Thirty-seven years ago, Aaron Heard was starting a program that would affect hundreds of Clarke County students for years to come.
Since its inception, the Athens Tutorial Program has become a vital part of the community, providing academic assistance and cultural enrichment opportunities to low-income, at-risk students.
“Our aim is to try to help decrease high school dropout rates and increase college awareness,” said Heard, who is originally from Athens.
Heard, president of the program, was serving as the director of the Athens Community Center in 1981 when he realized there was a massive need for supplemental academic programs to help combat the area’s rising dropout rate. Born as an after-school initiative to help students with their homework, the Athens Tutorial Program enlisted the help of University of Georgia students to serve as tutors, but soon grew to offer so much more.
Today, Heard schedules UGA students to visit local elementary schools where they work one-on-one with students. He also manages a tutorial center where children can get help after school. Each week, more than 130 students are mentored in the schools and about 50 visit the tutorial center.
Each UGA student works with a child who is in need of tutoring for the duration of the school year. This yearlong partnership creates a personal connection between the UGA and Clarke County students.
“Some of the UGA students get class credits through their programs, but even after their program is over, they still come back to tutor,” Heard said. “Once they get here and see the need and develop a relationship with their student, I think it touches them in a different way and they come back.”
Building those relationships has been one of the most effective parts of the Athens Tutorial Program. Donarell and Freddrell Green, brothers and personal injury attorneys practicing in Athens, participated in the program more than 30 years ago as students and are still reaping the benefits today.
“I received tutoring when I was in middle school. The tutors would find a way to demonstrate to me that—no matter what the subject is—you can learn it, overcome it and master it if you’re willing to invest the time and focus,” said Freddrell. “That mentality I found in the program followed me the rest of my life. I built upon that.”
His brother agreed.
“It takes a village to raise a child,” Donarell said. “It’s more than feeding and sheltering; it’s also nurturing. It takes the whole gamut to make a productive, decent citizen. I know, for me, the Tutorial Program was a big part of the village that made me who I am today.”
For the Green brothers, the Athens Tutorial Program was also a way to connect with UGA.
“We attended elementary school right next to the university,” Donarell said. “The university was a part of the community. The university, the city of Athens, school system—they were all working together to make sure the children had the best education possible.”
As a senior in high school, Freddrell was a tutor in the program, and he now sits on the board, frequently attesting to the program’s impact on local students.
The program has moved beyond just tutoring, now also offering field trips to sites across the state like the UGA Veterinary Teaching Hospital, the Martin Luther King Jr. Center and the Atlanta Aquarium. For three years, it’s also hosted a summer camp focused on STEM subjects with guest speakers and hands-on projects. This year, a new grant will allow them to extend the STEM activities beyond a summer camp and into the classroom.
For Heard, the program is more than just a job. It’s a personal commitment.
“I grew up in Athens. When I was growing up, we didn’t have anything like this program. Because of that, a lot of students that came along with me fell by the wayside. I was lucky enough to get an athletic scholarship to go to college. When I came back home, I wanted to help my community.”