The first crop of five REACH Georgia scholars graduated from high schools in Bulloch County during the past three days, five years after they were selected for what was then a pilot program of five state school systems.
All five graduates, now 17 and 18 years old, emerged with fairly definite college plans and career goals. They are Amonica Kirkland and Aisley Scarboro of Portal High School, Amaya Brown and Kailana Low of Statesboro High School and Da’Neshia Jones of Southeast Bulloch High School. Four are honor graduates, and Kirkland, who graduated Thursday from Portal Middle High, also is her high school’s valedictorian.
With their chosen universities and colleges matching, and some double-matching, the $10,000 REACH Georgia Scholarship, the five graduates collectively have at least $120,000 in REACH-related college money available. That isn’t counting their state lottery-funded HOPE Scholarships or other scholarships not related to REACH.
“It’s really been a blessing to my family for many reasons,” Low said. “Like, my sister was supposed to go to college but her financial aid fell through.”
Her brother was able to go to technical college, but Low is aiming for a master’s degree and to be an elementary school teacher. She will attend Georgia Southern University to major in early childhood education.
Realizing Educational Achievement Can Happen (REACH) is a needs-based scholarship and mentoring program for academically promising students.
Of the 35 four-year colleges and universities in Georgia that at least fully matched REACH scholarships as of January, Georgia Southern is one of 11 institutions that double-match. So, Low will have $30,000 available for her education from REACH-related sources. At least 20 two-year colleges also offer some level of matching funds.
Although founded by Gov. Nathan Deal and administered through the Georgia Student Finance Authority, REACH is not strictly a state-funded program. Corporations such as original sponsor AT&T donate to the REACH Foundation, and local support is required.
The Bulloch County Foundation for Public Education provides $7,500 to the state program each year to fulfill the local obligation – $1,500 for each of five students added to the program. Since 2013, it has now unfolded to 25 local participants, five in each grade from eighth through 12th.
Coaches and mentors
Each student selected is assigned both a mentor and an academic coach beginning in eighth grade. For the first-year cohort only, Bulloch County’s REACH scholars were actually chosen in seventh grade, and their mentors stuck with them all five years.
The mentor is a community volunteer, although some also are educators. The coach usually is an educator or counselor within the school who can check in regularly with the student about grades, attendance and her or his selection of courses.
Daughter of Leihua Low-Turner, honor graduate Kailana Low was guided and encouraged through the middle-to-high school transition and on to college decisions by her REACH mentor Lauren Amason and academic coach Dr. Alissa Sasser, SHS instructional assistant principal.
Aisley Scarboro, a Portal Middle High School honor graduate, is Tan Frison’s daughter. Scarboro plans to attend Georgia Southern and major in exercise science on her way to becoming an athletic trainer.
Her mentor, Chianti Culver, was Scarboro’s second-grade teacher at Portal Elementary but now works at the university. Culver helped Scarboro remain focused, she said. Her academic coach was counselor Joe Bettinger.
REACH “means that I can do a lot more things in college and not have to worry about loans and stuff,” Scarboro said.
Amonica Kirkland, daughter of Benita Palmer and Gary Kirkland, is the Portal valedictorian. She will attend Wesleyan College in Macon. Kirkland plans to major in pre-dentistry and minor in Spanish. So her goals include going on to dental school for a career in dentistry.
Kirkland’s academic coach was Jennifer Yates and her mentor was Cheri Wagner, a member of the Bulloch County Board of Education.
“She has always been there to help me get to know which colleges I want to get into and making sure I’m taking the right classes and that my grades are up,” Kirkland said of Wagner. “She’s just been really, really motivational and helpful throughout these years.”
Da’Neshia Jones, Southeast Bulloch High School honor graduate and daughter of Linton and Demetres Jones, will attend Kennesaw State University. She plans to major in biology on her way to becoming a pediatrician.
Her mentor was Renee Perry and her academic coach was Concella Holder.
“You have a mentor to guide you through your college decisions as well, so it’s been a blessing, an opportunity,” Jones said.
Amaya Brown, Statesboro High School 2018 graduate and daughter of Michael and Tamika Brown, plans to attend East Georgia State College and major in nursing. She intends to become a nurse practitioner.
“I’m not financially worried, somewhat,” Brown said. “I still have more to go, but it made me go hard in school and helped me not worry.”
Ashley Thompson was Brown’s academic coach. Her mentor was Mildred Wilson, who taught at Georgia Southern and now has a home-based business. After five years meeting with Brown and following her progress, seeing her in cap and gown was a little like having another child of her own ready to graduate, Wilson said.
Mentors invest time
Wilson met with Thompson three times a month until her junior year. Then, with the REACH scholar’s path set, they met about two hours a month.
“It has been a wonderful experience, actually, kind of learning with her as we went through the process of the program initially,” Wilson said. “And it’s been a joy.”
Renee Perry, who mentored Jones, is counselor at Transitions Learning Center and one of the local coordinators of REACH. She introduced the Class of 2018 scholars at the May 10 Board of Education meeting, which followed a reception in their honor with a congratulations cake in the hall and the Statesboro High School Steel Drum Band playing outside.
She and Hayley Greene, the school system’s public relations specialist, explained that these students still will receive their HOPE Scholarships, and in at least one graduate’s case a Zell Miller Scholarship.
“But HOPE and Zell only cover tuition, whereas the REACH Scholarship can go toward books, housing, food, parking, any cost that is associated with a college,” Perry said. “It does not go in their pocket if they don’t use it all. It only can go to the institution, and it does not carry over to graduate school.”
In 2013, the first five school districts funded for the two-year pilot project were Bulloch, Dodge, Douglas, Rabun and Quitman counties. Bulloch received a grant for the 10 students selected the first two years. REACH has now been expanded to 103 school systems across Georgia and nearly 1,200 students, with a commitment of $17 million in scholarships, according to information on the REACH Georgia website.
For the 2018-2019 school year, REACH plans to enroll 30 new school systems toward the goal of reaching all 180 districts.
Locally the program would not be possible without the Bulloch County Foundation for Public Education’s work to raise the $7,500 annual “seed money” through the Turkey Trot, teachers’ jeans Fridays and other activities throughout the year, Greene said.
Herald reporter Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.