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AREA STARS – The STAR Students and Teachers from Montgomery and Toombs Counties were honored at a joint ceremony sponsored by the Vidalia Kiwanis Club on Thursday, January 18. Front Row, L to R: Kane Chen, Sukumar Paidi, Charles Aidan Barton, Cole Masterman-Smith, Rebecca Hong. Back Row, L to R: Cathy Johnson, Bobby George, Tyler Corley, LaRee Findley, Melissa Barrow.Photo by Makaylee Randolph
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	29,500 students, ….
AREA STARS – The STAR Students and Teachers from Montgomery and Toombs Counties were honored at a joint ceremony sponsored by the Vidalia Kiwanis Club on Thursday, January 18. Front Row, L to R: Kane Chen, Sukumar Paidi, Charles Aidan Barton, Cole Masterman-Smith, Rebecca Hong. Back Row, L to R: Cathy Johnson, Bobby George, Tyler Corley, LaRee Findley, Melissa Barrow.Photo by Makaylee Randolph

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29,500 students, and the teachers they have selected as the most influential to their academic achievement. For students to receive the award, they must be high school seniors with the highest score on a single date test on the SAT, and must be in the Top 10% or Top 10 students of their class based on their grade point average.

These students then select a teacher to share in their recognition that they feel has most impacted their academic career. These students and teachers then enter various levels of competition – system, region, state, etc. – until a State PAGE STAR Student is crowned.

The Kiwanis Club of Vidalia sponsors the STAR program within the schools in Montgomery and Toombs Counties and hosts an annual ceremony to honor the awardees from each school. This ceremony was held last week, on Thursday, January 18, as friends, family, and educators gathered to celebrate each student and teacher’s achievement.

Recognized first at the ceremony was Montgomery County High School STAR Student Rebecca Hong.

Hong is the daughter of Brewton-Parker professors Dr. Sampyo Hong and Deokhyo Kim, and said that her parents helped instill in her a value for education. She has not yet fully decided where she will attend college, but is interested in studying neuroscience at Georgia Tech to either pursue a research career as a neuroscientist or work in the medical field as a neurologist.

She chose Montgomery County High School Social Studies Teacher Melissa Barrow as her STAR Teacher. “Mrs. Barrow has taught me for two classes, and I have always appreciated her innovative teaching methods,” Hong shared. “Her class is not a simple lecture and note-taking session – she always engages with her students and makes sure that they take that their knowledge and apply it to the real world. She is also very outgoing and kind – as an introverted person, that always stuck out to me. Lastly, as a person who always values her education and academic journey, I’ve always appreciated Mrs. Barrow for everything she has done, and will forever remember her as I go through life.”

This is the first time Barrow has received the STAR Teacher award within her 20 years of teaching, and said that the honor has been incredible. “I’m honored to be selected by such a wonderful young lady,” she emphasized. “Her family values education very much, and it shows with Rebecca’s work ethic and commitment to excellence. Rebecca has a unique ability to problem solve and see both sides of a problem and compromise. She consistently looks for ways to understand and improve things in her community and school. I’m proud of her accomplishments, and we will miss her in the hallways of Montgomery County High School!”

She added, “Thank you to Rebecca’s parents for instilling high educational values and holding such high standards. Thank you to our administration and Board of Education for protecting our instructional time and placing student learning high on the list. But most of all, thank you Rebecca for selecting me. I’m excited to see what God has in store for her and I get a front row seat!”

Next, within the ceremony, Robert Toombs Christian Academy STAR Student Cole Masterman-Smith and STAR Teacher LaRee Findley took the stage.

Masterman-Smith is the son of Stephen and Caryn Masterman-Smith. He began his speech by sharing his gratitude towards his family and school system, then continued to share his plans for the future.

“I currently don’t know where I want to go to college – I’m completely undecided as of right now, but I do know I want to pursue some sort of computing major or something in that field,” he told the audience.

He chose Robert Toombs Christian Academy Social Studies Teacher LaRee Findley has his STAR Teacher. “Before taking her class, I completely hated history. It was my least favorite subject and the one I had least interest in. But as soon as I entered her class in 9th grade, that all completely changed. Now, history is one of my favorite subjects, and a class which I look forward to most of the day,” he remarked.

The student also shared that his learning from Findley expanded far beyond the subject matter, as he said, “She has taught me so much more than history in my time in her class. She has taught me important skills that have helped prepare me for my future and any endeavors I might take, and I just want to really say what an honor it is has been to be taught by her. It is thanks to her teaching that I am who I am now, and I’ve learned so much from being there all this time.”

