By Brian Panowich
Photos by Jane Kortright
In 2001, four people equipped with only an idea, tenacity and a heaping amount of faith, decided to open a small school in downtown Augusta. But it would not be just any school. This would be a faith-based learning environment for underserved children — a first-time opportunity for many of these families. So, with only two employees and ten children, Heritage Academy was born.
Today, the school is over four hundred students strong with a dedicated staff of 80 and the newly opened Early Learning Academy. Since its inception, Heritage Academy has also developed two city blocks to expand its reach and message, and that was done without a single penny from the state. They raised the money and currently stand debt free. Now, to understand how something that amazing is even possible, it’s important to know where to start. So, let’s begin with Dr. Linda Tucciarone — the school’s founder and longtime executive director.
Linda was born and raised in Brooklyn, N. Y. She married her college sweetheart and a job change for her husband brought the couple to the South. She worked for 15 years at the Westminster Schools of Augusta and received her Ph.D. from the Medical College of Georgia. According to her biography, it was around 1998 when she began to hear the calling to start a Christian school for families in the Augusta community that needed it the most. Linda didn’t waste any time.
Now, after a long and rewarding career, “Dr. T”, as called fondly by her students, has decided to pass the torch and retire. But when asked how proud she is of what she has accomplished, she is quick to reply, “I’m humbled by it. The school was never meant to be about just one person. It’s about the children. The students we taught are now coming back as interns or enrolling their own children. Even the effect we’ve had on the parents of our students — that’s the real reward. It’s not about me. It never was.”
When asked what led to her retirement decision, she provides a clear and thoughtful answer. “The same way that several paths had to converge to form the school, those same paths are telling me it’s time to go. I just had to listen. I think it’s important for leaders to be self-aware and know when it’s time to step aside.” As perfectly stated her answer is, it’s equally important to point out all that Dr. Tucciarone has done for the community, and how grateful Augusta is for her grit and dedication.
Of course, in order to retire, there has to be the perfect successor. Dr. Tucciarone is overwhelmingly convinced that person is Tana Watson. “I didn’t have to choose her,” she says, “because God did. And again, all I had to do was listen. Tana’s faith and unbelievable work ethic made her the perfect person for the role.”
Tana Watson is an Ohio native with a master’s degree in Higher Education. She was working as a consultant to the school before the call came to see if she was interested in moving to Augusta full-time. Tana says it was an easy “yes.” “You have to take those moments and breathe them in. I just knew I needed to be involved. And being mentored by a force of nature like Linda Tucciarone was an honor. That woman plows concrete.”
Tana’s sentiments were sincere because, in 2019, she packed up her two sons, and with her best friend, Tammy Puch (who coincidently also serves as the principal for Heritage Academy), she left her entire life in the rearview mirror to invest in the dream that Dr. Tucciarone put into action way back in 2001. It was a leap of faith.
When asked about having to fill the shoes of her predecessor, Tana says, “I’m very excited to be moving forward into this next chapter and I’m absolutely up for it. But I also look at it like this: I’m a placeholder. What I mean by that is that I am here to show all these students who look like me, who come from humble beginnings like me, that they can do this, too. That they can do anything. I’m here holding the spot until one of our alumni says, ‘Thank you, Ms. Watson. I got it from here.’”
So, thank you, Dr. Tucciarone. On behalf of the City of Augusta, we are grateful for everything you’ve given us, and we wish you well. And we also say, “Welcome Tana Watson. It’s abundantly clear that we are still in good hands.”
As seen the June/July issue of Augusta magazine.