At Dalton Middle School on Tuesday, a handful of eighth-graders pledged to continue progressing toward bright futures during a REACH signing ceremony, and Dalton Public Schools staff — as well as parents, guardians and mentors — vowed to help them reach their goals.

REACH (Realizing Educational Achievement Can Happen) is a needs-based mentorship and scholarship program that aims to support students in their education, and it's part of the state’s Complete College Georgia initiative, which was launched in 2012 by then-Gov. Nathan Deal. REACH school systems identify low-income rising eighth-grade students who display academic promise and provide them with the academic, social and financial support they need to graduate from high school and succeed in college.

"We will be working with you for the next four years so you can reach your goals," Tim Scott, superintendent of Dalton Public Schools, told this year's five REACH Scholars. "You are well on your way to success in whatever you want to do."

REACH scholars ought to "set your goals high and never give up," said Jennifer Phinney, director of school support for the school system. "It is all within reach."

REACH has nearly 2,000 Scholars for the 2019-20 school year and is on track to have 3,000 Scholars throughout Georgia by 2021, Phinney said. The current public and private investment in REACH stands at roughly $22 million.

REACH Scholars sign a contract agreeing to maintain good grades, behavior and attendance; meet regularly with mentors; and attend various REACH activities. Their parents or guardians also agree to support their pursuits, and REACH Scholars are eligible for as much as $10,000 in scholarships during their collegiate careers at any HOPE- (Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally) eligible Georgia two- or four-year postsecondary institution.

REACH scholarships "mean a lot," said Esmeralda Alegria Chavez, one of five students celebrated during Tuesday's ceremony. "I hope to be successful one day and make my family proud."

She also wants to assist others in their quests for success, she said. "I want to be a teacher, because I want to help people accomplish their goals."

David Guzman plans to study at Dalton State College for two years before moving on to Atlanta Technical College in order to become a computer technician.

"Since I was little, I've been fiddling around with technology, and once my parents (realized) I could fix things better than other people, they wanted me to fix more," he said with a smile. "That's how I found my passion."

Ana Pérez loves taking photos as part of her journalism class at the school, but ultimately she wants to be a doctor or nurse.

"I like helping people," said Pérez, who is considering Dalton State after high school. "It's nice helping someone who is sick and seeing their life change."

Jesus Guerrera, a soccer player and track athlete, also has his sights set on a medical career, as a radiologist, an occupation in which "you can see what's wrong with people" so they can be treated effectively, he said. Being a REACH Scholar makes him "hopeful for (my) future."

Emily Nuñez is also interested in medicine, and she wants to attend the University of Georgia, one of roughly 90 HOPE-eligible institutions in the state, she said. Her older brother is currently studying nursing, which seems like "such a cool thing, and I like to help people."

She's also interested in music, and she's a member of three bands at Dalton Middle School, including the mariachi band, in which she plays guitar.

"It all comes together in music, and I just love it," she said. Plus, with mariachi, "I get to promote my culture."

Though the full gravity of being a REACH Scholar "hasn't quite hit me, yet, I am pretty excited," she said. "I'm nervous, too, because this is a big deal."

Indeed, "this program will be life-changing for students," Phinney said. That impact is part of the reason "working with the REACH scholarship program is one of my most fun jobs."

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