Findley has received the STAR Teacher award 6 times, and is well-known throughout the local teaching community. She has taught Masterman-Smith in a variety of Advanced Placement (AP) classes, but said that she has seen the student grow the most in the recent year.

“You’re going to hear all of these teachers say that all of these students are the kind of students that a teacher loves to have – they are the ones who participate, they’re the ones that want to learn – that makes teaching fun. But as he mentioned, I had him for Economics and Government this year, which is not an AP class. We don’t have an honors program there – its just all the seniors that take it on campus lumped together,” she said. “I think Cole had an experience with that because economics is a hard course. It’s difficult. There are some concepts that are so hard to understand. I would explain it every possible way I knew how, and I would still have some students that would say, ‘Huh? I don’t get it.’ But I quickly learned that if I put them in groups and let Cole explain it to them, somehow they got it. When we would start to do that, I would have kids clamoring, ‘I’m in Cole’s group!’ One day, someone asked him, ‘Hey, Cole, you’re pretty good at this. You ever thought about being a teacher?’ and he very quickly said, ‘No way!’ I think he learned it was pretty hard to be a teacher when people didn’t understand.”

She went on to inform the audience that Masterman- Smith is not only an accomplished student, but also a talented actor and soccer player. “Cole is a very well-rounded young man. He is an exceptional student – he has a wonderful personality, a very sharp wit, and an intelligent sense of humor which sometimes goes over people’s heads. There are times in class when the two of us are sitting in class laughing over something and everyone else is confused,” Findley commented. “Cole, I’m expecting great things. You’re going to do well, and I hope you come back and see me.”

Toombs County High School was next up to the podium, as STAR Student Charles Aidan Barton and STAR Teacher Tyler Corley spoke to the audience.

Barton is the son of Charles and Jennifer Barton. He began by thanking everyone who had helped him reach this point. “I’d like to thank my parents and brother, Ian, for attending tonight and supporting me inside and outside of the classroom. I’d also like to thank the Toombs County School System for always pushing me academically.”

As for his future plans, Barton hopes to attend Mercer University or Georgia Tech to study biomedical engineering. “By studying biomedical engineering, I hope to research and develop assistive devices to help others live more fulfilling lives,” he remarked.

He chose Toombs County High School Technology Teacher Tyler Corley as his STAR teacher. “I first had Mr. Corley in 8th grade social studies. Mr. Corley moved with me to teach web design and audio/ video classes as I went to high school. While all teachers have challenged me academically, Mr. Corley went above that. He pushed me outside my comfort zone and helped me develop the confidence to put myself out there and be more open to those around me,” Barton explained.

Corley told the audience that it is students like Barton that inspire him to teach. “Guiding students like Aidan is a privilege, and I value the impact they have on my role as a teacher,” Corley shared. “While your acknowledgement warms my heart, Aidan, it is your passion for learning and growth that fuels my enthusiasm for teaching. As you embark on your college journey, may it be filled with exciting challenges and rewarding triumphs. Your pursuit of becoming an engineer speaks volumes to your aspirations and capabilities.”

He praised Barton for his hard work and dedication to both his academics and extracurricular activities, as he informed attendees that Barton was a member of numerous clubs, an athlete on the golf team, a member of the Varsity MarioKart eSports Team, and an active participant in the school’s morning show. “Aidan constantly demonstrates a strong work ethic and resilience – always striving for improvement,” he emphasized.

Vidalia High School’s STAR recognitions were bittersweet, as a longtime teacher received the award for a last time in his career.

The school’s STAR Student Sukumar Paidi, son of Dr. Ramachandra Paidi, took to the podium first, as he shared an inspirational story of how he came to Vidalia. “I want to thank my parents, teachers, friends, and school administrators at Vidalia High School for making me who I am today,” he began. “Both of my parents came over from India for better opportunities, and to better their lives. My father is a doctor – more specifically, a psychiatrist, and he works diligently at the Vidalia Psychiatric Clinic. My father decided to move here because he saw how underserved our community was and wanted to help out. That left my mother to take on the most difficult job in the world: raising me! Both of my parents have invested lots of time and effort to make me who I am today.”

Paidi is very active both inside and outside the classroom, serving as a member of several clubs, as well as the varsity tennis and chess teams. He is unsure where he will attend college in the fall, but has his sights set on Georgia Tech to study aerospace engineering or pursue a career in the medical field.

