Summit Educational Association Focuses on Virtues in Mentoring Milwaukee Youth

Published September 19, 2015

Summit Educational Association (SEA) has mentored thousands of minority students on the south side of Milwaukee over the past 25 years.

Matt Smyczek, executive director of SEA, says the organization began when a group of businesspeople, inspired by the social teachings of the Catholic Church, decided to start a tutoring program.

“What we’re doing is very simple,” said Smyczek. “It’s the simplest thing you could ever imagine. What we are doing is getting mentors and kids together during the week.”

Each week the program provides one-on-one tutoring and character talks emphasizing honesty, hard work, and respect for others.

“We’re not replacing the school at all,” said Smyczek. “We’re trying to make the sponge more absorbent. We’re a virtue-based tutoring program.”

Minorities and Lower-Income Students Take Advantage

During the school year, 200 students take part in the mentoring program and 150 mentors participate. The program starts with students in the 4th grade and goes through the senior year of high school. Most of the mentees are Hispanic or black, and many come from lower-income households, Smyczek says. 

There is also a seven-week summer program that includes a tutoring program from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., and college students lead teams of 10–12 students.

During the day, mentees do a lot of reading aloud, attend character class, and play sports. There is a rewards program that includes a field trip for mentees who participate in a read-a-thon. 

“Kids were reading hundreds of pages when we provided these incentives,” Smyczek said. “Now each student reads about 609 pages. Grade level equivalency [has shot] up by one semester, basically.”

Involving Parents

SEA also holds parenting meetings, which include seminars on subjects such as how social media affect children, study habits, and modesty.

Most weeks, more than half the parents come to the meetings, and almost every parent attends at least two meetings during the summer, according to Smyczek. 

Mentors call the students once a week to check in with them about their goals and to speak with the mentee’s parents. The weekly check-in calls with mentees help encourage attendance and create a stronger emotional bond between the mentor and mentee, Smyczek says.

“It really makes a difference,” said Smyczek.

“When you receive a call from a friend, it kind of makes your day sometimes,” Smyczek said. “Kids take it seriously that way.” 

SEA provides fact sheets about study habits and good behavior at home. Parent surveys during the program help parents and counselors gauge children’s progress. Specific goals are set for each mentee, who is provided with clear expectations.

Encouraging Future Mentors

The summer volunteers are typically university students, and most of the volunteers in 2015 were graduates of the summer program themselves.

The summer program began seven years ago with 60 kids the first year, and now there are more than 400 children in the program. The mentors receive a stipend of $250 a week.

Boys and girls are in separate programs.

“We want to have boys mentored by men and girls mentored by ladies,” said Smyczek.

Focusing on Virtues  

“We don’t talk about the Catholic church specifically,” said Smyczek, adding there is only one character talk given involving God, called “Friendship with God.”

Smyczek says SEA asks neither parents nor children participating in the program about their religious beliefs when signing up.

“We’re not afraid to talk about God, but we don’t say you have to be a Catholic or anything like that,” said Smyczek. “We think virtue is a good thing, and sometimes that comes down to God. It’s kind of 10 Commandments-based, but it’s not explicitly referring to God all the time. It’s about good virtues.”

Heather Kays ([email protected]) is a research fellow with The Heartland Institute and is managing editor of School Reform News.

Image by Summit Educational Association. 

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