By Benita M. Dodd
Education activists watched in dismay as education reform proposals were swept under the rug once again at the Gold Dome in 2016 before legislators rushed home to begin campaigning. Across the state, however, as graduation ceremonies approach, one reform begun in 2012 is providing hope: REACH Georgia scholarships.
REACH Georgia (Realizing Educational Achievement Can Happen) was launched in 2012 by Gov. Nathan Deal as a privately funded, needs-based mentorship and scholarship program based in Georgia’s public schools. Now it’s a public-private partnership; since 2015, the Legislature has appropriated $2 million for the program; for 2017, the amount is $2.75 million.
“We’re not looking for the merit scholar,” says Joy Hawkins, director of business development for the REACH Georgia Foundation. “We’re looking for that ‘C’ student with pretty good behavior and attendance.” High achievers, of course, have Georgia’s HOPE scholarship for in-state college tuition.
The crucial aspect of REACH is that it’s not just a $10,000 scholarship, although that is nice. It’s an ongoing commitment – from the student, the parents and the community. It’s a mentoring and academic coaching program. It’s a reason for optimism among young, low-income students whose parents did not reach college and who rarely believe they will. For each of these first-generation prospective college students, a community helps raise scholarship funds and a mentor volunteers to help raise them through the topsy-turvy years of middle school and high school.
It’s a package deal – in the truest sense – that helps them stay the course: “Once students are selected, we have a signing ceremony where students and parents sign contracts,” Hawkins says.
Students must sign a contract to maintain a certain grade point average, remain free of crime, drugs and behavior issues, and meet with their volunteer mentor until they graduate from high school. Parents or guardians must sign a contract to support their child’s education goals.
The first 17 recipients are in the graduating Class of 2017. They began as middle schoolers in Dodge, Rabun and Douglas counties, high-poverty school systems with 60-75 percent of the students receiving free or reduced lunch. In 2018, 45 are expected to graduate. Four years into the program, 330 students are participating. REACH’s goal is to have 2,800 students from all 180 districts by 2020.
So far, “We have not lost a single student for failure to meet the requirements,” says Hawkins, although a few relocated to areas without the program.
The $10,000 scholarship can be used at any HOPE-eligible college in Georgia. A bonus: Thanks to a memorandum of understanding with the University System of Georgia and the Technical College System of Georgia, colleges and universities are matching the $10,000 scholarship, which can be added to other grants, loans or scholarships.
Of REACH’s funding today, about half is appropriated by the Legislature, a quarter is statewide private, tax-deductible donations and a quarter is local community funding. No money comes from any school’s budget.
Next is a pilot program targeting foster children.
“We’ll be adding 30 scholars this first year, and we’re going to hold them to the same expectations,” said Marjie Dickey, executive director of REACH Georgia. “We’re excited; we feel like this could really be something.” The unstable lives of foster children often lead to lackluster academic performance; for many, such opportunity – as Dickey says – could really be something.
REACH is providing the hope and promise that can inspire students from low-income families out of poverty and into better outcomes, academically and economically. The committed board of directors at the REACH Georgia Foundation is just $100,000 short of its goal to reach $750,000 by the end of June. REACH students are well within reach of a brighter future, and that makes Georgia’s future brighter.
Find out more about REACH Georgia here.
Read our 2012 commentary on REACH Georgia here.
Benita M. Dodd is vice president of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the view of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.
© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (May 6, 2016). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and her affiliations are cited.