Judy Gilreath: Program helps students 'REACH' for the stars

Judy Gilreath

In most middle-class American homes 25 years ago, young people were expected to continue their education after high school at a four-year university or technical college. This was considered to be a necessary step toward fulfilling their American Dream. Today, too many students in our community are living in homes at or below the poverty level.

As their parents do well to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table, the thought of going to college is often not even in their dreams. Other than their teachers, many don’t personally know anyone with a college degree. There may be no one in their immediate family who completed high school, much less graduated from college.

Because finding money for college may seem like an impossible goal to almost three-fourths of the students in Whitfield County Schools, we decided to participate in Realizing Educational Achievement Can Happen, or REACH, our state’s needs-based mentorship and college scholarship program. Former Gov. Nathan Deal launched REACH Georgia in 2012 at the Georgia Institute of Technology as part of the state’s Complete College Georgia initiative. According to the Georgia Budget and Policy Institute, by 2020 65% of Georgia’s jobs will require some level of postsecondary education, and 22% will require a bachelor’s degree. Georgia currently struggles to keep up with the demand for postsecondary credentials. In fact, since 2015 our state has failed to produce a sufficient number of skilled adult employees with the education needed to fill industry and business demands. We want our students to be prepared to fill those jobs.

The organization, REACH Georgia, partners with eligible school systems to identify low-income, academically-promising eighth-grade students who can apply to be a REACH Scholar. To be eligible to apply, students must qualify for the federal Free and Reduced Price School Meals Program, meet citizenship and residency requirements, and have good grades, attendance and behavior.

This is the third year that Whitfield County students have had the opportunity to apply for a scholarship. A committee of community members and school system employees reviews applications and chooses one student from each of our five middle schools each year. Students chosen to be REACH Scholars receive additional college-related support and the promise of a financial scholarship upon successful high school completion.

The REACH students are selected during middle school and sign a contract to maintain a 2.5 grade point average, avoid crime, drugs, and misbehavior, and meet with a volunteer mentor and academic coach until they graduate from high school. Their parents or guardians also sign a contract to support their student through high school graduation, college enrollment, and college graduation. The school system will match each participant with a mentor to meet with the student during school at least two times each month. The mentor remains with the student until they graduate.

Students who complete the program requirements earn a scholarship of up to $10,000 ($2,500 a year for up to four years). They can use the REACH scholarship at any eligible two- or four-year institution in Georgia and still qualify for the Georgia HOPE Scholarship. REACH scholarships are provided using a combination of state funds, statewide private donations and local community donations.

This is an excellent opportunity for our students and can be a benefit for our entire community. If you are interested in learning more about this program, would like to volunteer as a mentor, or would like more information on helping to financially sponsor scholarships, please call the Whitfield County Schools central office at (706) 217-6780.

Judy Gilreath is superintendent of Whitfield County Schools.

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