Downtown Athens, A Benefit to Education?Posted: March 22, 2009
By FLETCHER PAGE
Downtown Athens has a reputation for ruining the academic careers of some students, as college kids spend late nights out on the town instead of studying.
But for a younger demographic, the downtown area is used to spark motivation in school.
Some mentors of Clarke County students have used venues around Athens to spend some time with children away from the pressured setting of a school.
“Mellow Mushroom and Wild Wings downtown turned out to be the perfect place for me to take my student,” said Shaun Spade, a University student majoring in education. “He is a 12-year boy, so pizza, wings and sports pretty much runs his life.”
For some children, raising their grades can be generated through a mentor providing an outlet.
Trudy Bradley, director of the Athens Clarke County Mentor Program is a big proponent of this relationship being characterized more of as friends, rather than an authority figure.
“We found that lots of kids, what they really need is someone who says, ‘I know you can do it, and I’m proud of you,” she said. “We’ve got kids in the program that are extremely shy and they just need somebody to give them a little self confidence. Some of them are dealing with horrible situations at home, bless their hearts. They need a friend.”
The Mentor Program was created in 1990, after the drop-out rate was deemed to be a growing problem. The number of kids in the program has grown every year since the program’s creation.
“We started in 1991 with 30 kids,” Bradley said. “We’ll be 18 years old in March. We ended the last school year with 900. We’re the largest in Georgia.”
There are 11,598 children in the Clarke County school system. The 900 children with mentors make up 13 percent of the student body. And that’s not including mentors like Spade, who are not affiliated with the Mentor Program. Spade, like fellow mentor David Payne, were paired with his student through a class at the University.
“I’m not going to lie, I was dreading the whole mentor part of my major,” Payne said. “I didn’t know the kid, she didn’t know me and the feeling out process was kind of a nervous deal. But I ended up really liking the kid I was paired with.”
Through the connection Payne forged with his student, he decided to do something special. He went to the Bel-Jean Printing Company downtown and put together a scrap book of pictures and class work.
“I feel kind of lame doing things like this, but I felt like she needed something like that,” Payne said. “Nobody had ever really done anything like that for her, and it was simple. It was worth it.”
Payne may not enjoy scrap-booking, but Spade and his student’s interests matched up perfectly.
“We both enjoy ball games, and food,” he said. “I have taken him to a couple of places in Athens where we could get something to eat and watch some basketball or baseball games.”
This out-of-school setting is great to take the pressure off students, Spade said, but the tactic is not commonplace.
“We always recommend you don’t do that until you know this kid well enough to know whether or not you really want to do something outside of school with this kid,” Bradley said. “Seriously, I mean I’m a mother and a grandmother and a teacher and there are some kids, yeah they need a mentor, but it’s not necessarily something that you would be comfortable doing it away from a venue that is safe so to speak.”
Spade said he was cautious at first when his student playfully mentioned they should catch a game together sometime. Payne has avoided it altogether.
“I am mentoring a girl, so we don’t have much in common,” Payne said. “Plus the whole me being a man thing just makes it weird. Once a week at school is just fine with me.”
For Spade, communication is the key for assuring everything goes smooth.
“We’ve only been outside of school together four times,” he said. “Each time his mom sent $10 dollars and she came to pick him up. I’m not sure if I could do it if is was any other way.”
Spade’s out-of-school approach has been a success, he said. For Bradley, this type of bond is par for the course for what she hopes mentors can achieve.
“We don’t want this to be another teacher, or authority type figure in their life,” she said. “A lot of the time the mentor may spend time on spelling words or something like that, but we always recommend that you at least spend half of your time just hanging out and having fun.”
In 2005 the drop-out rate in Clarke County was 9 percent, staggering when compared to the 4 percent national rating. Still, progress has been cited, as the graduation rate in 2008 was 63 percent, up 5 percent from the previous year.
Mentors, like those at the Athens Clarke County Program are steadily making an impact. Parents, teachers and even kids have taken notice.
“Probably a good 20-30 percent of the kids are in the program because they requested the program,” Bradley said. “It’s not seen as a stigma to have a mentor. It’s seen as a privilege.”
Spade said he started seeing a change in his men-tee after the common interest of sports was established and conversation evolved from school-work to back-and-forth banter.
“I can tell he looks up to me, and that was created through our sports talk,” he said. “It’s almost like he doesn’t want to disappoint me now. It’s a responsibility, but it’s fulfilling.”
Add Bradley: “It’s something the mentors get into and they’re proud when they accomplish something, and they get disappointed when the kids disappoint them. It’s good to have somebody to please, and that’s what the mentor is to the student. There is a real sense of pride from the mentor’s perspective.”