By Ryan Cornell
STEPHENS CITY -- Plato had Socrates. The Karate Kid had Mr. Miyagi. Luke Skywalker had Yoda.
And each semester, a group of Sherando High School students are taken under the wing by a set of mentors through Frederick County's Gifted Independent Study program.
The program, which started in 1995, provides gifted high school juniors and seniors with the opportunity to be matched with a professional who works in a field of interest to the student.
Clare Milburn, 17, is mentored by an occupational therapist at a local rehabilitation center, but previous mentorships have led her to work with children with special needs. She said she's learned valuable people skills and how to overcome barriers, including communicating with a child with autism and limited English proficiency.
Eric Pfeifer, 17, is mentoring with a Japanese interpreter and translator. Eric said it's a helpful way to reinforce the language after taking three years of Japanese classes.
Grace Spencer, 17, is mentoring with the director of operations at Nerangis Enterprises. She said she gets an inside look at how businesses like McDonald's are run by tracking inventory and expenses using balance and profit and loss sheets.
Katie Salata, 18, is a senior at James Wood High School who comes to Sherando for the program. Her past three semesters have paired her with architects and home designers, but she decided she wanted to try something "totally different" and chose to mentor with a personal trainer and nutritional therapy practitioner.
"I'm thinking this info will be helpful as I go into college," she said. "I want to keep off the 'freshman 15.'"
She added that she's learned how to act and dress professionally.
"My wardrobe is a lot different now than it was two years ago," she said.
Rosa Gibson, 18, is mentoring with a Presbyterian minister. As the daughter of an Episcopal priest, she said it's been interesting to see a "different side of things."
Julian Berger, 16, is mentoring with a real estate agent and learns how to determine the price of a house and stage it for showings.
His first mentorship was with a lawyer, but he said he realized he wanted to do something more business- and people-oriented.
After one of her first mentorships, Gibson learned she didn't want to become a band director.
Gifted Independent Study Teacher Robin Owens said the program is a valuable tool for students to learn if the career they're pursuing is the right fit for them.
"Finding out what you don't want to do is just as important as what you do want to do," she said.
Over the semester, students spend a minimum of 55 hours working with their mentors and 20 hours of seminar time in the classroom, where they share their experiences and plan and execute a variety of community service projects.
After being chosen for the program in May, students were tasked over the summer with finding their mentors, which Owens said simulates the job search environment.
"A lot of students are introverts and it thrusts them out of their comfort zone," she said. "They get to experience rejection; it's a life-learning experience."
Owens said there are about 45 students in Frederick County Public Schools involved in the program.
Frederick County was one of 33 school divisions in its enrollment group from across the U.S. to receive a Magna Award distinction this year. The division received an honorable mention for its Gifted Independent Study program. Three grand prize, 15 first place and 15 honorable mention winners were chosen for the national award from among nearly 300 submissions.
The Magna Award, which honors school board best practices and innovative programs that advance student learning and encourage community involvement in schools, is sponsored by the National School Board Association, the American School Board Journal and Sodexo.
Contact staff writer Ryan Cornell at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or firstname.lastname@example.org