Athens Mentoring Benefits Graduation Rates

“I remember the first time I got a text message and I was like OK what is this and how do I respond” Debra Little said.

That day Briana, Little’s mentee, taught her how to send text messages on a BlackBerry.

“One day we were sitting in the conference room, I don’t remember how it came about,” Little recalled. “Oh! We were talking about how young people text without looking at their phones.”

Briana revealed the secret to texting without looking that Little would never forget.

“I was like I have to look at my keys and she was showing me that there was a little key in the very middle that had a little incision go up. She told me ‘you can feel that middle key and it kind of lets you know where to go from there,” Little said. “I got pretty fast with texting on the BlackBerry.”

Graduation rates in Athens-Clarke County are among the lowest in the state of Georgia but mentoring has the potential to turn these statistics around. The Clarke County mentoring program emerged as the best alternative to improving graduation rates in Athens but faces obstacles that keeps mentoring from reaching its full potential.

The Clarke County mentoring program started unlike other programs based outside of school settings. This program operates within local public schools to combat the low graduation rates in Athens. The program started in 1991 as a joint effort of the Chamber of Commerce and Athens-Clarke County School District.

“I think it all gets back to the fact that our county has such a low graduation rate,” Paula Shilton, Director of the Clarke County Mentor Program, said. “The mentor program was one of many initiatives that have been done in our community to try to raise graduation rates.”


Mentoring proved its effectiveness all over the country. Atlantic City, New Jersey school officials paired lower performing students with mentors at a young age that finished high school in the top 10 percent of their class. The students did not need tutoring just someone to listen to them and help guide them along the way.

Graduation rates in America hit an all time high in 2010 at 78.2 percent. Rates this high have not been seen since 1975 at 74.9 percent, according to the Wall Street Journal via the National Center of Educational Statistics. Georgia’s 67 percent graduation rate for the 2010-2011 school year ranked low at the 48th highest state according to an Online Athens report.

Since 2006, the percentage of students who passed the Georgia High School Graduation Test rose from 64.4 percent to 70.1 percent.

Two indicators studies suggest lead to lower graduation rates are high levels of absenteeism and behavioral problems. Schools that participate in mentoring programs reported that students anticipate a visit from their mentor and miss less school. Behavioral problems differ once they have someone to listen to them.

In Athens, the number of students who pass the GHSGT every year serve as a direct reflection of the need for mentors. Stark differences exist in the percentage of students passing this test in Clarke County and Oconee County despite the close proximity.  In 2011, 92.1 percent of Oconee County seniors passed the test in comparison to the 57.9 percent of students in Clarke County.

“I think this difference comes from not necessarily the number of readily available mentors but the types of mentors available,” said Shelbie Foster, a recently trained mentor. “In Oconee, you have a lot of retirees who are more than willing to mentor but in Clarke County majority of the mentors I see are students at UGA.”

Foster touches on one aspect of why the mentoring hasn’t reached its potential in Clarke County. A large number of students mentor in this area.

“Eighty percent of our mentors are UGA students and we couldn’t run with the program without them we really appreciate them and love them and your enthusiasm but if you would just not graduate and move on, that’s the problem,” Shilton said.

Debra Little is amongst the 20 percent of Athenian mentors that saw the need for long-term mentors. In 2006, Little began working at Athens Technical College. That same year the college inspired middle school aged students to attend college with a mentoring and scholarships incentives through the BELIEVE program.

“I went to the meeting just to learn more about it and I was told just fill out the application and you can decide later, next thing I knew I was assigned as a mentor,” Little said.

Little keeps in contact with her mentee today as a friend and plans to continue the friendship.

“She’s now a freshman at Savannah State College and yesterday I mailed her a Valentine’s card so we still keep in touch, still text each other and the relationship has been really great,” Little said.

Little has devoted her time to long-term mentoring for an array of reasons but her main reason originated in her own home.

“The number one reason I became a mentor is because I had three sons and at one point in my life I was a single parent and trying to find a mentor for my sons was absolutely impossible,” Little said. “It was so difficult to find someone who would mentor young men and so I wanted to be for somebody else’s child what I could not find for my own,” Little said.

Consistent contact with a mentor for one year, at least an hour a week can instill characteristics of better behavior, inspiration and higher school attendance in students.

Regulated class meeting schedules increase school ratings but constricts the time mentors have with their students.

“It was very important for students to attend classes and have an active voice in the classroom but we understand that mentoring has a positive effect on the children’s success as well,” said Dr. Lucy Bush, a former ESOL counselor at Coile Middle School.

The Chamber of Commerce houses the program and provides office space for the two directors. Terry Baez, Assistant Director of the Clarke County mentoring program agreed that money and staffing serve as the real issues of why the program can’t fulfill its full potential.

“We just need more staffing, right now we do a background checks but what we also should do is we should do interviews of perspective members, we should do reference checks, but who would do them,” said Shilton. “I’m the fundraiser, I work with the board of directors, I write all the grants to get money, I do the newsletter, I do trouble shooting with mentors and I keep up relations with the school counselors. We just need another staff person and I need to work more than 30 hours a week.”

Mentoring can raise graduation rates in Athens if citizens take a closer look into volunteering for long-term periods.

With more individuals like Debra Little, high school graduation rates can continue to rise to the same levels found in Oconee County. The Clarke-County mentoring program is housed in the Chamber of Commerce on West Hancock Avenue and applications to become a mentor can be found at

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