He chose Vidalia High School History Teacher Bobby George as his STAR Teacher. “Mr. George teaches dual enrollment history and world history. He is known for his old school style teaching, which stresses the importance of hard work. Mr. George taught me about being responsible and diligent more than any other teacher I’ve been with. Mr. George also stresses the importance of morals and good character with inspirational videos and quotes,” he told the audience.

Paidi continued, “Mr. George also really cares about us, and sacrifices much of his time to make us as successful as possible in our future. Mr. George has also created the Chess Team at Vidalia High School, and we have been extremely successful, winning many first place trophies, and narrowly winning 4th place at state with half a point.” George has served as a teacher within the area school systems for 42 years, but said this award is one of his top shining moments. “I appreciate this so much. I have had 42 years teaching, and this is one of the highlights of my teaching career. The honor is not being selected STAR Teacher – the honor is who selects you, and I know all of these teachers feel this way,” he emphasized.

For his acceptance speech, George provided advice to all of the awardees through an acrostic – STAR. He explained what each letter of the acrostic stood for, and how that information should apply to the students’ futures.

“You would think [that the letter S] would be smart or studious – which really they are – but it’s serious,” he shared. “Sukumar is very serious about what he does. Now, he smiles, but I’m telling you – he’s going after it. That’s very important because you guys are stars, but you’re going to go into college and there’s a bunch of stars, valedictorians, salutatorians, honor graduates, etc. So, you need to stay serious.”

George added, “I appreciate Sukumar’s seriousness because a lot of people think that making good grades is because Sukumar is just a smart person. He works at it – he strives, and a lot of times, he makes sacrifices, just like y’all. When other kids are out enjoying themselves in leisure and such, y’all are working it. Stay serious.”

He said that “T” represented toughness and being a team player. “A lot of people would say talented, but I think it is tough,” he explained. “You have to be tough to be a STAR student. You have to be able to handle the load. All of these kids – they do other stuff. They don’t just sit at home and study all the time, so I encourage you to stay tough because youre going to get off to college and those professors really don’t care how you feel about the work load they put on you. There will be times you will be tested and go through trials and tribulations, and that’s really where toughness comes in.”

Part of getting through toughness is being a team player, according to George – a skill which he said his STAR Student exemplified excellently. He reminisced on a time when Paidi had been attending a conference in Milledgeville for several days before an important chess tournament, yet he chose to travel straight from the conference to the tournament. “He led us to a 4th place finish – in fact, we were the top team that was not from Metropolitan Atlanta. So, he’s a team player, and he always encourages the other guys. He’s a great team leader, and that’s how you have to be. In life, you are going to be a part of a team – some of them are going to be high achievers and some are going to be mediocre. Nick Saban has said, ‘Mediocre people don’t like high achievers and high achievers don’t like mediocre people.’ So, remain a high achiever – be a team player kind of guy,” he advised.

George told the students that the letter “A” was easiest to remember, as it stood for attitude and all in. “That’s the way Sukumar is – he’s all in and that’s what it’s going to take in order to make it because there will be times when you’re not going to like what is going on, but your attitude has to be right.,” he remarked. “Something else I’ve noticed about Sukumar is he makes adjustments very well, and that is very important in life and when continued from page

you go off to college.” Lastly, George said that “R” stood for both “raised right” and “remember.”

“This is Sukumar, but really, it’s his parents. He was raised right, and I know all these kids were raised right. The parents are the star teachers – let’s be honest. We get credit because we’re in the school. I just want to tell Sukumar’s parents that I appreciate what you’ve done,” he commented. “You’ve got to remember what they taught you. There are going to be distractions, but you remember: you were raised right and you’ve got to work at this.”

Ceremony host Vidalia Heritage Academy was the last school to present their STAR awardees at the event, but used the time to tell a story of kindness and hospitality.

The school’s STAR Student is Kane Chen, son of Mei Fang Zhang. Chen first came to the school two years ago, when his family moved to Vidalia after living in Metropolitan New York for over a decade.

“First of all, I want to thank everyone I have met here in Vidalia. I want to thank my parents, as well,” Chen said while accepting the award. “Everyone I have met here in Vidalia has been very welcoming, especially the teachers, and especially, Mrs. Johnson. When I moved down here two years ago, I was very, very nervous; I was completely thrown into a new environment.”

