In a week highlighting more disappointing actions among so-called leaders at the national and state level, in a climate where good corporate citizens are often demonized, a shining beacon was celebrated June 11 at the Georgia Governor’s Mansion: the REACH scholarship program.
REACH Georgia — for Realizing Educational Achievement Can Happen — was launched in February 2012 by Gov. Nathan Deal, who continues to champion the privately funded program. It’s a remarkable, comprehensive, needs-based scholarship program, using private funds to target young students who otherwise couldn’t dream of going to college and who may not even reach high school graduation.
The program was introduced to Georgia by Dr. Howard Hinesley, current superintendent of Cartersville City Schools, who developed the model while he was a superintendent in Florida. Florida took the program statewide.
This past school year the program was active in three counties: Dodge, Rabun and Douglas, systems with high rates of students from low-income families. In Dodge County, nearly three out of four students are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches. In Douglas, it’s 60 percent; in Rabun, it’s almost 69 percent. Sadly, there are some Georgia counties with higher rates of poverty. Even with Georgia’s HOPE scholarship, many of these students’ families lack the funds or wherewithal to obtain a college education.
The program begins in the difficult middle-school years, in the seventh grade. Unlike the Lottery-funded HOPE scholarship, REACH is not a handout to students upon graduation. It must be earned along the way. It’s a promise of future college funding — up to $10,000 — based on the student’s ongoing commitment and participation. It requires academic achievement — a C grade or better — as well as good attendance and behavior. And it’s backed by the community: Every student must have regular meetings with an academic coach and mentor.
“REACH allows students to start dreaming about the future,” Rabun Superintendent Matt Arthur told a gathering of education and business leaders on June 11 at the Governor’s Mansion.
“When you’re in seventh grade and 12 or 13 years old, not many students have thought about it. But with the REACH scholarship they begin to dream; they begin to see that there is light at the end of the tunnel. It places responsibility for success on the child, but it also places that responsibility on the parents, and the schools and the community.”
In involving the community, in bridging middle school and high school, and in targeting bright but at-risk, low-income students, REACH is transformational.
“REACH is instrumental in building Rabun County’s and Georgia’s next workforce. But we’re also looking for our next leaders in Rabun County and Georgia to come from these REACH scholarships,” Arthur noted.
Rabun’s superintendent brought along one of his REACH participants. Laura Vinson, who just completed eighth grade with a 4.0 GPA, was joined by her father, grandmother and sister, who have raised her since she was 3 years old.
“Growing up with only one parent most of my life has been difficult,” the nervous 14-year-old told the group. “The REACH program has helped and supported my plans for the future in many ways I could not.
“I have been given the opportunity to pursue my dreams, but there are thousands of other students around Georgia who have the same desire and deserve the same opportunity that I have, because it can truly change their lives, just like it did mine.”
The program is a shining example, too, of corporate citizenship: REACH was launched in 2012 with $250,000 from AT&T. At the Governor’s Mansion on June 11 Sylvia Russell, president of AT&T Georgia, announced the company would contribute another $100,000.
It’s a generous contribution and an investment. AT&T is savvy enough to foresee the advantages to Georgia’s economy and its own growth with an educated workforce. The graduation rate for Georgia students was just under 70 percent last year. What is more urgent is that by 2018, more than 60 percent of job openings in Georgia are expected to require some form of postsecondary education. Do the math.
This is a program that clearly still has plenty of room to grow. Nevertheless, amid dark days of bad news and disappointing leadership, Georgians should be proud to know that their leaders are forward-looking with great ideas that advance the state through academic achievement, accountability and individual responsibility.
Find out more about REACH at www.reachga.com.
Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation (www.georgiapolicy.org), an independent think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians.