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Topper Academy: Meeting Youth Where They Are

Sherri Cooper, a mother, and a trained Forensics Anthropologist & Investigator, made a change in her career about 18 years ago when she joined Topper Academy as Employability Skills Counselor and Work-based Learning Coordinator. The academy, located in Johnson City is a Program under Science Hill High School that was created by a cadre of devoted educators. They became concerned about the number of students at Science Hill High School who were either struggling, with their grades or became justice involved, or who had given up and simply left school. Currently, the academy has over 160 students, 22% of who were referred by doctors for various health reasons. The rest are referred to the academy through the counselors at the Science Hill High School.

In addition to attending classes, students at the Topper Academy are taught employability skills, such as, time management, stress management, self-management, team building, customer services and respect for others. Sherri said, “I fell in love with the program because it focuses on the needs of the kids and their success. Their successes positively impact not only their peers, but their communities as well.”

Topper Academy is also worksite for the youth component of the Title 1 WIOA Program through the First Tennessee Development District. The program is funded using grant funds from the Tennessee Department of Labor and is administered by East Tennessee State University. Topper Academy has been a partner with FTDD WIOA Program for nearly 10 years and has served approximately 40 students through Paid Work Experience or PWE. The Academy is currently serving four youth that have been hired as interns under PWE. Each intern receives $10.00 per hour for up to 400 hours and work Monday through Friday.

Some of the interns receive support services based on needs established during eligibility assessments. The services include work clothing, shoes, and payments of fees for post-secondary university applications. The interns are assigned to the kitchen where they prepare the meals for the other students. They are also tasked to clean the kitchen and ensure that the utensils are cleaned and properly stored. In addition to earning an income, the interns are taught money management skills.

According to Ms. Cooper “Payment of wages gives the academy a leverage that has kept the youth committed to work and consequently contributed to the smooth operations of the academy”. It is expected that four additional students will be hired under the program bringing the number to eight. Topper Academy continues to be a great partner of Title 1 and the students they serve.

For questions about this or other news from the First Tennessee Development District, please contact Mark Stevans,

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