Bulloch County’s five 2019 REACH Georgia scholars, completing a program they have been committed to for five years and garnering at least $20,000 each for college, were doubly honored by state and local education leaders before graduating from high school this week.
Students are selected for Realizing Educational Achievement Can Happen, a needs-based scholarship and mentoring program, on the basis of recommendations and other information from their seventh-grade year. Beginning in eighth grade, these students are each assigned both a mentor, who is a community volunteer, and an academic coach, usually a school staff member, to check up on them and their progress through high school.
“These REACH graduates will be receiving a $10,000 REACH scholarship, plus $10,000 in matching funds from their chosen Georgia college or university,” said Bulloch County Schools lead counselor Renee Perry. “Some of the colleges also double-match, and so some students may be awarded $30,000 for their education. That’s huge.”
This year’s REACH graduates — Destiny Hartwell, Nancy Martinez, Brian Phillips, Alberto Rodriguez and Michael Vescio — were all Statesboro High School students. But students from all four middle schools in the system are eligible to apply, going on to graduate from Portal High, Southeast Bulloch High or Statesboro High. Indeed, all three high schools were represented in the 2018 cohort, the first to graduate from the pilot program launched here and two other Georgia counties in 2013.
Just five students are accepted each year, so there are typically local 25 REACH students, five in each grade.
The Bulloch County Foundation for Public Education provides $7,500 seed money to the Georgia Student Finance Commission each year, $1,500 for each of five students added to the program. Although founded by former Gov. Nathan Deal, the program is not fulfilled by state funding. Instead, the commission receives corporation sponsorships and donations and invests to maintain the scholarships.
Of more 60 participating colleges and universities statewide that match the scholarships, Georgia Southern University is one of a few that double-match. It is a chosen destination of three of this year’s Bulloch County REACH scholars.
“Most of our scholars tonight are honor students and first-generation college students, and we’re extremely proud of all of their accomplishments,” Perry said during the May 9 Board of Education meeting.
She and Statesboro High counselor LaQuanda Love are the program’s local coordinators.
Destiny Hartwell was at Langston Chapel Middle School when she joined the REACH program. Daughter of Marcus and Tracy Hartwell, Destiny is now an SHS honor graduate. She plans to attend the University of Georgia and pursue a major in sports broadcasting. Her mentor was Virginia Ann Cone, and her academic coach was Melissa Anderson.
Nancy Martinez also entered the program from Langston Chapel Middle School. Daughter of Maria Herrera-Nieto and Octaviano Martinez, Nancy is now a Statesboro High honor graduate and plans to attend Wesleyan College in Macon to major in biology. Her mentor was Denene Washington Favors, and her academic coach was Maria Rea.
Brian Phillips, whose mother is Michele Watts, joined the REACH program while at William James Middle School. Brian is now an SHS honor graduate and plans to attend Ogeechee Technical College and Georgia Southern University to major in logistics. His mentor was Tim Rountree, and his academic coach was Jake Collins.
Alberto Rodriguez, son of Alberto Clara and Rosa Rodriguez, entered the program while at Langston Chapel Middle School. Now a Statesboro High School graduate, Alberto plans to attend Georgia Southern University and major in construction management. His mentor was Johnathan Shaw and his academic coach was Jim Simmons.
Michael Vescio, son of Michael and Carrie Vescio, was at William James Middle School when he was inducted into the REACH program.
Now an honor graduate and the 2019 valedictorian of Statesboro High School, young Michael Vescio plans to attend Georgia Southern University, where he has been accepted into the honors program and plans to major in biochemistry. His mentor was the Rev. Scott Moore and his academic coach is 1st Sgt. David Redwine.
Bulloch County Foundation for Public School Education representatives joined the Board of Education and Superintendent Charles Wilson at a reception May 9 congratulating the 2019 REACH graduates and their parents. Wilson and board members also thanked the mentors and academic coaches for their multi-year commitments.
But after one of the students was unable to attend the BOE meeting while competing in the state track meet, a second ceremony was held Tuesday at the First District Regional Educational Service Agency in Brooklet during a visit by state School Superintendent Richard Woods and Governor’s Office of Student Achievement Executive Director Joy Hawkins.
Hawkins, appointed to her current job by Gov. Brian Kemp in February, previously served at the Georgia Student Finance Commission. There, she was involved with REACH when it was launched with Bulloch County as one of three pilot districts. Now, more than 60 of Georgia’s 180 school systems have participated, according to the GSFC website.
One impressive thing about the program, Hawkins said, is seeing REACH scholars graduate with honors after they were chosen five years earlier as much for challenges they faced as for their potential.
“Some of these kids I got to know back then, you watch them grow, and these were ‘C’ students identified in eighth grade,” she said. “They get a mentor and an academic coach, and these kids are making it through high school with 3.0, a ‘B,’ or better grade-point average. I believe in the first class to graduate the average was 3.7.”
In the Bulloch County Schools, each of the first two REACH cohorts included a first-in-class student: 2018 Portal High School valedictorian Amonica Kirkland and 2019 Statesboro High valedictorian Michael Vescio.