He said that moving to a small town from a metropolitan was a big adjustment, as event just driving a car was a new concept. “Moving from a big city to a small city was quite the change. Learning how to drive a car to go somewhere because I couldn’t just walk everywhere was interesting, but it was all a welcomed change because throughout my time here, it’s been a very nice, cozy place to live,” Chen emphasized.

When talking about his STAR Teacher, Chen remarked, “The first day I came to the school, Mrs. [Cathy] Johnson was there and welcomed me, and I just want to say thank you.”

Johnson is a high school science teacher at Vidalia Heritage Academy. She said to receive the award was an honor, especially when it was Chen who chose her for the acknowledgement. “I am humbled and honored to share the stage with these fellow teachers. It is an honor to be here, but it is more of an honor to be chosen by Kane,” she told attendees. “He was a new student to us. When he got here, he was amazingly quiet, but friendly and would answer questions if you asked him. It took a little while to get to know him, but Kane is very respectful, noble, and stoic. He has a long list of tasks to get done, but manages to get it all done without grumbling and complaining. I could give him a massive amount of work in AP Biology and he would just do it.”

She added, “Last year, his mother was very sick. He dutifully took care of her and managed his family’s restaurant, and did all of his school work while being active in his class. He did not utter a word of complaint – no moaning, no groaning. In fact, a lot of us didn’t even know all of things he was managing on his own last year.”

“While Kane is amazingly intelligent, he is also very kind and very friendly. He has an amazing smile and has become very near and dear to our hearts in the short time that he’s been at the school. He is very much loved and respected by his senior class,” she concluded. “Kane, I just look forward to the amazing things that you are going to do, and the man that you are going to become. I hope you come back and share your adventures with us so that we can continue to be a part of your life.”

These awardees are all a part of 3 common PAGE STAR Systems – Montgomery County School System, which encompasses Montgomery County High School; Toombs County School System, which is made up of Robert Toombs Christian Academy and Toombs County High School; and Vidalia City School System, which is composed of Vidalia Heritage Academy and Vidalia High School. Each school awardee will go head-to-head with those within their system for the System Level STAR Award. These winners will then continue to compete at various levels until a final State STAR Student is named. System winners will be announced in the coming weeks.

The Vidalia Kiwanis Club ended their event sharing their gratitude to the attendees, honorees, and their sponsors – Altamaha Bank & Trust, Georgia First Bank, Mount Vernon Bank, Peoples Bank, and Vidalia Federal Bank.

Meanwhile, in Wheeler County, the Wheeler County State Bank in Alamo sponsored the recognition of Wheeler County High School STAR Student Mollie Caroline Bridges.

Bridges is the daughter of Walter and Ina Bridges, and has attended the Wheeler County School System for the entirety of her academic career. She is the President of the School’s Future Farmers of America (FFA) and SkillsUSA chapters, and is a member of the Wheeler County High School cheerleading squad. After high school, Bridges plans to attend Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College and study Agriculture Education in hopes of becoming a teacher.

“I am very excited and happy that all my hard work has paid off. I would like to think my parents for constantly supporting me as well as all my teachers who have helped shape me into who I am throughout the years,” Bridges commented about the honor.

When asked if she had any advice for underclassmen, she emphasized the importance of working hard, as she said, “Always try your hardest in everything you do throughout school, don't let your peers convince you to stray from the goals you have in life.”

Bridges selected Wheeler County High School Construction Teacher Donnie Horton as her STAR Teacher. “I chose Donnie Horton because he always puts his students and God first,” she explained. “Ask any student who has crossed his path, and I guarantee he has changed their life in some way. He opens up opportunities for students that many don't realize they have. He constantly shows his support and builds his students up, letting them know that they can do whatever they set their mind to. He guides his students through his faith in Christ, and I can't think of anyone who sets a better example for the students around him.”

This award marks the first time which Horton has been named a STAR Teacher in his 22-year career, He commented on the occasion, as he said, “Wheeler County High School has many great teachers. I am very grateful and humbled to be selected for this award.”

He added, “Thank you, Molly Bridges!”

Wheeler County State Bank Branch Manager Katina Nobles also spoke on the award on behalf of the county’s STAR Program sponsor. “We are very proud of Ms. Bridges and Mr. Horton, and the academic excellence they exemplify at Wheeler County High School,” she emphasized.

Being that the Wheeler County High School is the only school in the Wheeler County PAGE STAR School System, Bridges will now move on to the next level of competition in hopes of obtaining the honor of being named Georgia State STAR Student.

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