By Savanna Buckner with Andrew Campanella
“You can never have too many positive role models,” says Vas Scoumis, CEO of Manchester Academic Charter School, which serves more than 250 students in Pittsburgh’s Northside.
That’s why the K-8 school participates in United Way’s Be a Middle School Mentor initiative, the region’s largest school-based mentoring program. The free program matches adult mentors with middle-schoolers, providing students an additional person interested in how they’re doing and helping them reach their goals.
The mentors have lunch once or twice a month with Manchester Academic Charter School students, and some of the mentor-student pairs have worked together for up to three years.
“What we try to do when a child walks into our school is learn everything about that child— where they come from, what makes them tick, who their parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles are— and then meet that child where they are,” said Scoumis.
The mentor program plays a key part in building connections with the middle-schoolers.
“We want to get across to students that ‘the world is yours,’” said Scoumis. “The mentors’ stories often show the kids that even if nobody in your family has ever done something like what you want to do, you can do it.”
For Scoumis, this isn’t a platitude. While neither of his parents graduated high school, Scoumis achieved his own educational goals by making the most of the learning opportunities around him.
Showing students how to make the most of learning opportunities is a core value he wants to instill at Manchester Academic Charter, where the opportunities extend far beyond mentorship.
The school has a law program in which lawyers come speak to students and the end of the year is marked by a mock trial in a real courtroom.
In the school’s entrepreneurship program, community leaders share their experiences of creating their own businesses and innovations.
It’s also Manchester Academic Charter School’s teachers who show students that school can be a place to learn more about what you love.
“I tell my teachers all the time: Find something that is your passion and that you want to take to the next level for kids, then take it to the next level,” Scoumis said. “It doesn’t have to be the subject you teach, maybe you want to get away from that subject a little bit and try something else. That’s one of the great things about this place.”
Scoumis practices what he preaches, taking time out of his hectic schedule to run a competitive Lego club for students!
“If the fire of excitement about learning is lit already, we keep it lit,” said Scoumis. “If it’s kind of flickering, we get it back up and show them how exciting school can be and what amazing things they can do in their future.”
Mentors, teachers, staff— these people make a world of a difference in whether kids feel connected and cared for at school. And, as Manchester Academic Charter School reminds us, feeling connected and cared for inspires students to happiness.