic, so their morals are being shaped,” said Maria Manks, Academy 4’s high school partnership coordinator.
For many educators like Tamera Tell, a fourth-grade teacher at Bruce Shulkey Elementary, Academy 4 is an encouraging program that allows students to create bonds with mentors.
“It delivers leadership skills. It helps a lot with their interpersonal skills,” Tell said. “They can interact with their peers but they don’t know how to have a conversation about meaningful things with an adult. That’s a really good life skill. It teaches what we call a soft skill and I think that one’s really important.”
Research indicates that young people need a strong web of healthy adult relationships in their lives to enable them to grow, learn, and thrive, according to the annual report posted on the Academy 4 website.
Children who experience strong developmental relationships are more likely to show signs of positive development in areas like academic motivation, social-emotional growth and learning, and personal responsibility.
“I think in the same way that we encourage fourth graders, challenge and teach them, I think our volunteers are also encouraged and challenged by that relationship with their fourth grader,” Manks said.
As for Caro Martinez, her experience with Academy 4 made her want to work with underprivileged and minority students. She received a $2,000 scholarship from the program and will be attending the University of Texas at Arlington in the fall to study education.
“I look forward to being an elementary school teacher so I can hope to make a change in children’s lives and continue to use the techniques for connecting with children that I learned through Academy 4.”
Michelle Escalante is a graduating senior at Southwest High School. This story was produced as part of Sandra Sadek’s Report for America service project.